Constructing a New Cathedral

by Christopher Zehnder, appearing in Volume 1

Cathedral building has been no easy task for Los Angeles archbishop Roger Cardinal Mahony. Three years ago, His Eminence proposed to build a new cathedral for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles on the site of then current cathedral, St. Vibiana’s. Claiming that the “damage sustained by St. Vibiana’s during the 1994 Northridge earthquake forbade any realistic hopes of saving the old cathedral, the archdiocese proposed razing the structure at Second and Main in downtown Los Angeles and, in its place, building a new cathedral complex that would include, along with the new cathedral, a conference hall, rectory, and plaza. The cost of the proposed project was estimated at $50 million. The Los Angeles Conservancy, an historical preservationist group that seeks to preserve what is left of Los Angeles significant architecture (including, on one occasion, a 1950s car wash), hearing of St. Vibiana’s imminent demise, sought a court injunction to stop the demolition of the cathedral. Since it was erected in 1876, St. Vibiana’s was protected as a state historical monument. Thus, argued the Conservancy, the cathedral structure could not be demolished without a six months environmental impact study. The Conservancy further argued that retrofitting the cathedral would cost a mere $5 million, as opposed to the archdioceses estimate of $20 million. The difference lay in that the archdioceses estimate was projected on the cost of an interior retrofitting of the cathedral, whereas the Conservancy claimed that an exterior bracing system would be sufficient.
On June 1, 1996, the archdiocese commenced the demolition of St. Vibiana’s, but was halted by a Los Angeles city inspector who claimed the archdiocese had not obtained the necessary demolition permit. On June 19, Superior Court Judge Robert O’Brien ruled in favor of the Los Angeles Conservancy, and ordered an environmental study be conducted before demolition.
Not wishing to delay his cathedral project, which he wished completed by the year 2000, Cardinal Mahony decided to sell the land at Second and Main and buy property elsewhere in the city. His Eminence settled on a 58 acre plot at the comer of Temple and Grand Avenues, downtown, over-looking an icon of Los Angeles life, a freeway. The September 21, 1997 groundbreaking was greeted by protesters who, from the beginning had opposed the project. One group, the Los Angeles Catholic Worker, opposed spending $50 million for a new cathedral, since the money could better be invested in the needs of the poor.
On June 19, 1996, five Catholic Workers with an Episcopalian priestess had scaled the walls of St. Vibiana’s Cathedral and from the bell tower hung a banner, which read: We Reclaim the Church for the Poor.
The second group who opposed the cardinal’s project were Catholic traditionalists who protested the cardinal’s choice of the architect, Rafael Moneo, 59, of Madrid, Spain. Traditional Catholics also feared that the new cathedral would reflect, architecturally, the principles for liturgical renewal that Mahony laid out in his September 1997 pastoral letter, Gather Faithfully Together.
A third protest group, however, was new to the scene: the Gabrielino Indian tribe. Vera Rocha, chief of the Gabrielino tribe, claimed that the cardinal’s cathedral site was an ancient burial ground of her people. This was based on the discovery, in 1957, of the fragments of an ancient human skull on the site when it was excavated for a parking lot.
Rocha demanded that archaeological tests be done before construction on the cathedral complex would begin. In April 1998, the Gabrielino tribe along with the Spirit of the Sage Council filed a lawsuit against the Los Angeles archdiocese, the Community Redevelopment Agency and the City of Los Angeles for alleged violations of the California Environmental Quality Act and of land use. Rocha wanted an injunction placed on the cathedral construction. The Gabrielinos, however, did not fare as well as the Los Angeles Conservancy. On June 5, Superior Court Judge Robert O’Brien ruled against the injunction.
As many had predicted, the price of the cathedral complex did not remain at $50 million. Claiming that the original estimate applied to the Second and Main property, and not the Temple and Grand site, the archdiocese announced on March 20, 1998 that the cathedral project would cost $163.2 million. As with the first estimate of $50 million, the archdiocese stated that the $163.2 million would come only from private donors. According to the archdiocese, $110.5 million had, by March, already been contributed. The Dan Murphy and the Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Foundations together contributed $35 million, with the remaining monies coming from the Walt Disney Corporation, Peter O’Mally (former owner and current chairman of the Los Angeles Dodgers), comedian Bob Hope, Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan, Betsy Bloomingdale (of Bloomingdale s department store fame), and Roy and Patty Disney.