Take It On Faith: Exterior and Interior Photos of St. Vibiana’s Cathedral, Los Angeles, ca. 1878

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The Plaza Church, officially La Iglesia Nuestra Señora Reina de Los Angeles, was, for decades, the spiritual center of Roman Catholic Los Angeles and is still a vital parish church for La Placita and its surrounding areas.  The descendant of earlier churches in the original plazas, which moved because of floodwaters from the Los Angeles River, the current structure was built in 1822 and was significantly remodeled in the 1860s.

There wasn’t another church of any denomination until St. Athanasius Episcopal Church was built to the south at Temple and New High (now Spring) streets and the Plaza Church remained the only Roman Catholic place of worship until the mid-1870s.

Bishop Thaddeus Amat, who, in 1857, blessed the cornerstone of St. Nicholas’ Chapel, built by the Workman family within their El Campo Santo Cemetery and now the site of the Walter P. Temple Memorial Mausoleum, and whose namesake high school is nearby in La Puente, was the Bishop of the Diocese of Monterey and Los Angeles was the Episcopal See of the diocese.

This image and the three following are from the 10 April 1876 edition of the Los Angeles Express.

According to the 10 April 1876 edition of the Los Angeles Express, “it has always been a favorite idea of Bishop Tadeo Amat to erect a church in Los Angeles . . . commensurate with the importance and opulence of his bishopric.”  As the city underwent its first significant and sustained period of growth, Amat put his plan into motion.

On a parcel at the southwest corner of Main and Second streets, ground was broken in May 1871 for not just a church, but a cathedral, a lofty aim for a small city of not quite 10,000 souls.  Still, construction progressed as the boom continued and the Express noted that “in 1872-3 considerable work was done on the outer walls of the building.  Then, for reasons that were not explained, but were likely because of financial shortfalls, the project suddenly stopped.

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In spring 1875, at the peak of the boom, however, new life was breathed into the cathedral project “when Mr. Louis Mesmer inaugurated a revival of the work by bringing to it an energy which never flagged.”  Mesmer, a German native of the Alsace-Lorraine region of France, was a baker after arriving in the City of Angels in 1859, but went on to operate the United States Hotel, sell wine and engage in real estate.  More about him can be read in this post from the blog.

Notably, the name selected for the cathedral was an unusual one.  St. Vibiana was, in the late 1870s, relatively new to the pantheon of Catholic saints.  The Express provided a lengthy summation of the discovery in late 1853 of the remains of the martyr near Rome, including the fact that her tomb gave her name, her date of death as 31 August, and included a laurel wreath, the symbol for martyrdom.  A vessel of blood was reportedly found in the tomb, cited as evidence that she was a virgin martyr.

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The newspaper added that Pope Pius IX, the Holy Father from 1846 to 1878, displayed the relics of Vibiana to the public at Rome early in 1854.  While it was stated that many prelates petitioned for these relics, “Divine Providence had ordained that California should possess them” and the Pope handed them over to Amat “with the object that  . . . there should be raised a church in honor of the illustrious virgin.”  On 28 March 1856, Pius decreed the canonization of St. Vibiana with 1 September, the day after her death, to be her feast day.

Many sources state that Vibiana was martyred by Emperor Julian II, known commonly as “The Apostate,” during persecution of Christians in Rome and there are varying accounts of what happened to her and her family.  Julian, however, was emperor in the early 360s and Vibiana is accounted to have lived a century prior, though there was a St. Bibiana that is presumed to be the one killed under Julian’s persecutions.

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Meanwhile, Amat, who’d served a parish in Philadelphia prior to going to Rome and receiving the holy relics of St. Vibiana, was assigned to be the bishop of the Monterey diocese in far-flung California.  Supposedly, he initially considered Santa Barbara to be the place to build the church for the newly minted saint and deposited the relics there.  After coming to Los Angeles, however, be transferred them to the Plaza Church while he sought to build his edifice dedicated to her.

Thanks to the diligence of Amat and Mesmer, St. Vibiana’s Cathedral was finally completed and presented to the public on 9 April 1876 (a formal dedication took place three weeks later,) with the Express proclaiming “it is truly a beautiful tribute to the purity, sufferings and martyrdom of its holy protectress.”  Notably, while some suggest the structure was modeled after a French church, the Chapelle Saint Vincent de Paul, the newspaper stated that it was “suggested by a church in Barcelona, the Puerto de San Miguel,” Amat’s boyhood parish church.  Actually, the exterior does closely resemble the latter, while the interior is very reminiscent of the former.

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From the Homestead’s collection is this ca. 1878 view of St. Vibiana’s from across Main Street at the southwest corner of 2nd by Arthur C. Varela.

Plenty of detail is offered in the article about the newly completed cathedral, which was 80 feet wide by 160 feet deep and 60 feet at its highest point at the front, while the southern tower and steeple rose to 140 feet and the bell tower was over 80 feet in height.  The main doors were 9×14 and had sliding doors and were flanked by smaller entrances measuring 6×8, while seven other entries were at the sides and rear of the structure.

The north and south sides each had a half-dozen large stained glass windows made in San Francisco, while a rose window at the front facade was donated by the parish of Santa Cruz.  Five other stained glass windows at the front and above the altar and all but the rose one were paid for congregants.

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A close-up of the structure.

It was also noted that the view from the belfry “is one of the most comprehensive to be had in this vicinity” and photographers often utilized the vantage point to take images of the city.  The day of the opening, three bells were placed there, with two of them brought the Mission San Fernando and the third from Mission San Luis Rey in modern Oceanside.

The Express was rapturous about the interior of the cathedral, marveling, “the entire interior of this magnificent temple is something for the eye to rest upon in rapt admiration.”  Frescoed panels in the vault of the nave were highlighted and it was observed “the artist has let his fancy play in the delicate ornamentation of these divisions, and produced an ensemble which is really beautiful.”

A dozen massive Corinthian columns dividing the nave from the transepts “give an air of charm to the building, while the entablature, circling the nave, “produces a delightful effect.”  Fresco work adorned the ceilings of the entablatures and the walls were painted to imitate marble (the Workman House exterior walls on the porches also have something of this effect).

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A rare early view by Varela of the interior.  This is also in the museum’s holdings.

The altar was also cited for its beauty, with its Corinthian pediment and cerulean field and gold stars “producing the effect of a temple floating in the blue firmament.”  In the pediment was a recess in which the relics of St. Vibiana were kept in a coffin of rare wood and metal.  Also highlighted were three chandeliers which “when fully illuminating the building will be cheered by the lights of 112 gas burners.”

Much praise was showered on the contractors, including superintendent Mesmer; chief carpenter W.O. Burr; fresco artist Alexander Zins; altarpiece artist Joaquin N. Amat, nephew of the bishop; William Farrell, who supplied the gas fixtures; and John Mullen, the maker of the stained glass windows.  Coadjutor bishop Francisco Mora and Plaza Church priest Peter Verdaguer was also credited for their energetic efforts—Mora would replace Amat as bishop after the latter’s death two years later.

Then, there was credit given to the architect, who, the Express added, “is entitled to the credit of fashioning out, from the designs of Bishop Amat, this magnificent temple” and for whom the cathedral would “ever remain a noble monument to his professional efficiency.”

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A detail of the interior, which takes on more meaning with the description from the Express.

This was Ezra F. Kysor, the first trained architect to practice in Los Angeles, and whose surviving works include the Pico House hotel;, the home of lumberman William H. Perry, now at the Heritage Square Museum; and, it has been said, the redesign of the Workman House, completed 150 years ago this year.  Towards the end of the cathedral project, Kysor took on a partner, W.J. Mathews.

The featured artifacts from the Homestead’s collection are a pair of stereoscopic photographs, taken by Arthur C. Varela about 1878, and showing the exterior of the cathedral, of which there are many images, as well as a rare view of the inside.  Varela, who was one of those photographers who used the upper elevations of the building to take images of the city, did not long work in Los Angeles, leaving for San Jose by 1880 and then returning to his long-time home of Washington, D.C. and his stable civil service job.  But, Varela, who was a brother-in-law of famed composer John Philip Sousa, took many beautifully composed and developed images, of which the museum’s holdings have a good sample.

As for St. Vibiana’s, it was enlarged and redesigned in the early 1920s by prominent architect John C. Austin and remained the cathedral until the 1994 Northridge earthquake caused substantial damage and the church decided to close it and build a new cathedral, Our Lady of the Angels, adjacent to U.S. 101 (the relics of St. Vibiana are there in an underground chapel.)  After intense pressure by activists to save St. Vibiana’s, which was declared a City of Los Angeles historic-cultural monument in 1963, the structure is now Vibiana, described as “a wedding events and performing arts venue” owned by a restaurateur couple.

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