Friday, August 11, 2017

A 21st-century Cathedral as an Image of Pilgrimage

Following the 1994 Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahony proposed to demolish the damaged 1876 cathedral to build a new cathedral downtown.

The new cathedral is built on a former parking lot, a sloping precipice that straddles the extremely busy north-south U.S. Highway 101. . . historically known as El Camino Real (The Royal Road). . . through. . . Washington, Oregon, and California. It approximates the old Mission Trail that linked Spanish and Mexican missions, pueblos, and military settlements. Twenty-one mission establishments were constructed every thirty miles or so along this 600-mile route. Before the development of the modern freeway system and accompanying signage, the Mission Trail was marked by bells hung on armatures that looked like a shepherd’s crook. Hundreds of replicated bells and staffs can be found along the trail today.

The Pritzker Award-winning architect, José Rafael Moneo, was chosen to be the principal designer for the new cathedral. After participating in the selection of the site, Moneo remarked, in so many words, that this new house of worship (which today overlooks and looms large over the 101 Freeway) would serve as a beacon of hope for thousands of drivers commuting along this modern-day mission trail. Interestingly, only one of the original twenty-one missions is actually visible from the freeway, making the cathedral even more emblematic of its missionary roots.

Professor Moneo’s plan celebrates Cardinal Mahony’s idea that the cathedral should be a place of pilgrimage and light (John 8:12). These two characteristics provided a spiritual foundation for the building.  

In this sense, this postmodern cathedral provides the same sense of journey and illumination that the soaring medieval Gothic cathedrals and churches once did. The analogous connection with pilgrim-like missionaries who built mission churches and paved the original—albeit dusty—Mission Trail, is obvious.

. . . There are no right angles anywhere in this asymmetrical building. The pilgrim’s way is seldom straight. Twenty-seven thousand square feet of thinly veined Spanish alabaster windows bathe the interior with natural light. The cathedral, built of finely honed architectural concrete reinforced with 6,000 tons of steel, actually floats on forty-seven slider base isolators. It would be, probably, one of the safest places in Los Angeles during an earthquake.

. . . The pilgrimage journey to the cathedral begins by entering through sliding perforated gates on Temple Street designed by the architect. In John’s Gospel, Jesus referred to himself as “the sheep gate” (John 10). Above this welcoming entrance, facing Temple Street, is a carillon of thirty-six bells programmed to ring out during the day, calling people to worship or reminding them to pause and pray. . . .  

Once inside the cathedral precinct, a major principle of Christian tradition is apparent—hospitality. All peoples are welcome to the cathedral regardless of their faith tradition, race, or ethnicity. Lita Albuquerque designed the gateway pool located on the ground level of the entryway. The theme for the gushing waterfall and the bouncing fountain of water, which flows over the edge of a large disc, is taken from the story of Jesus encountering a Samaritan woman at the well. Although Samaritans were at odds with Jews, Jesus. . . cut across barriers of race and gender that separated them socially and religiously.

More from this essay will be posted on August 25, 2017. The complete text of this essay and references are available at

Richard S. Vosko, PhD, Hon. AIA, and a Catholic priest of the Diocese of Albany, has worked as a sacred space planner since 1970. His portfolio includes fifteen cathedral projects and other award-winning houses of worship in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Richard S. Vosko, “The Way of Pilgrims in a Twenty-First-Century Cathedral,” Liturgy 32, no. 3 (2017): 47-57.

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