Discovering the adventure of history can start with a simple question:

Who built the Catholic Church in California?

Franciscan friars with the California Indians first planted missions in a meandering line up the coast, from San Diego to Sonoma; Saint Junípero Serra traveled from mission to mission on foot, seeing to souls. 

After the Franciscans and missions came the bishops, traveling by mule between the isolated outposts of the Church, up and down the Pacific Coast. The faster the bishops traveled, the faster history seemed to move, as motor cars and motion pictures transformed Los Angeles and dealt its Church new challenges. 

And, of course, there are the men and women for whom the clergy labored, and who labored to build the Church in California.

A new book about the Archdiocese of Los Angeles recaptures the link between the Catholics of early California and those today. 

“Faith in the Southland,” published in September, covers the history of Catholicism in Southern California, from its beginnings in the Portola expeditions of 1769 and 1770 to the present day.

Along the way, readers encounter the bishops, clergy, religious, and laity who all collaborated to build the Church that contemporary Catholics have inherited — and who encountered similar challenges to those the Church faces today.

And to tell that story in a fresh way and for a new audience, “Faith in the Southland” has been issued as a graphic novel.

Book origins

“Faith in the Southland” came from a collaboration between a French publisher, Éditions du Signe, and a writing team of American sisters, Corinna and Maria Laughlin. 

Claude Costecalde, the publications director for Éditions du Signe, told Angelus News his company began publishing graphic novels to appeal to an audience that may have had little interest in sitting down to read a history of the Church.

Writing on the graphic novel began in 2016, with the Laughlins drawing on the work of Msgr. Francis J. Weber, the former archivist of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and a prolific author, whom they called “a living treasure of history.”

Maria said they wanted to tell a story that had enough substance to appeal to readers of any age, but also made sure to tell it so that elementary school students could enjoy it. The novel provides an arc of history of the archdiocese that can be read in 35 minutes.

Weber praised the project and told Angelus News that it would be helpful not only to youth in the archdiocese, but also could educate seminarians and visiting priests about local Church history.

Costecalde said that Éditions du Signe had published illustrated histories of dioceses for years, but found they were not reaching younger readers. To connect to a new audience, they adopted the graphic novel format, which has become increasingly popular in bookstores.

Graphic novels have a unique appeal through combining the narrative elements of a novel with a comic style. The format accounted for about 8 percent of all book sales in 2017, with teens and young adults making up the majority of buyers. 

Costecalde hopes this new book will reach that demographic. While “Faith in the Southland” is marketed to a general audience, he said reaching the youth of the Church was an important aspect of their work as publishers. 

“We think as publishers we are filling a gap, which is informing and giving them in an attractive way something they can remember and find themselves close to,” Costecalde said.

That mission becomes especially important today, he said. At a time when pop culture icons form children’s aspirations and behaviors, he said, the Church has a wealth of men and women who offer alternative role models to imitate and form their identity.

And in a society devoted to images — Instagrammed, Snapchatted, filtered and momentary — “our books have to be beautiful, so that we can present both the word of God and the history of the Church in a way that is conducive to reading.”

A group of about twenty-one altar boys and a priest pose in front of the large altar in the Cathedral of St. Vibiana, on Main Street in downtown Los Angeles, ca.1898-1901. (WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

While it might be an unusual format to teach about the Faith, using images to tell stories is an ancient tradition in the Church. Just as mosaics and stained-glass windows told the story of salvation inside churches, Costecalde said, graphic novels can convey the daily lives of those who built a local Church.

Through books like “Faith in the Southland,” said Costecalde, young people growing into their faith can see the Church at its heart has always been about “the people who built it, who had faith and sacrificed a lot for the Word.” 

That legacy of sacrifice and missionary work shapes the present, he said, and will shape the future, if the faith gets handed forward to the next generation of Catholics. To ensure that, he said, they need to be invested in and their needs attended to through new ways of reaching them, like “Faith in the Southland.”

Co-author Corinna told Angelus News that history is “a real tool for the ‘new evangelization.’ ” The novel works against the perception of Church history as something that has occurred mostly in Rome, she said, and brings it closer to home.

“We’re not generic Catholics,” she said. “The way we live our faith is really shaped by where we are. When you look at “Faith in the Southland,” you can really see where your Church came from.”

By learning about the past of the Catholic faith, she said, readers can see how important it is to live the faith “here and now.”

Writing a novel

The Laughlins have been working on graphic novel treatments of diocesan history for several years. Both work at the Cathedral of St. James in Seattle, Washington, and began by writing a graphic novel about their archdiocese’s history. Since then, they have worked with Éditions du Signe on histories of several other dioceses.

“Church history is just a real love of ours,” said Corinna. Too often, Church history can be reduced to popes and councils, she said, “but there’s so much that happens on a local level: that’s where the Church really happens.”

Working with a team of French illustrators, the Laughlins drafted their story and sent back and forth drafts and references for the French team.

The two approach the graphic novel format almost like writing a play, and include extensive descriptions and visual references to give the illustrators a starting point of what to imagine alongside the dialogue.

“It’s kind of like the writers are directors, and the artists are cinematographers,” Corinna said.

As an author, Corinna appreciated seeing the scenes they had written come to life through the art of the illustrators. Many of the scenes in the book had never been drawn before.

Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in downtown Los Angeles. (WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Value of history

In reading and writing the history of the archdiocese, Maria said she was reminded of the letter to the Hebrews, and the “great cloud of witnesses” that surround believers.

“It should really be encouraging to know that over decades, people have built the Church in Los Angeles; it didn’t just pop up. To know a few of those people by name, and remember their sacrifice, is really encouraging.” 

As they were writing it, they hoped every reader could recognize themselves somewhere in the story, and realize that “if they could do it, why not me?”

Several themes stood out to the authors as they wrote the novel. Corinna said the diversity of the Church in Los Angeles was a remarkable feature. Even from its beginnings, she said, the bishops had continually widened the embrace of the Church and protected its people from bigotry.

For Maria, the saga of building a new cathedral was another fascinating aspect to the history of the archdiocese. “It was something every single bishop dealt with, struggled with, tried to do.” They made an intentional effort to wind the desire for a new cathedral through the novel.

Costecalde said that by learning their own history, readers gain an immeasurable gift.

“The legacy left by history is a heritage. And those who belong to the Church, [that legacy] is theirs, to be taken because it shapes the present,” he said. “We would not have a present if we didn’t have a past.”

But history not only supports people in finding their identity, said Corinna. It also gives readers more perspective on the struggles and difficulties of the Church, and insight into how it has grown.

“Knowing that history gives you more faith and trust that the Holy Spirit will continue to guide the Church into the future.”

Nicholas Wolfram Smith writes from Oakland, California. 

“Faith in the Southland” is currently available for purchase at the Cathedral Gift Shop at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown LA.