Webster’s Dictionary calls a chapel a small house of worship, usually associated with a main church and built to accommodate an expanding parish. Cathedral Chapel is a perfect example of that definition.
The third bishop in California, Vincentian Thaddeus Amat (1854-1878), petitioned Pope Pius IX to transfer the seat of the diocese from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles, creating the new title of the Diocese of Monterey-Los Angeles. To establish a cathedral for the diocese, a site was purchased on Main Street between Fifth and Sixth; eventually, the cathedral named for St. Vibiana was built on Second Street in 1876.
The name for the cathedral also has historical significance. During an excavation of part of the catacombs near the Appian Way in Rome in 1853, a tomb was unearthed sealed with a tablet inscribed to “innocent and pure Vibiana.” The symbol of the laurel wreath identified the remains as a martyr. Pope Pius IX bestowed the relics to Bishop Amat with the stipulation that he build a cathedral in her honor. Thus Los Angeles became the official see of the diocese with the dedication of the Cathedral of St. Vibiana. The church seated 1,200 persons, at that time one-tenth of the city’s population.
The city’s rapid growth prompted Bishop Thomas Conaty in 1904 to seek permission to demolish St. Vibiana and erect a new cathedral in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Ninth Street (a site that became Immaculate Conception Church). A site also was considered at Vermont and Wilshire.
But an economic recession in 1907, the Depression and two World Wars scuttled those plans, despite the efforts of Bishop John Cantwell to build a new cathedral in the 1920s. An alternate plan as a temporary solution resulted in a pro-cathedral further west, on La Brea --- Cathedral Chapel.
A September 1927 Tidings article describes the “Pro-Cathedral Chapel” as meeting the needs of Catholics until the erection of an actual cathedral. Msgr. John Cawley, P.A., appointed rector, celebrated the first Masses for the new parish on Christmas Day 1927 and assisted at the parish until 1929. Born in County Sligo, Ireland, Msgr. Cawley served as vicar general of the diocese and for 29 years was the pastor of St. Vibiana Cathedral. He died in 1953 at age 71.
From 1929 to 1939, Msgr. Bernard Dolan, a native of County Roscommon, ministered the new parish and in 1930 opened the school, staffed by Immaculate Heart Sisters who fostered the educational care of the students until 1968. Like Msgr. Cawley, Msgr. Dolan was named a Prothonotary Apostolic (in 1954, during his 30 years as pastor of St. Anthony in Long Beach). He died in 1968 of a heart attack at age 78. At his funeral, Bishop Timothy Manning said, “Above all, he was a parish priest,” and Father Gerald Wilkerson called him “a modern Cure of Ars.”
Another Dolan (no relation) shepherded Cathedral Chapel for 33 years through World War II and the area’s growth. Msgr. James Dolan --- born in Coronado Beach and ordained in 1925 --- also directed the St. Vincent de Paul Society for 37 years, was associate director of the Catholic Welfare Bureau and served as a chaplain in the county jails. He died in 1974 at age 76.
Father Earl Walker, a native of Salt Lake City, served as pastor for 26 years (1972-98). As a boy, he graduated from Cathedral Chapel School, was ordained in 1948 and celebrated his first Mass at the parish he was later to lead. Father Walker retired in 1998 as pastor emeritus and died in 2010 at age 88.
A native Angeleno, Father Charles Schwehr, graduated from Loyola High School and was ordained from St. John’s Seminary in 1976. He served in several parishes before his appointment to Cathedral Chapel in 1998. Just nine years later he died from heart disease at age 59.
The current pastor, Father Truc Nguyen, is a native of Vietnam whose family was among the first Vietnamese refugees to come to the U.S. Before entering the priesthood, he was a project engineer and production manager. Ordained in 2000, he has served as director of the McIntyre Fund for Charity and on the archdiocesan tribunal.
Having administered the parish from 2007 until his appointment as pastor in 2010, Father Nguyen brings pastoral and academic skills to a parish community that, for 87 years, has witnessed numerous changes with strong faith and dedicated service.