One and a MillionThe Cathedral Keeps Reeling Them In, a Year After Opening
Catholics, tourists and curious locals continue to stream into the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Photo by Gary Leonard.

Once-stubby vines now climb along sand-colored concrete columns and a grove of nearly mature olive trees fills out a small sculpture garden at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Inside, the dark patina on the foot of a cross has become shiny with frequent rubbing and the rows of wooden benches have been worn smooth. But little else has changed since the landmark opened a year ago this week - least of all the steady stream of Catholics, tourists and locals who continue to stream into the sprawling complex at Temple and Hill streets.

In its first 10 months, the Raphael Moneo-designed cathedral has seen more than 1 million visitors pass through its massive bronze doors, according to church officials.

"It has exceeded my expectations on all fronts," said Cardinal Roger Mahony, who commissioned the $195 million cathedral. "I never anticipated that kind of interest and volume. At the dedication, we added 500 wooden chairs to accommodate the larger crowds. We had planned to take those out, but we haven't. The numbers of people coming in didn't reach a plateau and drop off, it continues."

When it opened Sept. 3, 2002, the modern cathedral quickly won over both secular and religious audiences. The buzz over the new icon had been building for years, and the dedication celebration drew hundreds of national and international media. A year later, the structure has become part of everyday life for many.

Mike Acree has been coming to the cathedral since it opened. For the first few months he visited two to three times a week at noon to attend mass or eat lunch in the Spanish-style courtyard. Though the city employee makes it down from his office at City Hall East only about three times a month now, he said he would visit more often if he had time.

"It's a great place to come," he said. "It's a nice break from the office and the hustle and bustle."

Last Wednesday, several tour buses dropped off visitors to attend mass and listen to the weekly organ recital. Dozens of others from nearby office buildings and courthouses sat under umbrellas and ate lunch in the courtyard or beneath swaying olive trees. One woman read a book in the sculpture garden while another man conducted business on his cell phone at the reflection garden.

Since the cathedral's inception, Mahony and Moneo sought to create a gathering place for Downtown and the city, not only for Catholics attending mass, but for everyday use, times of crisis, reflection, mourning and celebration.

"I think in general it has brought a spiritual center to the city," Mahony said. "We have the Civic Center and cultural centers in Los Angeles, but we didn't have a spiritual center where the soul of a city and God's presence could be recognized, appreciated, loved and embraced by others.

The cathedral has hosted a number of high-profile events over the year, including an interfaith prayer service in memory of those who died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and a memorial service for late Downtown developer Ira Yellin.

In all, the cathedral has had 48 weddings, 12 funerals and 185 baptisms, while nearly 900 tours have rambled across the grounds. Francisco Camacho, the cathedral's tour coordinator, oversees 80 docents who lead daily 1 p.m. tours of the cathedral, detailing every aspect of the design, history and art, from the plaza to the fountains to the largest underground mausoleum in existence.

"We lead all kinds of groups, from families to parishes to some international visitors," he said. "About 60% of the groups are from L.A., and the rest come from San Diego, Santa Barbara, Fresno and Riverside."

Among the tour's highlights are the woven tapestries, glowing alabaster windows and two-ton red marble altar. Of course, guests can't resist a little shopping, Camacho said.

On a lunch break from working in the cathedral's gift shop, sisters Cathy and Paula Little said they started working as volunteers when the church opened. They liked it so much that they decided to take full-time jobs.

"We get to meet people from all over the world," said Paula Little. "It's nice to hear people's comments about what they like about the cathedral and how beautiful it is."

Sundays after mass, the Littles say crowds in the gift shop soar to well over 200 customers. The best-selling items are a bottle of wine produced by a cathedral winery and tapestries of John the Baptist.

The cathedral's modern architecture, stark lines and exposed concrete are far from the Romanesque, Byzantine and Gothic designs of most cathedrals in Europe and the United States. The Downtown cathedral was meant to reflect the Spanish heritage of Southern California and its missions.

Artist John Nava, for example, designed 25 earth-toned tapestries hanging inside the sanctuary that feature 135 larger-than-life-size saints from throughout history and the world. Just as striking, artist Robert Graham's vision for the eight-foot Virgin figure (officially named Our Lady of the Angels), which stands above the cathedral's doors, is a modern version with an L.A. twist. The striking figure is not European, but reflects the diverse L.A. culture.

Isabel Satrustegui, who was visiting from Madrid, said she liked the new cathedral's Spanish design, and is a fan of the architect.

"I live in Spain, so I know his work," she said. "It is a nice blend of modernity and spirituality."

A group of school children, touring as part of the Los Angeles Police Department's Jeopardy program, cooled off by a fountain.

"It's big and nice," said Jasmine Nunez, a student at Cleveland High. "It's pretty and modern."

But not everyone warms to the earthy tapestries, adobe colored walls and alabaster windows that replace the traditional, brightly hued stained glass.

"I think it's big and modern," said Dawn Duncan, a Long Beach resident visiting for the first time last week. "Mahony will go down in history for building this, but it didn't impress me much. I did like the organ music and chorus, though."

Still, the design has won accolades from a number of critics, and continues to pack in the crowds. When the Walt Disney Concert Hall on First and Grand opens next month, the cathedral is expected to get an added boost of publicity. The October opening a few blocks away will draw thousands of national and international visitors to Downtown for the first time.

"When the concert hall opens, it will benefit both of us," Mahony said. "It heightens the interest in the cathedral, and it will make for two wonderful new structures designed by two internationally renowned architects."

The one-year anniversary of the cathedral's opening will be celebrated in two masses on Sept. 2, at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.

(page 1, 09/1/03)

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