Cathedral reflects a new vision of church

Roman Catholic cathedral joins other churches in trying to bridge sectarian divides and unite sprawling cities.

After eight years of construction, the first major American cathedral to be built in three decades Monday begins to address the question marks hanging over its $189 million creation.

Like a number of newer Protestant mega-churches, the massive Roman Catholic structure – positioned atop the highest hill of downtown Los Angeles and next to one of the nation's busiest freeways – is trying to appeal more broadly than ever across religious, cultural, and ethnic lines.

"American churches of all kinds are trying to do everything they can to enlarge their tent, be seen, be accessible," says Jeanne Kilde, an expert on religious architecture at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. "There is more of a push in recent years to reach out, create a reputation that is as nonsectarian as possible and create somewhat of a neutral reputation to expand their usefulness as house of prayer for all people."

With its first public mass Sunday and ecumenical prayer services this Wednesday to commemorate the tragedy and heroes of Sept. 11, the edifice will begin to test this wider role in Los Angeles. Positioned by builders and many government officials as a sacred space for the entire city, the 12-story Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels will also stand as the mother church for the nation's largest (5 million members) and most ethnically diverse Roman Catholic diocese.

Following other churches

In addition to the cathedral, two large, primarily black churches in Los Angeles have recently christened major new spaces in attempts to appeal beyond their own neighborhoods. Faithful Central Bible Church recently purchased the Los Angeles Forum basketball arena, and West Angeles Church of God and Christ opened a $60 million edifice.

The Catholic cathedral was built because St. Vibiana's, the 117-year-old cathedral it replaces, was severely damaged in a 1994 earthquake. Moreover, Catholic leaders and city officials had long lamented that the 1,200-seat structure was too small to accommodate major gatherings to mark celebrations or solemn moments.

City leaders recommended the new site, which is near a ring of government buildings, the Los Angeles Music Center, the new Staples Arena, and a soon-to-open Disney Concert Hall. The idea, say observers, was modeled on New York City, where two great cathedrals – the Catholic St. Patrick's Cathedral and the Episcopal St. John the Divine – have prominent civic roles.

The attempt to appeal across religions, ethnic lines, and age groups comes out of an even broader nationwide architectural movement, from symphony halls to sports arenas to museums, to provide a sense of communal place – a way to bring people together and out of isolation.

Overcoming isolation

"All of the various American institutions are trying to create a sense of space and place where a transgenerational world can come together under one roof and contemplate together what too often they experience in boxes of isolation," says Paul Holdengraber, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Institute for Art and Culture. The institute is currently razing its museum space for such a design.

With the Catholic Church mired in a sex scandal in which more than 250 priests nationwide have resigned or been dismissed, the archdiocese here has not escaped criticism for sinking so much money into its building.

Even though the scandal broke years after the cathedral was planned, effigies of Cardinal Roger Mahony have been paraded outside the new edifice, and even some conservative Catholics have dismissed it as "a monolith to ... conspicuous consumption" and the "Taj Mahony."

Despite the use of relatively inexpensive concrete for the structure and its overall spareness inside and out, some critics have called the 3,000-seat, 333-foot-long cathedral ostentatious. It is designed to be one foot larger than St. Patrick's in New York.

"There has been intense debate by a number of Catholics over whether we should spend this money on the poor or some other project," says Leonard Swidler, a religion expert at Temple University in Philadelphia. "In the end, the same ideas won out that won out when the relatively poor populations of Europe built the great Gothic cathedrals. They ended up pouring their souls into something of beauty which they felt also feeds the human psyche."

There are also questions whether any edifice can unite a city as sprawling as this one.

"The type of culture in which old church structures defined a particular culture doesn't exist anymore," says John King, urban design writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He says the building's modern materials and modern design are successful in creating – or re-creating – the mysteries of shadow and light that characterize the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe. "The challenge I see is whether or not any building can pull together a city of this many million people spread over many hundreds of square miles."

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