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Church History: El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciúncula


The 16th and 17th Centuries

At "34 degrees 10 minutes" reckoning, it all began along the small and "beautiful river from the northwest" (so located and described by Fray Juan Crespi) to which they gave the name Nuestra Señora de los Angeles de la Porciúncula on Wednesday, August 2 in the year 1769. August 2nd was the day in the Franciscan calendar when the feast of the 'Perdono' at the famous tiny church at the foot of Assisi was celebrated. Years later, on 4 September in the year 1781, a new pueblo was established along the banks of this river. That little pueblo, which grew to the gigantic modern metropolis it is now, was given the name of the river. When the pueblo shared its name with the Archdiocese later on, the feast of Our Lady of the Angels was set for celebration on the birthday of the city, 4 September.

But why called 'Porciúncula' and why Our Lady of 'the Angels'? Early in his life about 1212, St. Francis of Assisi was given a small, ruined chapel by the Benedictines for his repair and eventual use near Assisi, where he later died. It was on a very small piece of property, a small portion(a 'porziuncola' in Italian). Later on, this place of worship became a center of pilgrimage, devotion and repentance. A fresco was painted on the wall behind the altar depicting the Blessed Virgin Mary surrounded by angels. Thus the chapel, which is now surrounded and sheltered by a monumental Papal Basilica, took the name: 'Saint Mary of the Angels at the Little Portion'. So Los Angeles received its name based on this ancient site. From a many-worded name in Spanish, through the shortened 'Los Angeles' in English, the name was further limited to just the letters 'LA' in Southern Californian, which is what so many of us know it by now.

The beginning of Catholicism in California dates from the explorations of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542 and Sebastian Vizcaino in 1602. These representatives of a Catholic power were accompanied by priests who celebrated Holy Mass on California shores over three centuries ago.

The story of El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora de los Angeles "from Hispanic colonial foundation to international center for learning, art and commerce" is as much a work of imagination as it is of history. It was the "Dreamers of God" who began it.

The "Catholic presence" in the area now comprising the City of Los Angeles actually pre-dates the city by a dozen years. The very name derives from the diary of Fray Juan Crespi, Franciscan, who introduced the feast of the Portiuncula into California's vocabulary. And it was a group of Catholics, most of them predominantly of African American origin, who effected the foundation of El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora de los Angeles, in the fall of 1781, named after the river.

Blessed Fray Junipero Serra

Fray Junipero Serra, Franciscan, the Presidente of the California Missions, first walked the dusty pathways of the pueblo the following year. Los Angeles continued for some years to be a Catholic enclave, with most of its inhabitants worshipping at the Old Plaza Church. Thousands of baptisms in the missions were recorded during the years after Serra, but the mission decline by 1834 resulted in lands and herds being expropriated by private parties and even churches sold or leased. However, on 17 January, 1837, a city resolution declared that "the Roman Catholic apostolic religion shall prevail throughout this jurisdiction."

Acting on a resolution from the Mexican Congress, Pope Gregory XVI established a hierarchy in California on 27 April, 1840, and elevated the Franciscan Friar, Francisco Garcia Diego y Moreno, as the first bishop of the Californias. Boundaries for the gigantic Diocese of both Californias were the Colorado River to the east, Oregon line north, Pacific Ocean in the west and all of Baja California to the south.

The First Diocese of California del Norte

The title was officially changed to Monterey in 1849. By 1853 Bishop Sadoc Alemany, Dominican, the second bishop for California, became the first Archbishop of San Francisco and peninsular California was separated from the Diocese of Monterey. The next title change in 1859 further separated the area; Bishop Thaddeus Amat, Vincentian, moved his episcopal seat to Los Angeles and added the city's name to the diocesan title. He built the present St. Vibiana Cathedral in 1876.

Although his successor, Bishop Francis Mora, petitioned the Holy See for a reduction of his jurisdiction, the division did not occur until many years later. During the tenures of Bishops George Montgomery and Thomas Conaty, the population of Los Angeles doubled and more than 100 churches, schools and hospitals were built.

But it was Bishop John J. Cantwell, who received permission in 1922 to divide the ...

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