In Downtown Los Angeles, where the modern city was founded by 44 pobladores from Mexico, you’ll find the oldest church in Los Angeles.
La Placita: The Church of Our Lady Queen of the Angels
In 1814, the cornerstone of a church was placed just off the central square of the small pueblo that would become Los Angeles. It was the first — and for 92 years the only — Roman Catholic church in Los Angeles. And although it’s been rebuilt and remodeled numerous times over the past 200 years, The Church of Our Lady Queen of Angels — more popularly as La Placita and the Plaza Church — still stands adjacent to Plaza Olvera in downtown Los Angeles.
A Brief History of the Plaza Church
As we talked about in our story of the 44 Pobladores of Los Angeles, the pueblo with the unwieldy name of El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles was founded in 1781 under Spanish rule. By default, this meant that, despite King Carlos III’s declaration that it was a secular settlement, the fledgling city had strong Roman Catholic roots.
For the first few years, the pobladores traveled to the San Gabriel Mission, some nine miles away over difficult terrain, for religious enlightenment. It was a difficult journey for the age, and the Franciscan priests led by Father Junierpero Serra worried that parishioner participation would drop off.
So, to better support the spiritual needs of its citizens, in 1784 a group of Franciscan priests from the mission built the Nuestra Señora Reina de los Ángeles Asistencia, a small adobe building that operated as an extension of the mission. It not only offered religious services to the citizens of the pueblos, but also served as a source of food raised in the pueblo for the residents of the San Gabriel Mission.
As the years passed and Los Angeles grew, the adobe Asistencia started to fall apart. It was eventually declared unfit for use by a visiting Franciscan priest. In 1811, the citizens petitioned for another chapel to be built. Even back then, Los Angeles was mired in bureaucracy, and the request took a few years to process.
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Eventually, on August 15, 1814, the cornerstone of a new chapel called La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles was placed on the rubble of the former Asistencia.
But construction of the new church ran into some trouble. First, the man who was best suited to oversee work on the church left the mission. Then the Los Angeles River flooded the plaza in 1815 and the work completely abandoned. After this flooding, the whole plaza was moved to higher ground (to its present-day location). Construction of the church resumed in 1818, albeit very slowly, primarily due to lack of funding.
The priests from the San Gabriel Mission appealed to the entire California mission system for donations. This proved to be successful, and construction of La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles (la Reina was added to the name later on) was finally completed in 1822. The new structure was officially dedicated on December 8, 1822 (although it did not become a full parish until 1826).
Trials and Tribulations
Over the years, the small Plaza Church suffered more than its share of indignities. In 1859, a series of heavy rains damaged the church. This caused the roof to spring leaks, and the entire front of the church collapsed into the street. The church was completely rebuilt in 1861using most of the timbers and original materials, but the front was constructed of brick and the classic red tile roof was replaced with shingles.
The chapel was completely rebuilt and enlarged in 1912. The original chapel is still intact, but now a larger church, holding up to 1,000 parishioners, stands next to the classic chapel. The whole complex, including a number of other buildings, was designed in the style of a Franciscan mission with some Moorish influences. This turn-of-the-century construction is what visitors to La Placita experience today.
The Only Game in Town
For 50 years, La Placita was the only Roman Catholic church in Los Angeles. But in 1876, St. Vibiana’s was built (half a mile away, where Redbird is today), and most of the city’s English-speaking Catholics began worshiping there. But the Plaza Church remained the haven of the Spanish-speaking Catholics.
Today, La Placita is still the oldest Roman Catholic Church in Los Angeles. It remains an active church, offering services to a primarily Latino congregation — many of them immigrants from Mexico and other Central American countries. La Placita also provides social services and a place of refuge for for immigrants and asylum-seekers.
The Bell Wall
When the church was rebuilt in 1822, it featured a classic campanario (bell wall). The bells rang every morning at six a.m. and again at eight p.m., helping to regulate the town’s daily activities. The first trio of bells was provided by the San Gabriel Mission, but they weren’t a gift. In 1843, after years of non-payment, the town received an overdue notice from the Mission asking for seventy head of “fat cattle.” It’s unclear if this bill was ever paid.
But when the church was rebuilt in 1861, the wall was replaced with a pergola, as seen in the photo from 1868 above. However, the campanario was restored in 1915 after the most recent redesign.
The Lost Frescoes of the Plaza Church’s Facade
The front facade of La Placita (facing Main Street) used to display a pair of frescoes depicting angels and an image of a woman (presumably the titular “Our Lady”) holding the baby Jesus. These were the work of French artist Henri Joseph Penelon (also rumored to be the first person to take the first photo of Los Angeles). Penelon’s frescoes were painted over in the 1912 remodeling — you can just make them out between the top windows in the image above — and completely plastered over sometime in the 1950s.
Today, those original frescoes have been covered over by a new mosaic, placed in 1981. This recent addition was created by noted ecclesiastical artist Isabel Piczek using tessarae from the Italian town of Pietrasanta.
Piczek’s mosaic depicts the Annunciation — that moment when the Arcangel Gabriel visited the virgin Mary in Nazareth to ask her to be the mother of the savior.
This work is based on a painting from 1393 by Ilario da Viterbo that’s display at the Our Lady of the Angels in the Porciúncula Chapel at Assisi, Italy. Assisi is the hometown of Francis of Assisi (naturally), founder of the Franciscan order.
This is significant to Los Angeles because Father Juan Crespí, the Franciscan monk who traveled to Alta California with the Portolá Expedition in 1769, named the Los Angeles River El Rio de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciuncula in honor of Saint Francis. This naming also established what the town would eventually be named, and, by association, La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles.
There are many plaques attached to the front of La Placita. Some of them are historical, but most of them are of a religious nature. But there’s one that tells the story of El Camino Real — the King’s Road — placed on a wall behind the familiar bell that marks the historical route traveled by the Portolá Expedition in 1769.
La Placita, the Church of Our Lady Queen of the Angels, is both a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument (No. 3; August 6, 1962) and a California Historical Landmark (No. 144, June 6, 1934) as Nuestra Señora Reina de Los Angeles.
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La Placita: La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles
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