Exploring the Sacred
Beholding the Sacred
Los Angeles, CA
Saint Vincent de Paul
St. Vincent’s Church is one of the most notable structures on the Figueroa Corridor of Downtown Los Angeles. The churrigueresque-styled church sits on the corner of Adams and Figueroa streets.
The church community of St. Vincent’s traces its roots to 1887 when a small group of faithful church-goers congregated in the chapel of St. Vincent’s College.* Rapid growth in population soon demanded a larger space for worship and plans were set in motion for expansion in 1914. World War I would put plans on hold for at least a decade.
By 1922, efforts are underway to raise the necessary funds to construct a new church. Edward and Carrie Estelle Doheny decide to fund the project. Ground broke for the new church on October 12, 1923, and the cornerstone was laid on July 18, 1924. The first Mass was celebrated in the new St. Vincent’s Church on April 5, 1925.
Architectural design was handed to Albert C. Martin Sr., (also the architect behind L.A. City Hall, Million Dollar Theater, downtown L.A., St. Monica’s Church, Santa Monica, and the Ventura County Courthouse, amongst many other notable works). Martin drew inspiration for St. Vicent’s after Bertram Goodhue’s California Building at Balboa Park in San Diego and the 18th- century church of Santa Prisca in Taxco, Mexico.
The church quickly gained fame for its lavish beauty. There was nothing like it in scale or beauty in Los Angeles at the time, mostly due to the generosity of oil tycoon Edward Doheny. The church was affectionally dubbed “The Church of the Holy Oils.”
Pope St. John Paul II visited St. Vincent’s during his 1987 visit. The chair and prie-dieu are in the sanctuary to this day.
St. Vincent’s Church is sited at a 45-degree angle with both Adams and Figueroa. Mr. Doheny wished to place the building for maximum visibility so and avoid the danger of adjacent commercial structures distracting from its beauty.
The exterior of the church is of plaster with Indiana limestone trim, ornament and statues, decorative tile covering the dome and Spanish tile on the roof. The main entrance façade is of stone elaborately carved with figures of Saints Peter and Paul, the Archangel Michael and St. Joseph on the sides, and a central group of St. Vincent de Paul with two children. The inscription above the central door reads, Quam dilecta tabernacula tua Domine virtutum (How lovely are thy tabernacles, O Lord of hosts!)
The stonework on the tower is ornamented with the statues of the four evangelists. The ornamented entrance has a figure of the Blessed Mother over the doorway with the inscription: O Maria Sine Labe Concepta, Ora pro Nobis (O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us).
The roof of the bell tower and the dome are clad with hand painted tile ornamented with scrolls and flora. The dome is forty-five feet in diameter with a thickness varying from four inches at the bottom to five inches at the top. The lantern on top of the dome is ornamented with four angels and a series of emblems.
The plan of the church is that of a Latin cross with a total length of 250 feet, and with at the transept of 108 feet and a width in the body of the church of 67 feet. The height of the roof in the body of the church is 72 feet, at the dome 160 feet. The height of the cross on the tower is 151 feet.
The interior of the church was designed by Ralph Cram, one of the most prolific and influential American architects of collegiate and ecclesiastical buildings (Cram’s other work includes the Cathedral of St. Paul, Detroit, St. John the Divine, New York City, Princeton University Chapel, and many others). The ceiling is the work of John B. Smeraldi, who, at the same time, was also working on the ceilings of the Biltmore Hotel nearby.
No expense was spared to carry the richly elaborate features of the exterior to the interior. The church is replete with exquisite carvings, superb stained glass, rich mosaics and paintings, and a basilica-worthy sanctuary.
The stained-glass windows are designed in the spirit of the Italian Renaissance period to be in accord with the architecture of the church. The design of the glazing of the windows is inspired by the windows in the Certosa of Florence, Italy. The windows were glazed by Wilbur H. Burnham assisted by Harry W. Goodhue, both of Boston, MA.
The windows of the sanctuary represent six great angel figures holding plaques depicting symbols of six sacraments, the seventh being, of course, the act of the Eucharistic celebration itself.
The star-shaped window in the west transept represents St. Patrick and St. Bridget. St. Bridget is holding a book and lamp, the lamp symbolic of piety. A sheaf of wheat, another of her emblems, is shown on a shield. St. Patrick is clothed in the traditional vestments of a bishop and is holding a crozier and book and standing on a snake. The shamrock is shown on a shield.
The star-shaped window in the east transept pictures St. Timothy and St. Paul. St. Timothy is holding a crozier and the scourge and stones, emblematic of his martyrdom. St. Paul is holding a book and sword.
The great window over the central entrance doorway represents the resurrection. Christ is shown with an angel and a Roman soldier. At the base is St. Michael victorious with a sheathed sword, standing over Satan. At the top, is another symbol of victory: an angel holding a palm. Around the window, there are ornamental forms containing angels playing musical instruments. At the base of the window the IHS and PX are woven into the border, also the Phoenix, emblem of the resurrection.
The aisle windows on both sides of the church illustrate the life of St. Vincent.
The clerestory windows are as follows: on the Epistle side, reading from the altar, is Christ walking on water, Christ feeding the multitude, Raising of the widow’s son, Healing the palsied main, stilling the storm, and the miraculous draught of fish. On the Gospel side, reading toward the altar, are the Wedding Feast of Cana, the ten virgins, the sower, the good Samaritan, the prodigal son, and the good shepherd.
The decorations are inspired by prototypes found in Spain. The large cartouches bear typical Christian symbols such as the anchor, the cross, and crown, the flaming heart, etc.
The eight large paintings in the dome are those of the four evangelists and their symbols. The decoration of all the ceilings was executed by John B. Smeraldi of Pasadena, CA.
Two paintings, high over the side altars, are approximately four and one half feet wide by nine and one half feet tall. The painting in full color over St. Joseph’s side altar represents the Apotheosis (glorification) of St. Vincent de Paul, and the one over the Blessed Mother’s side altar represents St. Vincent with orphan children. The two paintings are by Taber Sears, of New York, NY.
St. Vincent de Paul makes for a worthwhile stop when you’re in Los Angeles. The church is located at:
621 W. Adams Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90007
*St. Vincent’s College began as the idea of Bishop Thaddeus Amat, C.M., and was under the auspice of the Vincentian Fathers until 1911, when operation of the college was given to the Jesuits. The Jesuits renamed it Loyola College in 1918 when it moved to its second location near LAX. In 1968, Loyola College merged with Marymount College and became Loyola Marymount University.
I relied heavily on the research of Fr. Terence M. O'Donnel, CM, for this entry.
Saint Vincent de Paul