St. Vibiana is a third-century martyr; her relics traveled through Italy, France, New York and Panama before ultimately coming home to L.A.’s Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.
The start of September is a special few days for Los Angeles. Sept. 4, 1781 marks the day El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles, orthe Spanish pueblo that would later become L.A., was founded. And Sept. 1 is the feast day of St. Vibiana. Who? Why, only the patron saint of Los Angeles, that’s who! St. Vibiana was a virgin who was martyred in the third century; but what’s a nice girl like her doing in a town like this?
First, we need to clear up who Vibiana isn’t. In the Roman Catholic Church’s list of saints, many saints share names. There are several dozen saints named John and nearly as many Francises. So, just as there’s Vibiana, third-century martyr and patron of Los Angeles, there’s also St. Bibiana, a fourth-century virgin martyr who’s often confusingly referred to as Viviana and Vibiana. Bibiana’s a bigger star than our Vibiana, with a Bernini-designed church in Rome and patronage over mental illness, torture victims, as well as various head traumas — headaches, epilepsy, hangovers. Meanwhile, Vibiana is patron of Los Angeles, and that’s about it. But hey, Hollywood has always had room in its heart for actors and musicians with cult followings — in the non-spiritual sense — so why shouldn’t our patron saint be a bit more obscure?
But enough about St. Bibiana, what about our St. Vibiana?
Although she was a third-century martyr, Vibiana wasn’t discovered until 1853. Vibiana’s burial vault was found during an archeological expedition in Rome’s San Sisto catacombs sponsored by Pope Pius IX. Typically, when the remains of early Christian martyrs were discovered in catacombs, they were just anonymous skeletons marked by laurels or the letter M for martyr. Vibiana, on the other hand, instantly stood out. Not only did she have a tomb, but it was marked by a marble tablet on which a Latin inscription gave her name explaining that she was “innocent and pure,” and died on the “day before the kalends of September,” i.e. August 31. The inscription ended with a laurel emblem, suggesting she was a martyr. Inside the tomb was Vibiana’s body and vessels of blood. It was common for early Christians to preserve the blood of martyrs. The laurel emblem and the reference to her virginity provided enough evidence to point to Vibiana’s status as a martyr. It wasn’t long before Pope Pius IX canonized her and made Sept. 1 her feast day, a day on which she’d be honored.
Around the time Vibiana was discovered, Bishop Thaddeus Amat was in Rome. The Spanish-born Amat was the Bishop of Monterey, California, with the Diocese of Monterey stretching from Monterey to the Mexican border. However, Amat recognized that Monterey’s population was stagnate while Los Angeles’ was growing, so he traveled to Rome to petition the Pope to move the Diocese’s seat to Los Angeles, leading to the creation of the Diocese of Monterey-Los Angeles. After this decision was made, Amat was entrusted with taking the newly discovered saint’s relics to California and building a cathedral to honor her. According to some versions of events, Amat had a recurring childhood dream of being a priest who built a grand cathedral for a saint.
It took a little time for Vibiana to make her way to L.A. though. Amat and Vibiana sailed from France to New York, then down to Panama and finally up to San Francisco, with the intent of sailing to Los Angeles. However, a storm stranded them in Santa Barbara. As plans were still being finalized for the building of the Los Angeles cathedral, Amat installed Vibiana’s relics at Santa Barbara’s Church of Our Lady of Sorrows.
In 1859, land for the cathedral in Los Angeles was finally donated, but Vibiana remained in Santa Barbara. A few years later, a fire destroyed Our Lady of Sorrows, but miraculously Vibiana’s relics survived the fire. Perhaps recognizing this as a sign, Amata finally brought Vibiana down to Los Angeles and installed her in the old Parish Church, until the Cathedral of St. Vibiana finally opened in 1876. Bishop Amat died two years later.
At her namesake cathedral, Vibiana took center stage. Her relics were placed in a wax effigy of a teenage girl inside a glass casket placed above the altar. This was definitely the high point of Vibiana’s stardom, as anyone who went to worship at the cathedral would gaze up at her while praying. However, Vibiana’s notability started to fade in the 1970s when a cathedral renovation led to the wax effigy of the saint being replaced by a simple stone coffin. In 1994, the Cathedral of St. Vibiana was badly damaged in the Northridge Earthquake, leading to a lengthy legal fight over the cathedral’s fate after the archdiocese planned to demolish the building.
Ultimately, the cathedral was saved and the archdiocese built the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles. St. Vibiana’s remains were transferred from the deconsecrated cathedral to the new house of worship and placed in the mausoleum. The old Cathedral of St. Vibiana was transformed into an event space simply known as Vibiana. When they purchased the property, Vibiana owners Tom Gilmore and Jerri Perrone made an agreement with the archdiocese not to use “Cathedral” in the venues name, but they decided to keep the name Vibiana for sentimental reasons.
Although Vibiana enjoyed a place of prominence in the old cathedral, at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, she’s unfortunately easy to miss. Rather than being on the ground floor, Vibiana’s relics are housed in a white marble and gold casket in a small chapel in the underground mausoleum. If you don’t go down to the mausoleum, you wouldn’t know there’s a saint on the premises. While Vibiana’s relics reside in the cathedral crypt, her legacy continues elsewhere in Los Angeles. Near the intersection of La Brea Avenue and Olympic Boulevard sits the Cathedral Chapel of St. Vibiana.
By the 1920s, the city of Los Angeles had expanded further west from where it was when the Cathedral of St. Vibiana was built in 1876. In light of the expansion, the archdiocese decided to build a co-cathedral (a secondary cathedral within a diocese) in the Mid-Wilshire neighborhood. Initially built in 1927 as a pro-cathedral, a temporary church to mark where a cathedral will be built, the double whammy of the Great Depression and World War II stalled and eventually scrapped the plan to build the secondary cathedral, leaving the Cathedral Chapel as a permanent structure and parish. The Cathedral Chapel has never housed its namesake saint, but does have relics of St. Pius I and St. Candidus.
While none of L.A.’s Catholic churches have announced major plans for Sept. 1, the Cathedral Chapel of St. Vibiana offer worshipers prayer cards featuring L.A.’s little known patron saint.