Wherein Fr. Z relates a brutal tale of sudden realization and horror

once upon a timein S. California, in the exotic periphery of Bakersfield, a priest friend zoomed up to the door of where I was staying and gruffly said, “Get in the car!”.

“Ralph!”, quoth I, “Is something wrong?”

“Just get in the car!”, he grumped.

I was used to this, since he occasionally did this sort of thing and in this sort of way. I, compliant, grabbed what I knew I might need for a longish Adventure With Ralph and, obediently, got into the car.

Off we went.  I tried to wheedle our destination and mission from him, but he was stoic.

Soon we pulled into the driveway of the Kern County Juvenile Detention Center.

“So someone is in trouble after all,” I thought in my innocence.

Little did I realize that my innocence was about to be deluded.

“Get out of the car,” he growled, as his own door swung open.  I, dutiful, obeyed.

“Take a good look,” he snarled.  I, docile, looked.

I intently studied the Kern County Juvenile Detention Center.

“Get in the car!”, he barked.

“Ralph!”, quoth I, “What…?”

“Just get in the car!”, he grumped.

Off we went, down the drive, through side streets, on to southbound I-5 towards the Grapevine and smoggy Los Angeles beyond.

It’s not a short drive to LA so I had ample time to contemplate my recent visual experience of the architectural splendors of the Kern County Juvenile Detention Center.

Ralph, as his name suggests, was a pretty good conversationalist, God rest his soul.  So we chatted about many things, except where we were going and why we were going there.

Over the Grapevine and down into the hot sprawl of that ghastly city we drove, reaching the city center.  Having wound through various streets Ralph plunged the car down into an underground lot.

Mere minutes later we were escalated back into the heat and sunshine onto a largish open paved square.  Turning, I beheld it for the first time in my life.

The sight took the breath from my lungs.  It was, quite simply, one of the ugliest buildings I have ever seen.

The RogMahal.  The TajMahony.  The Yellow Armadillo.  The Cathedral of Los Angeles, Our Lady of the Angels.

“What do you see?”, Ralph rumbled.

It was obvious. Inescapable.

“The Kern County Juvenile Detention Center.”


I write this today, for the record, because I saw at the site Gloria Romanorum some photos of the LA Cathedral in all its brutality.  My experience flooded back.

Just so that you know what I am talking about….

The Kern County Juvenile Detention Center

kern country juvenile detention center

The LA Cathedral.


Ralph, mischievous, then brought me to gaze upon the horrors of the LA Opera House.

By now, you are wondering if he had a heart at all.

Subsequent to my brutally eye-opening treatment, we visited the LA County Museum, took a look at the Union Station, visited a couple of charming old churches, and then had supper at a place he knew would serve me my first authentic taste of mole.  Thus, the blows to my soul were salved.

But never will I forget my first glimpse of, quite simply, one of the ugliest buildings I have ever seen.  It will forever be fused in my mind with growling Ralph and The Kern County Juvenile Detention Center.

They returned home tired but happy the end


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. cwillia1 says:

    I prefer the Juvenile Detention Center.

  2. Fenian5 says:

    Wow, just wow…I had heard how ugly that cathedral was but never had taken the time to see it. Interior pictures are just as grotesque. All that for a cool quarter of a billion dollars and folks wonder why giving continues to decline (besides the mass exodus of the “nones”). My parish is in the process of raising $2MM some of which will go to renovating the interior of our church. For all that money we still won’t have our Lord in the tabernacle in the church but at least we’ll finally get a crucifix over the alter instead of a felt banner…

    Some day we’ll learn we can’t out protestant the protestants with whacky designs , rock bands, and everyone goes to heaven theology. They will always out do us when it comes to this silliness. Bring the Eucharist back into the churches and have the courage to teach the true faith. Some have started, more need to follow.

  3. Absit invidia says:

    At least inside The Kern County Juvenile Detention Center people are taking a more sincere and brutally honest hard look inside themselves with greater opportunities for discovering the meaning and purpose of life. The cathedral? … all backslaps, phony grins, and instillin a false sense of spiritual security.

  4. L. says:

    The cathedral might be admirable for the reason that the exterior reflects the ugliness of the liturgies conducted inside- it’s honest.

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  6. JustaSinner says:

    Where have all the Church Architects gone? Not the ones that were trained designing Government Temples, but the ones that designed the Mont Saint-Michel, or the Basilica of St. Peter. Heck, how about the guy that design the Basilica of St. Xavier down the road from me in Dyersville, Iowa? Oh, that’s right, they’re a reflection of those that hire them. Bishop and Cardinals of the Don’t-Offend-Anyones-Sensibilities. My how Jesus must weep at all of his bland and banal houses.

  7. Clinton R. says:

    Yes, that is unfortunately our Cathredal, in it’s brutalist, minimalist and frankly un Catholic glory. I have been there several times, and there is absolutely no sense of awe and wonder that one should feel upon entering a Catholic cathredal. Father, there is no doubt your eyes were traumatized by the site of it. I hope you did get to see the Our Lady Queen of the Angels church, “the Placita” at Olvera St.

  8. Uxixu says:

    This is where the trad bubble is illustrated. Look at the Yelp reviews, for example, and unfortunately all too positive by those who don’t know better. I weep that the 1945 design of the late great Abp. Cantwell of happy memory wasn’t pursued….

    I’ll admit my first visit, I was quite disturbed… On the second could find it quite serviceable with a massive renovation. I do recall Milan Duomo was also a lumpy block before the facade and spires were added in the 19th century.

    Similarly, add a Gothic facade and some flying buttresses, punch the traditional triple portals in it, add a couple hundred statues of angels on it, ideally in tiers or “choirs” for the subtle catechesis on Catholic traditions WRT angels (great opportunity to have the Annunciation in the ‘choir’ of the Archangels, for ex)… on the inside, reorient the inside and put the sanctuary on the other “high” end where the baptistry currently is, add a big baldachin and nice high altar under it with a rail and some traditional statues, etc and it could be quite serviceable. Bundle the renovation on condition to a large donation to the Archdiocese and who knows.. maybe persuade the Archbishop of Los Angeles into celebrating a Pontifical Mass at the Throne…

  9. Kathleen10 says:

    That is something too incredible to believe.
    You. Docile.

  10. Clinton says:

    The story surrounding the abandonment of the old LA cathedral, St. Vibiana’s, is every
    bit as ugly as the new cathedral. St. Vibiana’s was built over 100 years ago, and was a
    very lovely and well-beloved church. However, in the early 90’s, LA had an earthquake
    and St. Vibiana’s was affected. The archdiocese declared St. Vibiana’s to be irreparably
    damaged and unsafe to use and announced that a new cathedral would be built.
    Demolition began on the old cathedral even before permits had been drawn up and
    over the protests of parishioners, and only halted when the city and the LA Historical
    Preservation Society waded into the fray. The archdiocese eventually got its way by
    unloading St. Vibiana’s onto the city of Los Angeles for a little over $4 million– a
    fraction of the value of the property.

    The city spent just $8 million to renovate and upgrade the now former cathedral–
    the same building the archdiocese had declared irreparably damaged and unsafe–
    and reopened it as an events space called “Vibiana”. It’s now the site of protestant,
    civil, and same-sex weddings, Grammy after-parties, and the taping of at least four
    episodes of American Idol…

    The archdiocese jettisoned a beautiful, historic property when it could have easily
    repaired it, opting instead to spend an estimated $190 million on a vanity project
    hated and derided by most Los Angeles Catholics (but I suspect no one in that
    chancery cares much what the pew meat thinks). The city paid peanuts for an events
    space that looks like a cathedral, and the archdiocese spent a fortune on a cathedral
    that looks like an ugly municipal building.

  11. Jana Parma says:

    On our honeymoon, my husband and I drove down the coast of California visiting all the missions from San Francisco to LA. First stop was San Juan Baptista where we were just in time for Latin Mass. Next we visited Carmel but we got there so late we could only visit the chapel during Mass. We were told about a Hermitage just a few miles south so we visited that modern bit of architecture. I was certainly shocked by it. We went to Mass and found the first half of the Mass was said in a side room. For the second half we moved to a circular room with the altar in the center down low. We all stood on the perimeter, then at reception of communion we made our way to the altar. It’s a strange place. The New Camaldoli Hermitage. We then made our way to Hearst Castle and marveled at the art and architecture wishing some of our churches looked so grand. After visiting Mission Santa Barbara, also very beautiful, we ended at Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in LA. After looking at the drawings of what the cathedral used to look like I have to say it is very sad to see such beauty gone all in the name of earthquake retrofitting. The exterior grounds have a celestial map in the concrete and the statue of Our Lady looks androgynous. Inside the big concrete box of the building is so much plainness and empty space. I yearned for the simple elegance of the old missions we had visited the whole week before. This place seemed so impersonal and intimidating, shouting out how modern and progressive it was. I cannot imagine how much was spent on that building, too much in my mind.

  12. KateD says:

    lol…Did you go inside? Please tell me you went inside….

    You can play, “Where in the world is the Tabernacle?”

    Good luck!

    We failed to locate it on our own, but found a being willing to show us where it had been hidden….

    It would have saved me the long invective laden diatribe that followed had we not been shown that monstrosity! The pod was not opened when we viewed it.

    All kidding aside, I cannot express the depth of sorrow that my soul was plunged into at the sight of the ghastly metal coffin which entombed Our Lord’s Precious Body.

    It would be good to melt it down and have it recast as something more worthy of holding the Eucharist.

  13. Sieber says:

    I attended a meeting at our local parish conducted by the then rector of the cathedral then under construction. He told us that there would be a cross, not a crucifix installed at the main altar. In explanation he said that a nine foot figure of a crucified man could disturb adults and terrify young children. Rome spoke…..there is now a crucifix.

  14. Chris Garton-Zavesky says:

    I had occasion recently to visit the Cathedral of Christ the Light, in Oakland. Doesn’t look like the University campus near where I grew up (Buffalo, New York), but on the outside looks more like an addition to the Louvre, and on the inside is …….. I’m trying to think of the right adjective to describe my response to being there. Breathtaking comes to mind, but not in a good way.

  15. SanSan says:


  16. majuscule says:

    Father, the style (but not the tone) of your “Once Upon a Time” reminds me of the Peregrinus Gasolinus stories by Fr. Michael Chapman.

    However, the tone was certainly appropriate!

  17. Jana Parma says:

    I had a chance to sing in that cathedral. I honestly thought it was a water tower when I first saw it. Inside is supposed to be reminiscent of being inside the ark. Sort of football shaped with large wooden louvers all the way up the wall. The image of Christ on the far wall is unusual in its medium. I’ve never really thought of using pin hole imagery but they sure did. I think it’s a prettier church than Our Lady of the Angels but I also think it’s not really church architecture.

  18. DeGaulle says:

    Note the angles of the roof. In contrast to even the Detention Centre, they point downwards, rather than upwards towards God. A human-directed phenomenon.

  19. hilltop says:

    Mahoney’s “TAJ” has shown him to be a man of sheer WILL unimproved by exercise of INTELLECT.
    The cardinal’s approach to matters architectural and liturgical is consistent: Step aside, I’ll do what I damned well please. Though not an admirable approach, it would be acceptable if he knew what he was doing, and if what he was doing was GOOD. Architecturally, Mahoney is no Abbot Suger, and liturgically, well, ’nuff said.

  20. Sandy says:

    There was quite an uproar in So. Cal when this monstrosity was unveiled, at least among those who care about tradition, holiness, etc., etc. Sorry your eyes had to be subjected to this horror, Father. I remember reading about a professor at Notre Dame, I believe, who was teaching students to design traditional, heavenly churches. Was it Duncan something? We need those architects now!

  21. PA mom says:

    It’s a cathedral in camouflage!

  22. Semper Gumby says:

    Great short story. “Escalated”, and from a post several days ago: “ensorceled”, those words are keepers.

    “Peregrinus gasolinus”- thanks majascule for the reminder about those stories.

  23. Spade says:

    What…amuses?…me most is that that…thing cost $250m.

    My diocese, Arlington, under Bishop Loverde and now under Bishop Burbidge, is currently spending $70m. And for that we’re getting 6 churches (and all of them LOOK like churches. One parish is indeed tearing down their “in the round” church to build a new traditional looking one).

    (It’s $164m total, but a chunk is going towards a new high school).

    The budgeted cost for the freakin’ Altar in LA is more than one of the new churches we’re building. And another (St. Jude’s, which will be amazing and has a great priest) costs just a bit more.

  24. roseannesullivan says:

    A few comments have asked where are the Catholic architects who value beauty and sacred tradition? You should read, The Church Building as a Sacred Place: Beauty, Transcendence, and the Eternal, by architect Duncan G. Stroik. I’m reviewing it for Homiletic and Pastoral Review and comparing what Stroik teaches with the sad fate of a pretty little Holy Cross Church in my neighborhood.

    Holy Cross was still charming when I started going there for a while in the early 2000s; it was the only one I knew of in San Jose that had resisted the total remuddling under the direction of the diocesan liturgy commission (known colloquially as the liturgy Nazis). The pews still all faced front, the stained glass windows were lovely, and there were still a few nice statues, a choir loft, and an organ. The church had been built over 110 years ago and had a half dome over the altar. It had been constructed as a mission to the Italians who populated the neighborhood, so it also originally had a reduced-size copy of the Pieta, sculptured Stations of the Cross, marble altar rails, and a gorgeous hand carved polychromed and gilded crucifix all from Italy. But then the church environment had been assailed in the 60s, when in a partial redesign, the richly decorated walls were painted beige, the crucifix was thrown out, along with the high altar, the ornate tabernacle, Pieta, the stations of the cross, and the altar rails.

    Happily the custodian rescued and kept the pieces of crucifix in her garage. The pieces came back to the possession of the church at the custodian’s death and were treasured and reassembled by a brother who taught catechism classes at the parish and deplored the artistic waste. For the parish’s anniversary, the crucifix was restored, repainted, and regilded.

    But when the crucifix was replaced in the altered sanctuary, the bad taste of the renovations stood out in rank contrast. The liturgy nazis wouldn’t allow the crucifix to be rehung and the tabernacle returned to the center of the church unless the parish was willing to remove its statues, so the crucifix was put up on a tippy-looking wooden stand in the middle of where the high altar used to be, flanked matter of factly by two small plain wooden tables and presiders’ chairs.

    The restoration of the crucifix ten years ago made the San Jose diocesan paper, but the crucifix made the national news a few years ago now, after the church burned down one Sunday right after Mass — and the crucifix survived. The firemen were amazed the next day to find among the debris, the crucifix was still standing and only slightly damaged, even though it was draped by pieces of canvas that had burned and fallen down on it from a painting in the dome. The firemen said that although the roof was gone, the walls were still solid. I was hopeful that the charm of the church would be kept and maybe that the bad remodeling corrected, but the diocese decided the church should be torn down and replaced.

    When I found the plans for the new building on the parish website, I wanted to cry. The interior of the church looks like a Protestant meeting hall, in all its stark, rectangular plainness. The altar is a nondescript wooden table in front of a flat back wall with rectangular shapes that may turn out to be modernist glass blocks. The only beautiful thing left in the church will crucifix, which will be touched up again and hung from the ceiling, where I am afraid it will look wanly out of place.

  25. trespinos says:

    Father Z tells a fine tale and the gist of all criticism regarding the Cathedral’s exterior is accurate, I do not doubt it. The androgynous virgin at the entrance should be the first thing to go, it is true. But no one has mentioned one positive part of the interior, so I will. John Nava’s tapestries are impressive, even moving. They are worth viewing in person, worth a meditative visit.

  26. Greg the Geologist says:

    Guess which one paid more for the architect?

    I do feel sorry for Archbishop Gomez, by all local accounts a good man, although unwilling or not strong enough to keep the loonies in check. Not only is he saddled with the Yellow Armadillo (AKA, the box the Kodak Center came in), the archbishop of the largest diocese in the U.S. has been passed over for cardinal. Again.

  27. Fallibilissimo says:

    Fr Z, this was brilliant! “And they returned home tired and happy” I loled pretty hard!!!

    You gotta write a book of short stories for us, I’d buy it and read it in a flash;)

  28. Mike says:

    Terrible is this place!

  29. Filipino Catholic says:

    Uuuugh the injustice done to Saint Vibiana, the insult to her in what was done to the cathedral that had her for its patron. The worst part is that appallingly bad design is by no means a Westerners-only problem. There exists in these seven thousand islands the Chapel of San Pedro Calungsod, which has its main entrance directly flanking what is allegedly the eighth largest mall in the world. My goodness it is a horrendous exemplar of modern sacred architecture, its exterior resembling an array of stone slabs rising from the ground like gravestones of giants. The interior is… for want of a better word it’s best to say it could use some sprucing up.

    In contrast, the Archdiocesan Shrine of San Pedro Calungsod (which is located inside the compound of the Archbishop’s residence) is modern sacred architecture done in a more traditional manner — what the outside lacks in eye-grabbing, the inside more than makes up for. Stained glass, statuery, etc., almost the whole nine yards. The choir loft is actually used by the choir instead of being storage space. Even better, the tabernacle is right behind the altar where it should be, and there is even a communion rail. It’s actually used. (For reference, only old Spanish-era churches here tend to still have communion rails.)

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