Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels || Photo by Sandi Hemmerlein
How many times has someone told you about their family or friends coming into town to visit – and then asked where to take them? As if there were nothing to do in LA! In response, I say, “Take them to church.” And then I have to explain when they look at me funny.
Now, I don’t mean that they should turn the visit into a weekend of penance and religious ritual, because you don’t even have to attend any mass or other services to experience the delights of so many of LA’s great churches. Whether you consider yourselves architecture buffs, music lovers, crypt crawlers, historians, or wayward souls – or some combination thereof – there’s something to delight (if not enlighten) you at these six LA area houses of worship.
Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Downtown
Back in 1999, the LA cardinal of the Catholic Church wanted to build a new, large-capacity cathedral that would be uniquely Californian and unlike the cathedrals of the “Old World.” The resulting cathedral-as-skyscraper rises 11 stories high, looming above the Hollywood Freeway. Spanish architect Jose Rafael Moneo's design is of a modern, adobe-colored, poured concrete structure with mission bells and enormous bronze doors depicting our city's namesake on the outside. If you take one of their free architecture tours on a sunny day, you’ll want to look up at the huge architectural cross, whose thinly-sliced alabaster windows allow a glow of natural light into the cathedral. You’ll also see the cathedral’s altar – a six-ton slab of red Turkish marble – flanked by the pipes of an 85-foot cherry wood organ. Stick around for the free Wednesday organ recitals around lunchtime.
If you dare venture downstairs into the crypt, there’s the final resting place of actor Gregory Peck and the relics of Saint Vibiana. It’s worth it to see the stained glass that had been rescued from the old Cathedral of Saint Vibiana and restored by LA’s own Judson Studios.
Can you believe that at one time, one of LA's most famous and popular residents was an evangelist? Sister Aimee Semple McPherson founded the Foursquare Church and commissioned its home – the Angelus Temple – to be built as a kind of theater for her illustrated sermons, which were huge productions replete with props, actors, and sound effects. Sister Aimee composed operas and recounted anecdotal stories from her own life to convey her message – and, boy, what a life! Next door, a museum devoted to her life and ministry is housed in her former residence, where you can learn about the infamous kidnappings and disappearances that were true tabloid fodder for the time, especially when it involved a female pastor who could draw crowds bigger than PT Barnum or Harry Houdini. Take the tour to view the church and the basement archive of artifacts from her day, including newspaper clippings, antique theater seats, and musical instruments.
If you want the “full” experience, Angelus Temple currently hosts services by The Church of the Dream Center on Thursday nights and Sunday mornings.
First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, Wilshire Center
This Gothic cathedral at the corner of Sixth and Commonwealth is actually the FCC's fifth home, completed in 1932. Originally founded in 1867, it’s LA's oldest Protestant congregation and was started by the pilgrim fathers. This current (and perhaps final?) location, constructed from concrete reinforced with over 500 tons of steel bars, looks like the kind of church the pilgrims ran away from. The FCCLA also gives free architectural tours after Sunday mass, which is your chance to see the bronze doors and oak carvings up close, as well as get a peek inside the Shatto Chapel next door – which is reportedly the same dimensions as the Mayflower ship and features the church's oldest stained glass window. Once a year, you can “crawl” through the church’s enormous pipe organ. One of the world’s largest, it’s not just one organ, but several – some of which can be played together in a synchronized, ear-blasting duel, controlled by various consoles placed in the Nave, Chancel, and North and South Transept Galleries.
Although you can also find pipe organs in concert halls and even private homes around LA, this instrument was designed and built for church performances. You can attend a brief organ concert right before the Sunday worship services – and be blasted by the deafening tones being pumped out of more than 20,000 pipes – or just get married there. They’re even friendly to same-sex weddings.
Wee Kirk O' the Heather, Glendale
The Wee Kirk O' the Heather is just one of the attractions (or amusements) at Glendale’s Forest Lawn Memorial Park, which is also famous for its "Last Supper" stained glass and its display of the largest religious painting in the world. After all, everything at Forest Lawn is there to distract you from facing your own mortality. Not to be confused with the Vegas wedding chapel, this little church is also famous for weddings and its "wishing chair" for "bridal kisses." The church was designed as an exact replica of an actual church in Scotland, including stained glass windows that tell the story of the love affair of Anne Laurie and William Douglas of Finland, which was immortalized in the "historical romance" The Scottish Cavalier. If there's no wedding (or funeral) happening and the doors are unlocked, you can take a peek inside. If it’s locked, meander down the vestry walk and head on over to the Church of the Recessional, a replica of the Parish Church of St. Margaret, the childhood church of The Jungle Book author Rudyard Kipling in Rottingdean, England.
Wayfarers Chapel, Rancho Palos Verdes
If you happen to be anywhere in the South Bay on a Sunday morning, I can’t think of a reason why you shouldn’t swing by the Wayfarers Chapel. Architect Lloyd Wright’s “glass church” is located dangerously on top of an infamous landslide area, but for now, you can still wander outside through a grove of redwood trees or sit inside to take in the view through enormous glass windows. You’re welcome to visit even if you don’t celebrate the religion of Swedenborgianism because the church was built as a kind of rest stop for wanderers to meditate and experience nature. Walk the gardens and be sure to stop into the visitor’s center and gift shop. It’s all open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., although you might find yourself stumbling into a wedding ceremony, as it’s a popular locale for those who want to get married by the beach.
Our Savior Parish & USC Caruso Catholic Center, Los Angeles
If you have any interest in stained glass, this church is a must-see – mostly because you just don’t find art glass projects of this scale much anymore, especially not in houses of worship. But this isn’t just any Catholic church: It was endowed by Rick Caruso, the local real estate developer behind The Grove and The Americana at Brand. Considering the restoration experience of The Judson Studios, this was a huge new leaded glass project for the historic studio to design, fabricate, and install. Most of the windows depict the Beatitudes from Jesus' “Sermon on the Mount,” the blessings that promise that earthly suffering will be rewarded – “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth,” and so on. But you don’t have to be able to recite the Gospel of Matthew to be able to appreciate the enormity of these works of art. You can stop in anytime during the day or attend mass that occurs daily at 5:30 p.m. and Sunday at 10:30 a.m., 5:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.