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Meet The Patron Saint Of LA You've Never Heard Of

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Photo by jpellgen (@1179_jp)/Flickr CC
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You may consider yourself a Los Angeles devotee, a superfan of all things Angeleno. Best fusion taco truck? Check. Password for that Koreatown speakeasy? Check. Now, ask yourself: Who is the city's patron saint?

Need a nudge? San Francisco's is St. Francis of Assisi. Boston's is St. Patrick. And L.A.'s is...? Anyone? Bueller? The answer is St. Vibiana.

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For long-time Catholic residents of the city, the saint may not be so unfamiliar. St. Vibiana was the name of the prominent cathedral in DTLA on 2nd and Main. During downtown's boom in the first half of the 20th century, many worshippers went to "Vibs," as it was known. There, they'd gaze up at St. Vibiana, a wax figure in a white satin dress lying on a red divan in a glass box above the altar, to ask for guidance and blessings.

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It was badly damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles targeted it for demolition but preservationists balked. After two lawsuits, they hammered out a deal. The archdiocese turned over the St. Vibiana site to the City of Los Angeles and bought a nearby site to build a new cathedral.

For more recent downtown L.A. denizens, the name may be recognizable from the restaurant Redbird, which is housed in the former rectory. The renovated former cathedral has become the event space Vibiana. For playwright and actor Stacie Chaiken, St. Vibiana is simply her neighbor.

Chaiken moved into the historic Higgins building, across the street from the-then boarded-up cathedral, 12 years ago. As she watched the area gentrify, she became fascinated by the history of this one square block and started a quest to find out who had been there before her.

The result is a play she's performing at the Sons of Semele Solo Creation Festival, in Rampart Village, opening Thursday. Saint Vibiana Pray4Us is part of a larger work called Nuestra Señora de Los Angeles de la Porciuncula (Our Lady of the Angels of the Small Portion).

Full disclosure: Chaiken teaches a writers' workshop I went to. When she performed a first draft of the play, I was fascinated to hear about Vibiana and wanted to know more. That's how this story idea came into existence — and why we're all here reading now. Boom.

Here's what Chaiken had to say about L.A.'s patroness.

WHY WERE YOU MOVED TO WRITE A PLAY?

This is part of a larger piece about powerful and generous women who influenced the creation of our city. I'm not a historian. I'm an artist. In downtown — and all over the city — we're facing a crisis of people who have no homes. To whom do we turn? Who can we call on? What we need right now is to be like Vibiana and these other women, fearless and fierce in our fight for human dignity.

VIBIANA'S STORY

Vibiana's remains were found in 1853, in Italy, when workmen came across catacombs — Roman tunnels where Christians buried their dead — near the Appian Way. There was a tomb with a stone that read "to the soul of the innocent and pure Vibiana." On it was an image of a laurel wreath, which symbolized martyrdom. That meant she was a virgin who had died for her faith. Inside, they found a pink glass vial of what was presumably her blood and fully intact skeletal remains of a 16 or 17-year-old girl, who had clearly died a violent death. The pope immediately glorified her and made her a saint.
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WHEN VIBIANA MOVED TO L.A.

California had only just become a state... and the newly created archdiocese of Monterey needed a bishop to lead the Church. The pope appointed Spaniard Thaddeus Amat, who had been a parish priest in Philadelphia. Amat had been living a sophisticated city life in Philadelphia, and he was not interested in moving to what was then a desert. No opera, no theater. So the Pope enticed him by offering to give him the remains of the newly sainted Vibiana and the opportunity to build her a cathedral. Having the actual remains of a saint — and this was the full body of a saint — was important to a church, in terms of having a concrete anchor for devotion.

WOOED BY SANTA BARBARA

Amat agreed to go to California and sailed to Monterey from Rome with Saint Vibiana's remains. However, when Amat briefly stopped at Santa Barbara, he realized he'd rather be there. There were already resorts and rich people. It was the perfect place to build a cathedral. So he installed Saint Vibiana's remains in the Church of Our Lady of Sorrows in Santa Barbara, while he raised money for his cathedral. The church burned down a couple of years later, however, and the only thing left untouched was Saint Vibiana. It was deemed a miracle. So Amat brought her to Los Angeles and built the city's first cathedral, Saint Vibiana's, which opened in 1876.

HOW POPULAR WAS SHE?

She went on to have a devoted following, especially when there was a vital downtown, in the 1930s to 1950s, when you could get there via streetcar for a nickel. She had no story attached to her, she didn't save France or anything, but there she was, in that glass shrine over the altar. I think that's why she was so popular. Women felt she belonged to them, that they could talk to her.

A DIP IN DEVOTION

Her shrine was taken down in 1974 and her remains were put in a marble sarcophagus, on the south side of the sacristy. I think, out of sight was out of mind. Devotion decreased. Then the Northridge earthquake of 1994 badly damaged the cathedral. It was boarded up. The Church planned to tear it down, and build a new cathedral on the site. Developer Tom Gilmore and the L.A. Conservancy fought the Church and won, saving it.

WHERE IS SHE NOW?

The Church built their new cathedral on Temple, between Hill and Grand. It opened in 2002. It's no longer called Saint Vibiana's. It's now "Our Lady of the Angels." Vibiana's remains lie in that same marble box in the mausoleum there, which is underneath the new building.

DOES ANYONE VISIT HER?

The first time I went to visit her, I noticed that you could light a candle for $2. But no one had. The next time I went though, someone had lit two candles, and there was a pink orchid and rose petals strewn about. So someone still cares about her. I'd love to meet them.