This is another in an occasional series about places in L.A. This place is La Placita on Main Street.Nuestra Senora de los Angeles. The phrase lingers in the city like a postcard from a long-ago summer vacation. Our Lady of the Angels, running together glimpses of the Virgin of Guadalupe on the side of carnicerias and bottled water shops.
The old church across from the plaza close to where Los Angeles began in 1781 isn't a place of sacred stillness. The church is open throughout the day for all kinds of visitors, and the little nave will often fill unexpectedly with the faithful in their devotions. On Saturdays and Sundays particularly "? when crowds attending baptisms and weddings spill into the courtyard outside the north entrance "? the Church of Our Lady of the Angels* is a place of holy noise.
Mothers and fathers holding babies in stiff baptismal dresses line up alphabetically at the order of brisk ushers in blazers and name badges. (The pastor and his assistants, members of the Claretian Missionaries, baptize thousands of infants a year.)
Young women in white dresses like brides laugh and then grow serious as they wait to be called into the church to receive the blessing that comes with their fifteenth birthday. Real brides "? and grooms, bridesmaids, and groomsmen in relays "? smile and have their pictures taken with Virgin of Guadalupe as a backdrop.
While they wait in the sun, someone may hawk tickets to the parish raffle over a loudspeaker. There might be a small band. Over them all hangs the pungent smoke of a vendor outside the church door grilling tacos al carbon.
The little church off Olvera Street was dedicated in 1822. It was financed by the sale of brandy, constructed by Native Americans drafted from nearby missions for the hard labor, and roofed "? they say "? by a Yankee pirate named John Chapman**.
Inside the church, the light is subdued and watery through green glass windows. Something sacred is usually happening "? a baptism, a wedding, a mass. There is organ music and the rosary being prayed in Spanish. A couple is walking up the short, dark aisle toward the tall, bright, gilded reredo that frames the small altar.
In the shallow bay on the left is a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Pinned to a bulletin board might be dozens of wounded snapshots, each picture pleading for solace or some grace to endure. Lying in a glass case is a life-size sculpture of the crucified body of a very Castilian Jesus, its wood and plaster painted a naïve white over which the blue-green colors of death have begun applied.
There are older churches in southern California and churches more self-consciously historic. The Old Plaza Church wasn't a mission, like San Gabriel or San Fernando. It has been rebuilt and re-imagined so often that not much of it is original, except the part it plays in the life of the city.
It was Los Angeles' only church until the 1860s and its only Catholic church until 1876. Then the city's new Anglo ascendancy built the Cathedral of St. Vibiana in what was then a fashionable part of town, away from the Sonoratown barrio north of the plaza.
St. Vibiana's is gone, replaced by the cathedral complex on Grand Avenue designed by José Rafael Moneo.
The little church called La Placita still holds on to its congregation of immigrant families who celebrate the cycles of their lives in the one church that has always been theirs.
Tourists keep mostly to Olvera Street, where Latino L.A. has been made to seem less intensely real. Not many visitors make the short pilgrimage across Main Street to the Church of Our Lady of the Angels, where they would find downtown's past in its crowded, sacred, mestizo heart.
The Old Plaza Church is at 535 North Main Street in El Pueblo de Los Angeles State Historic Monument opposite Union Station. The church is open throughout the day. Parking is available in the lot north of the church.
*The church has been given several names. In using this title, I follow the convention recommended by Msgr. Francis J. Weber, archivist of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in The Old Plaza Church: A Documentary History (Libra Press, 1980)
**The role of John Chapman is questioned by some authors and noted by Msgr. Weber.