Woman of the Apocalypse

Situated just a little west of the confluence of the Sisar and Little Santa Paula Creeks, Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel, Thomas Aquinas College, Santa Paula, rises up out of the campus but viewed from the road (as it most often is) appears to be set deep in chaparral. It offers a remarkable vision.

The site, as I noted in Mining Gravel, has a storied past. In 1929, oil baron Edward Doheny' s wife commissioned a 9,000 square foot mission-style hacienda designed by Wallace Neff. It was reputedly built in six weeks as a country retreat for her husband who was reeling from his involvement in the lawsuits surrounding the Teapot Dome scandal and the murder of his only son in 1928 at the Greystone estate in Beverly Hills. The college purchased the site - where once sat the Chumash village, Sisa - in 1975 and the adobe house now serves as the president's residence. 

The college and the chapel represent a contemporary manifestation of Catholicism - as did the missions following the expansion of Spanish influence in Alta California in 1769. The linkage between these two expressions of the Church is made more explicit by the intentions of the founding fathers of the college who wanted it to return to "the kind of academic excellence that flourished in ancient Greece or in the great medieval universities in Europe. Simply put, they wanted to return not to the 1950s, but to the 1350s". (Thomas Aquinas College)

Similarly, the chapel represents a conservative ethos: drawing upon two millennia of Catholic architecture, Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel embraces the Church's Early Christian, Renaissance, and Spanish Mission heritage. But it is a high-style mash-up; with none of the primal primitivism that enlivens the missions and that is spectacularly in evidence at Santa Barbara and La Purisma. Instead, there is the curious, ahistorical combination of a cruciform building, a dome over the crossing, columns and arches - like some kind of mutant basilica frozen in the moment of transformation. Ultimately it represents a discontinuity with the indigenous Mission tradition and a misunderstanding of classical antecedents: as such, for all its bravura formalism this $25 million pile is profoundly provincial.

More important, perhaps, than its architectural provenance, the chapel's 135-foot-high bell tower reliably rings out the Angelus three times each day, evoking California's Mission history and tolling, in part, for the ghosts of the departed California Natives.

The Chumash were essentially animists - they understood themselves to be part of the natural world in a way that we can barely comprehend. The Missions were established by Franciscans who professed a similarly inclusivist attitude to the sentience of other creatures - animals are brothers and sisters - and all things are considered symbols and bearers of Christ, the firstborn brother of every creature. In this pantheist spirit, Francis might well have found the Chumash to be soul brothers and sisters. His purported followers, not so much.

Francis treated objects as beings endowed with reason and spoke to them as if he were speaking to human beings. His outlook is diametrically opposed to the idea of humanity's absolute dominion over the physical world and to its thoughtless exploitation. He was an animist and a biophiliac first and a Christian mystic second (or third). 

However, the structure of the Church is such that its mysteries are conventionally revealed not in the natural world but within the liturgy of the mass - consecrated within the physical container of a church rather than, as Francis might have preferred, in the wildlands. Thus it is that the Missions, like the churches of medieval Europe had to compete with the natural world in capturing the spiritual imaginations of their audience.

I visited the chapel for a midnight mass on Christmas eve, in part, to remind myself of how they achieved this unlikely feat. I had, for weeks, been listening to A Choir of Angels II: California Mission Music, performed by Zephry with Paul Gibson, conducting, a haunting, otherworldly collection of early California music. The CD was given to me by Richard Lyons, who with his wife Laurie, lives above Thomas Aquinas College and whose company Civic Classics Records recorded and released the music. The 24 tracks became part of our Christmas mix this year along with Bob Dylan's gravelly voiced renditions of seasonal songs and Annie Lennox's new album, Christmas Cornucopia. The live choral and organ music that emanated from the chapel's choir balcony and floated over the congregation in the nave below was beautifully performed but it failed to raise the kind of goose bumps that the recorded Mission music regularly induced.

We (Lorrie, Griffin and I) gazed at the bronze solomonic columned baldochinno while the music played on. This altar canopy is a rendition of the tent that Yahweh commanded the Israelites to erect over the Ark of the Covenant (Ex. 25-27) and arrives here, in this chapel in Sulphur Springs deep in the California chaparral, via the baroque stylings of Bernini's St. Peter's Basilica. The Ark itself is either long gone or, according to the 1981 Spielberg movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, is sitting in some C.I.A. depository in the north east corridor never again to clear the path of the righteous by spewing burning snakes, scorpions, and thorns via jets of flame that reputedly shot from its underside (T. VaYakhel, 7).

The canopy's effulgence and the slatherings of marble on the nave columns and floor conjured, even to my jaded eyes, visions of heavenly opulence. My spiritual imagination had been tempted by both sight and sound but when the priest finally arrived in procession with his acolytes, one of whom wielded a censor, the burning tree resins frankincense and myrrh failed to waft through the space. Perhaps on this chilly evening the incense had stopped burning. I reflected that the scents of the chaparral are more reliably up-lifting.

The builders of the chapel were explicit in their goals: their vision incorporated four distinguishing marks - beauty, grandeur, permanence and tradition; these qualities are linked with truth, transcendence, the eternal and wisdom. Their captive audience of Catholic students and locals who come to the faith through family affiliation undoubtedly are susceptible to this symbolism and find it faith affirming. As an interloper intent on the casual frisson afforded by spiritually inflected music and the bravura caperings of an ecclesiastical architect (Duncan G. Stroik) and whose vision of Christmas owes more to Charles Dickens than to Thomas Aquinas, it is unreasonable to expect transcendence. 

We can only guess what proportions of gilded beauty, edificial grandeur, transcendent music, moral suasion and brute force were required to Christianize the Chumash. They arrived at the Missions as a devastated population wrenched wholesale from their own universe of affirmation: the complex fabric of a society tightly woven into the rhythms of the natural world. Missionized they were but it was, as they say, a Pyrrhic victory.

While the Chumash barely survive as a relict community the Church still fishes for souls using its medieval trappings - Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel being a particularly elaborate piece of this religious schtick. Sitting in its dell on the old Fernwood Ranch, with Wallace Neff's gate house still standing as the campus entry and the chapel's bell tower and dome floating over the chaparral that rises up and over Santa Paula Peak (oil derricks scattered along its flanks) Thomas Aquinas College stands as a living reminder of California's heartrending history - more potent than the dead shells of Missions strung along the 101 and infinitely more edifying than the living remnant of Chumash culture, the Santa Ynez Chumash Casino and Resort (Bingo).