Mahony Shares His Delight at a Dream Made Manifest

Touring the vast new cathedral, the cardinal lovingly describes each
feature of an edifice that has consumed him for years.


In the nave of the nearly finished Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony proclaims the man with silvery hair "a miracle worker."

The man, who appears to be a construction foreman, has just informed the cardinal that, per his request, the window-washing scaffolding will be coming down today. The man smiles shyly at the delight this information elicits, nods and turns away.

"Finally," says the cardinal, standing in front of the burgundy marble altar he designed himself, flanked by a 10-foot-tall tapestried procession of saints and blesseds. "Now, I can get some decent pictures."

For six years, Mahony has photographed the hillside property along Temple Street, where, from the riven asphalt of a parking lot, this city's new cathedral has bloomed. Forty albums worth of pictures has he, but as of yet no final portrait. A few days ago, at sunset, he took some wonderful photos of the campanile, but a lattice of window-washing rigs had long marred the cathedral's face. Now the cardinal will at last be able to take the first "postcard" shots.

Controversy has swirled around the project ever since Mahony announced in 1995 that instead of repairing the earthquake-damaged St. Vibiana's Cathedral, he would build a new one. There is controversy still, but now there is also a cathedral.

And as the cardinal guides a reporter on a tour of the project that has consumed him, and many others, for the last five years, his vision of it as a place apart rises all around. Within its tawny walls, the outside world not so much recedes as is reduced—to an essence of silence and light and stone in which there is room for the miraculous and the mundane.

"It is just beyond belief," says Mahony mid-tour. He looks up at the luminous patchwork of alabaster windowpanes that gives form to the cross behind the altar, and the river of information and exclamation that flows so easily from him lies quiet.

"I dreamed of how it would look," he says, still gazing upward. "But I never thought it could be so beautiful."

On this day, with just 10 left until the dedication, the cathedral is still crawling with workers. They sit on the steps, talking on cell phones, sipping coffee from Burger King. One man straddles the top of one of the enormous front doors, tinkering with something or other.

The whine and stutter of power tools from inside bounce out into the early morning, blurred by echo into a sound like whales singing.

Today, the main fountain will be filled with water, and the baptismal font will be finished. Today, workers have learned that not all of the angel-etched glass panels will be ready for the back of the courtyard in time, that plain glass will have to do for the opening. Today, after an odd, wintry week, the sun, which architect Jose Rafael Moneo used in the design and building as if it were stone or mortar, wells over the horizon, stretching fledgling shadows under the newly planted liquidambar and olive trees.

Crossing the growing brightness of the plaza that aprons the cathedral, Mahony, in clerical black, is a sudden, striding silhouette.

"The main themes of the cathedral are light and journey," he says, describing the symbols on the main entrance—25-ton bronze front doors designed by sculptor Robert Graham that depict images of the Blessed Mother and God. "I don't know what the docents are going to do," Mahony says, interrupting himself. "I mean, you could spend three hours just on the doors."

The cardinal has had final say on every decision regarding the cathedral, down to the wattage of the lightbulbs in the freight elevator. His taste and influence are as much a foundation of this building as the earthquake-savvy base isolators that hold it up.

He had conversations with Graham about the doors, he says, but the artist chose the images and symbols. The only thing Mahony insisted on was an actual statue of Our Lady, which Graham originally had not been interested in doing.

"I told him the cathedral was named after Our Lady of the Angels," Mahony said, "and our city was named after Our Lady of the Angels, so at some point along the way people would expect to see Our Lady of the Angels." He quotes himself lightly, good-humoredly.

And there she is just above the door, the Blessed Mother as a young woman neither delicate nor sorrowing, who extends her bare arms not so much to comfort as to encourage. "Come with me," those arms and calm, resolute face seem to say.

The cardinal obeys.

He steps over the men who are still working and into a shrill din of grinding metal and rock.

"Oh, it's not so bad today," he says, moving outside the perimeter of the shriek. Living in the new rectory since March, he has been in the cathedral almost daily, often in hard hat, the pale dust from the floor creeping up the cuffs of his pants. Now, he simply steps over the tools, around the men and through the noise. Raising his voice just enough, he speaks fondly of the Spanish limestone floors.

"It is so low-maintenance," he says of the sand-colored stone flecked with red and white. "So forgiving."

Gleaming in the shadows at the end of the long entrance way is a 17th century Spanish Baroque retablo—a gilded altarpiece. A few steps in, on the right, there is an narrow entrance into the nave—pews can be glimpsed, and long, spidery light fixtures. One could enter now, but the point is to keep moving forward, toward the retablo.

"Moneo uses the past to tempt you along the journey," says Mahony, "in the hope that you'll want to take the long way around rather than cutting through."

The cardinal enters the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, a small room near the entrance to the nave.

"This is one of my favorite places," he says.

The chapel, which will have chairs and kneelers, is empty now save the tabernacle that will hold the Eucharist and the wine used during the sacrament of Communion. Designed by Max De Moss, the tabernacle is tall and circular, like the smooth, graceful trunk of a eucalyptus.

"Usually a tabernacle is a little box," the cardinal says. "But De Moss had to design a vertical because of the space." He gestures to the ceiling high, high overhead.

The cardinal opens the tabernacle. Two angels appear on the inside of the doors that reveal the vessel, called a ciborium, for the Eucharist. The cardinal lifts it out.

"I had no idea it would be so beautiful," he says. In his hands, the vessel glows, then suddenly grows pale as the room darkens. "Oops," says the cardinal, putting the ciborium back, closing the door. "They're still testing the lights."

There are two other side chapels along the ambulatory. One holds a statue of Our Lady from St. Vibiana's. The statue is surrounded by a copse of cameras and lights as if she were a supermodel. A hand-lettered sign taped to her base reads, "Photo shoot Friday."

Mahony gestures, a full arm extension that takes in the ceiling and then the floor. "You see how the past and future have been combined," he says. "That is one of the themes of the cathedral—the tension between the past and the future."

Then the cardinal surges forward.

Passing the retablo, he enters the nave. Standing there, in front of the baptismal font, facing the altar, he basks. It is much warmer than he'd anticipated: The wood of the pews and the earth tones of the John Nava tapestries soothe the space, with its alabaster-filtered light and floors the color of adobe.

"It's a huge space," the cardinal says. "But it doesn't feel like an aircraft hangar."

Now he moves quickly, from one feature to another. He seems less the 64-year-old prelate explaining the themes of sacred space and more a young man enthralled with the nifty details, the gadgetry and gorgeousness of what he has wrought.

Here are the hinged pews that can accommodate a wheelchair. Here, you must see these angels: candle sconces that identify which walls will be anointed in the dedication. The angels, also by De Moss, are wild as wood spirits; their wings seem to beat against the walls. Look at the figures in the tapestries—135 of them. See how some are canonized saints but others are children in tennis shoes, teenagers with untucked shirts.

"Because ordinary people are also among the blessed," says the cardinal, as if just noticing another miracle. "They are us, the ordinary people."

In front of the altar, which is deep red like a heart, a real heart, he pauses.

"I designed that altar, you know," he says. "Moneo wanted a circular pattern in the floor, and I said that's a great idea and we'll have a circular base and just a simple slab on top."

Gold angels, designed by M.L. Snowden, swirl along the base; the top is unadorned.

"There are too many altars in Los Angeles that are poor quality," Mahony says, "that have holes drilled in them for mikes, that have lost the sense and integrity of the altar. This one—even the altar cloth won't cover it completely. You will always be able to see it."

The altar was one of the first things brought into the cathedral; the walls literally rose around it. It was covered, protected, but one day the cardinal walked in to find it being used in an un-altarlike way.

"There were four guys eating lunch on it, and one guy with his blueprints and another hammering, hammering! Right on it. And I said, 'Stop!'" Then, he wrote a note thanking everyone for respecting the altar and not using it as a lunch table. He copied the note and plastered it all over the top. With his name about two inches high.

Behind the altar is another Nava tapestry that seems like a simple series of circles and geometric shapes.

"You must see this," says the cardinal, stepping toward it. It is the artist's rendition of the heavenly Jerusalem as described in the biblical book of Revelation. "And then he has overlaid a street map of Los Angeles," says Mahony, as if he still can't believe it himself. "Look, you can see our streets," he says, pointing at a series of lines that runs over the larger forms. "Is that amazing?"

Then he must show the bishop's chair—the cathedra, its wood from six continents. ("Antarctica doesn't have wood," the cardinal said. "So it was either ice or penguins.")

On the day of the dedication, the cardinal will stand in front of the chair to give his homily. He began writing it in January; 32 drafts later, it is done. He will use a TelePrompTer donated by Rupert Murdoch. "I mentioned we needed one when he was here with his wife a couple of months ago," the cardinal says. "And two hours later, I get a call from someone about delivery."

"I have to show you this one angel," he says, walking away from the bishop's chair. "Because it is just hilarious."

On the wall to the right of the altar is the hilarious angel. He has one hand to his head, and one extended in a sweeping gesture. His mouth is wide open and he is looking upward, frowning a tiny bit. He looks as if he were singing a particularly difficult aria. "Isn't that great," says the cardinal. "He looks so surprised, or as if he's calling out in greeting. Every time I look at him, I think of something different. Usually for these sconces, you just go to a catalog—there they are, Page 16; give me 12 of them. But we've got separate works of art. Amazing."

Along the north wall of the cathedral, a long window reveals the cloister garden, full of oak and sycamore that, once grown, will shade the walkways and fountain.

Opposite it is the entrance to the reconciliation chapel, and the three confession rooms in which penitents can either confess through a traditional screen or face to face with the priest. Bathed in muted lighting and smell of new wood, they are a far cry from the musty, dark closets many Catholics associate with the sacrament. The doors of the rooms are checkered with tiny windows to alleviate the claustrophobia many feel in the confessional.

"We've had a lot of pastors come by and take pictures of the doors," Mahony says, "wanting to do something similar in their own church. Oops," he adds, stepping back into one of the rooms. "Gotta turn off the lights. Always turn the lights off."

He walks downstairs; the basement holds St. Vibiana's Chapel and the mausoleum. There is also a bride's room; 40 couples already are set to marry in the cathedral.

In the spacious mausoleum, the stained glass windows soften and sanctify the rows of crypts. "I moved my parents the other day," the cardinal says, pointing to the two crypts that hold the bodies of his mother and father. "I chose the upper row, because it's the cheapest. The middle row is the best real estate, but it's out of my reach."

To the left of the crypt that is directly beneath the altar, several rows are reserved for the bishops of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

One bears Mahony's name and birth date, complete with life-span dash on it.

"I kind of did a double-take the first time I saw it. But I thought, 'At least there's no date on this side,' " he says, pointing to the empty space beside the dash. The income from the mausoleum, he says, will go into a perpetual-care fund for the cathedral.

Leaving the mausoleum, the cardinal points out the choir practice room. "I already told the choir director that if the mausoleum is selling well," he says, laughing, "you guys are going to practice out on the plaza. We could fit about 400 folks in there."

In the freight elevator, he notes that its bulbs have been changed at his request. "We had, like, 300 watts in here, and it was hot," he says with the same infectious enthusiasm as when he explained the design of the front doors.

Although he has seen it in every light, at every stage, in every mood, Mahony has not yet found his one private space for prayer and contemplation in the cathedral. "That will take some time," he says. "There's always been too much equipment."

But he does have a favorite way to enter the place that has filled his imagination for so long. From the north doors, the floor of the ambulatory inclines; walking along it, the nave and all its marvels come into view bit by bit—the alabaster and ceiling, the tapestries and the angels.

"This way," he says, "the cathedral reveals itself to me slowly, a little bit at a time."