A new Catholic cathedral will be dedicated Monday in Los Angeles. It is the first major cathedral built in the United States in more than 30 years. The city's Catholic archbishop, Cardinal Roger Mahony, hopes the new structure will be a gathering place for all of the city's people.
The new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels is the seat of the Los Angeles archbishop, but the man who holds that post, Cardinal Roger Mahony, says people of all faiths are welcome here. That message is inscribed symbolically on two cast-bronze doors at the cathedral's entrance. Three stories high and weighing 23 metric tons, they portray traditional Catholic symbols and those from other faiths, notes Cardinal Mahony. The symbols include a Japanese character for heaven and a Chinese symbol of harmony.
"One of the big elements of the cathedral, obviously, is to be a very welcoming place for people of all backgrounds," he said. "Even though it is a Catholic cathedral, yet it is the great church for the city of Los Angeles, and therefore people who come here must be able to find signs and symbols of their own faith traditions as well."
Los Angeles has over four million Catholics, which makes its archdiocese the largest in the United States. Growth has been spurred by immigration from Latin America, the Philippines, and other heavily Catholic regions.
The city is also home to large numbers of Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and others.
The theme of diversity is seen throughout the structure, including in the nave or central worship hall, where 25 tapestries feature life-sized Catholic saints who represent the variety of the city's Catholics.
"There are 135 saints and 'blesseds' on these tapestries, some of the traditional ones from our faith tradition, but a large emphasis on this hemisphere and Asia-Pacific, in order to highlight the diversity of people and cultures here in the archdiocese."
The cathedral was designed by Spanish architect Jose Rafael Moneo, who adopted the themes of "procession" and "light." Visitors enter through the huge bronze doors, located not at the cathedral's center but off to its side. Worshippers proceed down a long corridor on a kind of spiritual journey. Along the way, they pass traditional and modern art, and narrow chapels.
He passes a 17th-century Spanish "retablo," an altar carving seven meters high covered with gold leaf. Further along, the corridor leads to the nave, a worship space 90 meters long which seats 26-hundred people. It faces east, the direction of the rising sun and of Jerusalem, the city where the Christian faith was born.
Light permeates the structure. Cardinal Mahony explains the light enters through translucent alabaster panels just below the ceiling, taking on the natural hues of the thin-cut stones.
"You go into many of the medieval cathedrals, and they're quite dark inside. But in Southern California, our greatest natural resource, of course, is light," he said.
The building, inside and outside, is built of earth-colored concrete and is made to resemble California's early adobe structures.
Although modern in design, it is reminiscent of California's historic 18th-century Spanish missions, says Tod Tamberg, a spokesman for the Catholic archdiocese.
"It doesn't look like a Spanish-architecture mission like we are accustomed to but it suggests that in the color of the walls, which are adobe, in the thickness of the walls, even in the way that the panes on the windows are cut so deeply that the light filters through them," he said. "All of those are reminiscent of our California mission heritage."
At the front of the cathedral is the massive altar made of a single slab of Turkish marble. There, the priest or bishop will celebrates mass. Behind the altar is an open area large enough to house a symphony orchestra. Symphonies and musical groups are scheduled to perform there.
Cardinal Mahony says the new cathedral is an important addition to downtown Los Angeles, were few churches are still standing. The city's last Catholic cathedral was condemned by safety officials after it suffered earthquake damage in 1994.
"They have over the years, including our own Saint Vibiana's, succumbed to earthquakes, and they all fell down," he said. "And most of the communities then went to the suburbs and rebuilt there. So this cathedral becomes the city's great church, and that's why we received so much support from the Jewish community, and from the Protestant community as well -- millions of dollars."
Donors to the cathedral include the late chairman of Universal Studios, Lew Wasserman, who was Jewish. The comedian Bob Hope was also a donor, as was the newspaper magnate Rupert Murdoch.
The new structure is reinforced with steel and set on nearly 200 base isolators, which allows it to move in an earthquake more than half a meter in any direction
Like traditional cathedrals, this one has a pipe organ, and it is immense. Cardinal Mahony describes it.
"This organ has a little over 6,000 pipes, and it has 183 trumpets. You see the trumpets coming out horizontally that the bottom. So it's really going to be a magnificent instrument," he said.
Outside the church is a bell tower, a garden and a one-hectare plaza, which will feature a café. The plaza is built to accommodate up to seven thousand people.
An outdoor sculpture honors native American culture, while an fountain pays homage to the Jewish tradition.
And a circular marble sculpture and fountain is inscribed with a Bible quote in the 37 languages that are spoken in Los Angeles Catholic churches. It quotes the words of Jesus, "I shall give you living water."
An outdoor shrine honors Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Catholic patron of the Americas, who is important to the city's Mexican immigrants.
European cathedrals generally overlook waterways. This one overlooks the Hollywood Freeway, a symbol of Los Angeles and its love of cars. But the highway follows an older route called El Camino Real, the Spanish colonial road that linked the region's early missions.
The new complex cost $195 million. As with any church project, some critics question the use of the money, which they say could have been given to the poor. Cardinal Mahony says the church stills carries out an extensive charitable mission, sponsoring schools in the inner city, refugee assistance and food programs.
"We spend millions of dollars a year on all of those programs, and of course all of that continues forward," he said. "This is a once-in-a-millennium project to create a special place that says to the city and the visitors, yes, God is here. God is present in our community."
The American Catholic church has suffered a difficult year, with a sex abuse scandal among some Catholic priests that has horrified ordinary Catholics. As the new millennium begins, Cardinal Mahony says the dedication of the cathedral is a time to look to the future.
He says that if properly cared for, the new structure should last through most of this millennium. In fact, the cathedral won't come into its own for many years, as oaks, palms and other trees on the cathedral grounds grow to the height that the architect envisioned.
Some question whether the new cathedral can provide a spiritual center for Los Angeles, a fragmented, sprawling city. Church officials hope it will. Inscribed on the cornerstone is a passage from the prophet Isaiah, expressing the hope that the cathedral will become "a house of prayer for all peoples."
Monday, Nigerian drummers will help inaugurate the new cathedral as three-thousand laymen, priests and bishops come to worship. September 11, the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels will host a commemoration for the whole community, as police officers and firefighters gather for an interfaith service. They will honor those who died in last year's terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.