Times Past

Mission San Luis Obispo restores St. Vibiana portrait

Nageh Bichay cleans the St. Vibiana portrait. The portrait is on display at Mission San Luis Obispo.
Nageh Bichay cleans the St. Vibiana portrait. The portrait is on display at Mission San Luis Obispo. Courtesy photo

It was an event that Federico Fellini might have memorialized in film. The remains of a young woman of about 16 were found in Rome’s ancient catacombs in 1853. A marble inscription on her tomb read, “to the soul of the innocent and pure Vibiana.” A laurel wreath that early Christians used to symbolize martyrdom was chiseled above her name.

The discovery in a vineyard near the Appian Way on the outskirts of Rome excited the city. The new science of archaeology estimated that the burial was from the third century. This added an aura of authenticity to the long-standing Catholic tradition of saint watching.

An analysis of the remains concluded that Vibiana had died violently. In 1854, Pope Pius IX proclaimed that the bones were “the precious relics of the illustrious and glorious martyr, Vibiana.” The relics were placed on public display and attracted large crowds.

The next month, Thaddeus Amat, the Barcelona-born rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, was in Rome to be consecrated as Bishop of Monterey. Monsignor Francis J. Weber, archivist for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, titled his biography of Bishop Amat, “California’s Reluctant Prelate” because the bishop did not want the promotion to far-off California.

Knowing this, Pope Pius granted Bishop Amat a special gift. The relics of St. Vibiana were to travel to California with Bishop Amat “with the express condition of building the Cathedral Church in honor of the Saint.”

St. Vibiana was declared the “patroness” for the new diocese of Monterey.

Amat found Monterey in a state of decay, as it had been depopulated by the Gold Rush. He moved his base to Santa Barbara’s Our Lady of Sorrows Church.

The church burned to the ground in August 1865, but the body of the saint was unharmed. Bishop Amat had the remains taken to the Old Plaza Church in Los Angeles. In 1876, the newly completed St. Vibiana’s Cathedral opened at the southeast corner of Main and Second streets in downtown Los Angeles. The relics, encased in a realistic effigy, were placed in a niche above the high altar.

As a youngster, I loved to go into St. Vibiana’s to see what I called, “the lady from the catacombs.”

The 1994 Northridge Earthquake severely damaged the old cathedral. In 2002, the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels was dedicated and the saint’s remains were taken to the crypt. The former cathedral was sold to the Los Angeles Conservancy, where it serves as an upscale restaurant and public-events venue.

Bishop Amat played a major role in our community. In 1871, he brought the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary from Spain. In 1876, eight members of that community arrived in San Luis Obispo from their mother house in Gilroy. That marked the beginning of what is now Old Mission School and Mission College Preparatory.

Because San Luis Obispo was included in the new Diocese of Monterey-Los Angeles, Bishop Amat wanted our mission to have St. Vibiana’s portrait on display. The portrait arrived at the San Luis Obispo Mission sometime after the 1865 fire at Our Lady of Sorrows.

It was placed in the Mission Museum in 1952.

Following the December 2003 San Simeon Earthquake and the seismic retrofit at the Mission, a great deal of plaster and adobe debris fell into the museum’s “altar room.” Recently, our resident art restoration expert, Nageh Bichay, used a special HEPA-filtered vacuum bought with a grant from the California Missions Foundation to clean up the altar room.

He removed the debris from behind the portrait and cleaned its surface. Visitors can now see the image of this third century “virgin and martyr” on the side wall of the altar room display area.

In her newly cleansed incarnation, she remains the “patroness of Monterey-Los Angeles,” which includes San Luis Obispo.

Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is Professor of History, Emeritus at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. He is past president of the California Mission Studies Association. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com