California is special. The weather is close to perfect, the waves are made for surfing, the coast at Big Sur rivals the Amalfi Drive, and there is the persistent myth that everyone is Hollywood-handsome, slim, and sexy. It is also a fact, however, that this home of the sybaritic lifestyle rests on two major geological fault lines atop the earthquake-prone Pacific Rim. The natives don’t talk about it much, but in moments of candor they’ll admit that they’re in denial and that the “Big One” is inevitable.

So it had to be risky for two California dioceses to build large new cathedrals in the past decade. Both Los Angeles and Oakland felt they had to do something about their old cathedrals, which had been damaged by earthquakes and were in need of costly repairs. They might have chosen simply to designate other churches in their area as cathedrals. Instead, both decided to start afresh near where their old cathedrals stood. God willing and engineers providing, they hoped to create churches that would survive all future quakes. They hoped Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles and Christ the Light in Oakland, like the great cathedrals of Europe, would endure for hundreds of years.

From the beginning, there was noisy but not unexpected opposition to the new projects: the age of big cathedrals is over, one heard; they are far too expensive; the money would be better spent on new schools, on the poor, and on affordable housing for the immigrants who have flooded the state. And if there must be huge new cathedrals, they should at least look like Catholic churches—if not neo-Gothic or neo-Romanesque, at least like the colonial missions of the eighteenth-century California Franciscans.

But what should a twenty-first-century cathedral look like? Forget the stained glass of Chartres, the sculpture of Amiens, the soaring vaults of Beauvais, the many-hued façade of Orvieto, or the spire of Strasbourg. Medieval memories—massive pillars, long naves, the darkness—none of this seemed right for California, where competing Evangelicals have built modern mega-churches and a crystal cathedral, and where Mormon temples glisten in the sunshine.

Following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in Northern California, the diocese of Oakland concluded that its heavily damaged cathedral, St. Francis de Sales, was not salvageable. The diocese chose Craig Hartman of the San Francisco office of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill to design a new one. It budgeted $75 million, but the completed structure came in at over $190 million. What did the diocese get for its money?

The new cathedral and its grounds, including a plaza, conference center, and chancery offices, are located across the street from scenic Lake Merritt in downtown Oakland. John King, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, described the new cathedral as “a woven wooden basket that’s 120 feet high, broad at the base and curving gently inward as it rises.” This basket in turn rests within an oval shell made of glass, which protects the wooden structure from the weather. King described the outer shield as “a soft tapestry spun from varying shades of translucent glass.” The wooden inner form consists of horizontal planks of Douglas fir, aligned to form louvers. They let in ample sunlight, but not direct rays.

A glass vault towers above the main altar, with an oval oculus at its center. This provides still more light. Behind the altar is a large image of Christ created from ninety-four thousand pinpoints of light. Hartman wanted “a place that could inspire wonder,” and I think he succeeded. The effect is not only luminous but strikingly graceful. The curvilinear walls welcome the sunshine during the day; at night they form a huge lantern beside the lake. Beneath the cathedral and its outdoor plaza are a mausoleum and parking lot.

Memories of the Loma Prieta quake still linger here. So when the next big one comes, what is to prevent this beautiful building from shattering or crumbling? Situated beneath its thick concrete floor slab, the cathedral has a matrix of thirty-four isolators, each with a four-foot-diameter steel bearing. According to the engineers, this will “seismically isolate” the cathedral in the event of an earthquake, allowing the building to rock, but not fall. The ultimate test, of course, is yet to come.

Three hundred fifty miles to the south, in downtown Los Angeles, is the other new cathedral, Our Lady of the Angels (see Jack Miles, “Our Lady of the Freeways,” Commonweal, February 28, 2003). As the seat of the largest diocese in the United States, it has a capacity of three thousand, about twice as many as Oakland’s cathedral. While the Oakland structure is all about light—and struck me as delicate and almost fragile—the Los Angeles church is massive, a mighty 5.6-acre, twelve-story fortress rising above what was once a parking garage situated next to the Hollywood Freeway. The building is majestic but also austere. It is more angular, and certainly more monumental, than Oakland’s new cathedral. The previous cathedral, St. Vibiana’s, had served Los Angeles since 1876, but the Northridge earthquake of 1994 made it unsafe. In 1996, Cardinal Roger Mahony announced that the archdiocese’s 4 million Catholics would have a new cathedral. José Rafael Moneo of Madrid, winner of the Pritzker Prize, was chosen to be the architect. He envisioned the building as one “where twentieth-century architecture touched the sense of the sacred...and connected people with the idea of the transcendent.”

Our Lady of the Angels was dedicated in 2002 at a cost of over $200 million. The colors of the cathedral’s great asymmetrical walls are neutral and earthy. The church’s interior light, filtered through Spanish alabaster windows, is soft and gentle. For me, the most impressive element of the interior design is the splendid Turkish Rosso Laguna marble altar. The nave slopes down to the sanctuary, where the altar’s deep burgundy color commands attention.

The cathedral’s sidewalls feature large, earth-toned tapestries that depict a procession of more than 130 saints (including some uncanonized ones) moving toward the altar. Their creator, artist John Nava, used both contemporary photographs and historical paintings as his models. As a result, these saints look like real human beings. Still, a sense of quiet awe is created by the tapestries and the people they represent. Men and women from across the centuries seem to move toward the Eucharistic table in quiet devotion, joining with the congregation in the pews below them.

With 105 stops and 6,019 pipes, the L.A. cathedral’s organ is truly splendid. The church has already been used for major organ and choral recitals. Outside the building in a spacious, 2.5-acre plaza, concerts and dramas are presented, and families and visitors congregate after Sunday liturgies. There is a popular café and a gift shop for visitors. To one side are the rectory and archdiocesan chancery offices. Beneath the structures and the plaza are a mausoleum and a parking lot. The church itself is constructed on 198 base isolators, rubber pads that allow its walls to move but not crack in the event of an earthquake.

The designs for both of these churches have little in common with more traditional cathedrals in New York, Chicago, and the rest of the country. Both try to answer the question, What should a cathedral attempt to convey today? They are meant to make a statement, and they do. They are monumental, memorable, and, yes, expensive. Ought a church hobbled by millions of dollars in settlement payments related to the sexual-abuse crisis to be building such huge new cathedrals?

In the Middle Ages, St. Bernard was a harsh critic of the new churches and monasteries springing up all over France. He forbade his Cistercian monks to use stained glass, intricate carvings, and bell towers in their new monasteries. He did allow the use of some pictures, for the benefit of simpler souls. But his own monks needed no such aids. The abbot of Saint-Denis, the powerful and strong-willed Suger, on the other hand, felt that nothing was too good for the Lord’s house. He delighted in the color of windows, the gold of the reliquaries, and the splendor of carvings. (His gem-studded chalice can be viewed at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.) Both men could quote the Bible, no doubt: “Might this not have been sold and the money given to the poor?” But “the poor you will have with you always.” The debate continues today.

The two new California cathedrals are now complete and in full use. Will they stand for centuries like their predecessors in Italy, France, or Germany? Will they continue to offer a sacred space for the Eucharist and for gathering the community and its pastors? Will secular and sophisticated Americans see in these buildings houses of God and gates to heaven? Those who created them have every right to hope so.

The Reverend Willard F. Jabusch is chaplain emeritus of the University of Chicago.
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Published in the 2010-05-21 issue: View Contents
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