Many years ago, I saw the movie True Confessions (1981), which was about an ambitious priest who discovered the truer meaning of the priesthood. Although the film was seedy in places, the outcome for the main character, Monsignor Spellacy, was salutary.
Robert DeNiro (who was more discreet and refined in those days) starred as Msgr. Spellacy. It was well acted, but it was the liturgical scenes that were especially noteworthy: they were beautiful, meticulous, and accurate. The movie was set in the 1940s and so the older Latin Mass was depicted in all its solemn, high glory (see the movie clip at the end of the post).
The church itself was gorgeous as well. Over the years I could never identify the church, despite asking many people. No one seemed to know. The movie credits made no mention of the parish where the Mass scenes were filmed. Even people I knew from the Los Angeles area (where the move was filmed) did not recognize the church. This was well before the Internet was in common use, so there was not the ability to pose a question far and wide. Until a few months ago, there just seemed to be no information available.
Mystery Solved – I finally stumbled upon the answer, completely by accident, about a month ago when I read about a fire that had destroyed St. Joseph Church in downtown Los Angeles in 1983.
The article mentioned that St. Joseph had been seen in several TV shows and movies, including True Confessions. The cause was said to have been an electrical fire. The roof collapsed, and only the towers and some of the brick walls remained. What a loss! A smaller, modern church was subsequently built on the site to replace the older one.
The exterior of the old St. Joseph Church is seen above. It was a truly magnificent German Gothic structure. Its interior is seen in the photo on the left, from 1960.
The following description of its beautiful interior was made upon its opening in 1903:
In the vast interiors of the great church … one may discover a wondrous work of gilt, and the deep tones of reds, greens, blues and yellows assembled with an artist’s touch into a magnificent whole.
This extensive fresco work [is] said to be the finest on the Coast. … For almost three months these men have toiled on the extensive work at St. Joseph’s sometimes far into the night…. … [I]t is said there will be no finer church edifice on the Pacific Coast. The whole building is to cost $100,000, and aside from this the furnishings make no small item.
Seven beautiful altars will be placed in the new building. These have been made in Munich. They are of white walnut and finished in white and gold. The main altar, of pure Gothic design, is forty-seven feet high, and the side altars are thirty and twenty-eight feet high.
The communion rail is also to be of polished walnut, with marble top; and the pews will be of white oak.
Most of the large windows are memorials, and they are to be of the richest colors in cathedral glass. These alone will cost about $6000. The Stations of the Cross are in bas-relief and set in alcoves in the walls. These are also products of Munich artists.
The main body of the church is 150 x 66 feet, and the transept is ninety-six feet wide. Back of this are the sacristy and rooms for altar boys, etc. The building has a large basement, fitted up for a hall, Sunday-school rooms, etc. Attached to the church on the east is the house of the Franciscan Fathers, which they now occupy.
All of this succumbed to the fire of Sunday morning, September 4, 1983; it was indeed a tragic loss. The current structure, though not ugly, is unremarkable. I have included additional pictures of the old and new churches here: The Church Where True Confessions Was Filmed.
I have written before about the sad fate of St. Vibiana, the former cathedral Church of Los Angeles (My Father’s House Has Become a Marketplace). I do not suppose that we can save all our beautiful structures, especially given the decline in the practice of the faith among Catholics, and although the damage to souls from this decline is far worse, the loss of these beautiful works that faith once produced is still lamentable. Accidents such as fire will cause losses as well, but they are still losses.
Below is some footage from the movie True Confessions, showing St. Joseph Church less than two years before its total destruction by fire.