On Sunday, February 3, 1918, the First Mass of St. Mary of the Angels Church was celebrated by its founding Rector, Rev. Fr. Neal Dodd, at a rented storefront at 1734 N. Vermont Avenue. St. Mary's was envisioned by Fr. Dodd, an Episcopal priest, as a parish ministering specifically to people in the then-fledgling (silent) motion-picture business, since most established churches of that day didn't want to be involved with anyone who had anything to do with the "industry." Later, the mission was moved to a building on New Hampshire Avenue where a Lutheran Church now stands.
Fr. Dodd, who served as Rector of St. Mary's until 1961, quickly became known as the "Padre of Hollywood," and served as a technical advisor to the movie industry on matters of religion and liturgical practices as portrayed on screen. Ultimately, his role as technical advisor changed to that of actor, and Fr. Dodd appeared in more than 300 films between 1924 and 1951, usually in the role of a clergyman.
He "married" Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in "It Happened One Night" (1934) and was the chaplain to the U.S. Senate in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939). Incongruously, he even had a role in the movie "Merrily We Go to Hell" (1932). Fr. Dodd also presided at the real-life wedding of Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Mary Pickford, who were regular worshippers at St. Mary's, as were numerous other stars including Charlton Heston, Anthony Quinn and Charlie Chaplin. W.C. Fields underwrote part of the organ.
In 1924, Fr. Dodd was a founding member, along with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin, of the Motion Picture Relief Fund of America, which today runs the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, a retirement center for those in the movie industry.
In 1930, St. Mary of the Angels moved into a new, Spanish Mission-style church building on Finley Avenue, designed by noted architect Carleton M. Winslow Sr., who also designed the Los Angeles Public Library headquarters building downtown, and the Spanish Colonial buildings at the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in San Diego.
The first services at the new venue included a who's-who of Hollywood and the movie business. The spectacular glazed terra cotta altarpiece of the Annunciation, along with its side statues of St. John and St. Francis, are 16th-century della Robbia faience from Florence, and was donated to St. Mary's in the 1920s by the founder of the May Company. The set is one of only three in existence, the others being in England and Italy.
Fr. Dodd passed away in 1966. Hollywood paid tribute to Fr. Dodd in a book written about him, "The Decades," by Robert Wagner and Rupert Hughes. Subscribers and sponsors of the book included Eddie Cantor, Frank Capra, Ronald Coleman, Cecil B. deMille, Sid Grauman, Al Jolson, Myrna Loy, Louella Parsons, David O. Selznick and Daryl Zanuck.
In 1974, St. Mary's was designated a Cultural Historic Landmark (No. 136) by the City of Los Angeles. St. Mary of the Angels remains one of the most storied churches in all of Los Angeles, and has been profiled in recent books such as "Jewels in Our Crown: Churches of Los Angeles," and "Sacred Spaces: Historic Houses of Worship in the City of Angels." The latter called St. Mary's "Hollywood's most famous church" and noted that the "history of cinema in Southern California has been so closely bound up in its own."
St. Mary's still serves as the church home to many in the entertainment industry, including actors, writers and technicians, many of whom belong to its St. Genesius Guild for Actors and Actresses. The Guild is named for a 3rd century Roman actor who converted to Christianity while appearing in a play for the Emperor Diocletian that was intended to satirize the Christian sacrament of baptism, and was beheaded for his faith. St. Genesius, logically, is the patron saint of actors.
- Compiled by Garry South for the 90th Anniversary of Fr. Dodd's First Mass