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Beholding the Sacred

Cathedral of Saint Vibiana

Cathedral of Saint Vibiana, Los Angeles

The story of St. Vibiana’s Cathedral dates years before construction of a cathedral for Los Angeles were conceived.  

The story begins with Thaddeus Amat y Brisi as a child in Barcelona, Spain.  Young Thaddeus shared with his mother a dream that he was a priest and had built a magnificent cathedral to a saint.  Soon after the dream occurred a second and a third time. By the third time, his mother decided to consult with the local parish priest.  The holy parish priest encouraged young Amat to study, pray, and consider a life in the priesthood.  

Amat joined the Congregation of the Mission, commonly called the Vincentian Fathers, in 1832 and was ordained a priest of the Congregation on December 23, 1837, in Paris France.  He was missioned to serve in Louisiana, Missouri, and Pennsylvania and eventually was appointed Archbishop of Monterey in California, which at that time extended from Monterey to the Mexican border.   A decline in population in Monterey and a growth in Los Angeles prompted Archbishop Amat to move the seat of the Archdiocese to Los Angeles.  

St. Vibiana, Child-Martyr
While visiting Rome in 1853, Archbishop Amat visited the Minor Basilica of Saint Sisto where they were excavating early-Christian catacombs.  One of the finds was the sarcophagus of a young third-century martyr.  The inscription on the tomb gave her name, Vibiana, the day of her death, August 31, and the following inscription: Animas innocenti atque pudicae Vibiana in pace depositae pridie Kalendas Septembris, the translation of which is, ‘‘To the innocent and chaste soul of Vibiana, whose remains were deposited in peace on the day before the Calends of September.’’*
Immediately Amat recalled his childhood dream and pleaded Pope Pius IX to entrust the holy relics to him so that a Cathedral may be built in her honor in Los Angeles.  

The relics arrived the following year, and Archbishop Amat began efforts to raise money for the Cathedral.  

The architects W.J. Matthews and Ezra F. Kysor designed the Cathedral.  The cornerstone was laid in 1871; construction was completed in 1876.  The style of St. Vibiana’s is Italian Baroque Style.  The exterior is based on the design of the 1755 Església de Sant Miguel del Port in Barcelona.  

The façade was inscribed with ‘‘D.O.M.,’’ being the abbreviation for Deo Optimo Maximo, which means, ‘‘To God the Greatest’,’ also the sentence, Dedicata A.D. 1876, signifying the date when the Cathedral was dedicated, and the words, Sub Invocatione Sanctae Vibianae Virginis et Martyris, the translation of which is, ‘‘Under the Invocation of Saint Vibiana, Virgin and Martyr.’’

The interior is very similar to the Chapelle Saint Vincent de Paul in Paris, France, which houses the relics of St. Vincent de Paul.  The altar and reredos were of carved Carrara marble.  The sanctuary was adorned with beautiful frescoes of adoring angels and a depiction of the Trinity.  The stained-glass windows were crafted by the Franz Mayer Company of Munich.  

The relics of Saint Vibiana were placed inside a wax effigy in a glass casket above the main altar.  Amat’s prophetic dream came true, and he loved his cathedral dearly.  

Amat died on May 12, 1878.  According to one anecdote, he died alone while praying compline before his beloved St. Vibiana in the Cathedral. *

Expansions and Renovations 
By 1922, it was necessary to enlarge the Cathedral.  The task was entrusted to architect John C. Austin.  He added a new vestibule and replaced the brick façade with Indiana limestone.  

Archbishop Cantwell contemplated the idea of building a new cathedral in the 1940s to serve the growing needs of the archdiocese.  Plans for a new cathedral on Wilshire Boulevard were scrapped.  Eventually, Archbishop Cantwell focused resources on acquiring land and opening schools and parishes.  His successor, James Cardinal McIntyre, who also considered efforts to construct a new cathedral, would continue the expansion of schools and churches during his tenure.  Dreams for a larger cathedral would have to wait another fifty years.  

(The famed Ezcaray reredos were intended for the new cathedral of Archbishop Cantwell's desires, one retablo—formerly installed in 1953 in the chapel of Queen of Angels Seminary—is located in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels and the other, installed in 1991, is in the chapel of San Fernando Mission.)   

Saint Vibiana’s was renovated in the 1970s and in the spirit of “renovation” much of the original artwork was covered up.  The once beautiful frescoes that adorned the sanctuary were covered up by swatches of green and gold paint.  During the same renovation, the relics of St. Vibiana were moved.  A statue of Our Lady Queen of Angels commissioned in the 1950’s by Cardinal James McIntyre by Professor Eugenio Pattarino was placed in the niche above the altar.  

It is of interest to note that the same statue was housed in the refectory of Our Lady Queen of Angels Seminary before being placed in the Cathedral.  The statue now stands in a side chapel in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.  A replica is housed at St. Denis’ Church in San Dimas.  

The Closing Chapter
The Cathedral served the Archdiocese of Los Angeles for 118 years.  The 1994 Northridge earthquake severely damaged the structural integrity, and it was deemed too dangerous for use.  It was scheduled for demolition, but preservation activists battled with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and it was eventually purchased by a private party.  The structure, now preserved and retrofitted, functions as an event center and is known merely as Vibiana.  

When the cathedral ceased to function, many of its elements were removed and re-purposed in the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels—mainly in the lower level.   The relics of the child-martyr were entombed in a marble sarcophagus. Elements from the original altar were incorporated into the altar in the mausoleum chapel, the relief carvings of the evangelists that once adorned the ambo are affixed to the wall leading to the Vibiana oratory.  Several of the original light fixtures hang in the lower level of the new cathedral.  The beautiful Franz Mayer stained-glass windows were restored by the Judson Studios and now have a home throughout the mausoleum.  

Vibiana is located at

214 S Main Street

Los Angeles, CA 90012

*The True Story of “Ramona” by Carlyle Channing Davis, 1914

Los Angeles, CA