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First published:

New Times Los Angeles | Dec. 20, 2001

Stung by snickers about the appearance of the building designed by the Spanish architect Jose Rafael Moneo, the archdiocese was already on the defensive even before the escalating cost became an issue.

Top: Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral


Above:  interior view


Below: The former St. Vibiana Cathedral, shown in 1885. Preservationists scrambled to save it from the wrecking ball after Cardinal Roger Mahony hurriedly sought to demolish it.

Taj Mahony

Cardinal Roger Mahony threatened, hoodwinked and strong-armed to get a lavish new cathedral built in L.A. The result is a colossal monument to his ego



By Ron Russell


In what may have been the largest ecclesiastical function ever held on an empty lot, 12,000 people came to the future site of Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral on a warm Sunday in September 1997 to share a vision of the future. The event bore the trappings of a groundbreaking for what will be the largest -- and at $193 million and counting, the most expensive -- Roman Catholic cathedral complex in the United States. The nave of the church itself will be 333 feet long, about a foot longer than Saint Patrick's in New York. Officially dubbed a "ground blessing," since the archdiocese was still awaiting final building permits, the ceremony drew a slew of dignitaries, including then-mayor Richard Riordan, who proclaimed it "a big step in the progress of our great city."


But the man upon whom all eyes were focused was Cardinal Roger Mahony, resplendent in cape and miter. He was trailed by auxiliary bishops in flowing purple robes, scores of white-clad priests and a contingent of ordinary congregants in the colorful costumes of their native lands. The latter reflected the melting pot that the L. A. archdiocese -- with its 4.5 million Catholics -- has become. Starting from Saint Vibiana Cathedral, the historic Spanish Baroque church at Second and Main streets on the edge of Skid Row that the new cathedral will replace when it opens next Labor Day, the entourage trekked the three-quarters of a mile to Bunker Hill to a spot on what had been a Los Angeles County-owned parking lot. The crowd included a huge choir, a Mexican mariachi band, Polish dancers and -- as if more pomp were needed -- uniformed members of the Knights of Columbus fraternal order.


Meanwhile, across the street and on the opposite side of a chain-link fence, a few dozen other Catholics were assembled for a different reason. Organized by the Los Angeles Catholic Worker, a lay group that administers to the poor, they had come to protest the cathedral's construction, calling it a travesty that an archdiocese with an enormous number of poor, mostly immigrant Catholics should spend such a huge sum to satisfy the ego of a cardinal widely considered to have papal ambitions. Vastly outnumbered but impossible to ignore, the group waited until Mahony's entourage approached the crest of the hill and then draped a banner over the fence that proclaimed, "Spend God's Money on God's Poor."


As protests go, neither the one that day nor occasional others since have amounted to much. Indeed, with civic leaders and local news organizations fawning over the now largely completed cathedral like children eager to unwrap a large Christmas toy, such dissent has garnered little attention. Through a secular lens, the towering stone edifice with its modern translucent tiled windows of Spanish alabaster has become another much-coveted if lackluster new decoration for the downtown skyline. In the former sense, it's little different from the Walt Disney Concert Hall rising a few blocks away, or Staples Center, which opened its doors two years ago.


Yet in the four years since the 65-year-old cardinal's official blessing, those who question the need for the elaborate new church -- especially in view of its spiraling price tag -- are no longer confined to the Catholic fringe, if ever they were. "To me, the mission of the church is not to build expensive buildings; it's to take care of people," says Karen Lindell, a magazine editor whose parish church is in the affluent San Gabriel Valley foothill community of Sierra Madre. "I could never go there and be inspired, especially knowing that six or seven blocks away there are [homeless] people lying in the street." Even some of Mahony's own clerics count themselves among the dissidents. "Why not just build an Eiffel Tower?" asks one veteran Los Angeles priest. Apologizing for insisting on anonymity, he adds, "You know it's tough for us to speak up. It would just mean banishment."




Stung by snickers about the appearance of the building designed by the Spanish architect Jose Rafael Moneo ("yellow armadillo" and "butt ugly" are among the descriptors gaining early currency), the archdiocese was already on the defensive even before the escalating cost became an issue. Expected to cost $45 million when Mahony initially sought to build the church on the rubble of Saint Vibiana, the estimate ballooned to $110 million after preservationists prevented Saint Vibiana from being bulldozed, forcing the cardinal ultimately to settle on a spot in the sterile area between the L.A. County Hall of Administration and the Hollywood Freeway.


As Mahony's ambitions for the cathedral complex (to include a huge conference and office center, rectory, three levels of underground parking and a spacious landscaped plaza) grew to match the size of the new site, the price leapt to $163 million. But that estimate is now more than three years old, and while archdiocese spokesman Tod Tamberg insists that it is "holding steady," the sum does not include an extra $30 million allocated for art and adornment. "Do you realize how many new parish churches and schools you can build for the cost of that one stupid building?" says the Reverend Henry Wasielewski, 71, a Roman Catholic priest who serves a Spanish-language parish in the Phoenix area. He insists that plenty of his fellow clerics in Los Angeles "feel the same way but cannot say so. Not that it would make any difference."


Mahony, who declined to be interviewed for this article, answers such criticism with the deftness of the powerful behind-the-scenes political player he has long been. "The question has been asked of the church, "Can you serve the poor as well as build churches, schools, hospitals and other institutions that serve the community?' And for 2,000 years history has said, "Yes, we can,'" he told the National Catholic Reporter. He has unabashedly defended the need to replace the much-smaller Saint Vibiana -- sold to a group headed by preservation-minded developer Tom Gilmore after the crusade to raze it failed -- with a cathedral that befits the nation's largest archdiocese.


While doing so, he has often sounded more like a downtown redeveloper than spiritual leader. At key times, he even served as a mouthpiece for his friend Riordan, as when he castigated the L.A. City Council for its petty bickering and lack of leadership during debates over whether to subsidize Staples Center and renovation of the L.A. County Coliseum.


But beyond the issue of whether so much money should be spent, just how the cathedral is being paid for is a question about which the cardinal has been even less effusive. Although insisting that the project is being financed exclusively by private donations, the archdiocese has kept a tight lid on who some of the donors are and about how much they have pledged, including the identities of at least two corporations that have remained anonymous.


Although little-talked-about publicly, there is speculation that one of the cathedral's biggest benefactors may be Stewart Enterprises Inc., the world's third-largest funeral-services company, based in New Orleans. Both the archdiocese and a top Stewart official interviewed by New Times dismiss the suggestion. But the denials have scarcely quelled speculation, especially in view of a highly secretive business arrangement Mahony negotiated with the huge death-care conglomerate in 1997 giving it the exclusive right to build commercial mortuaries in archdiocese cemeteries.


In exchange, Stewart is leasing the ground beneath the mortuaries for 40 years in a deal widely considered to be worth many millions of dollars to the archdiocese. "The intriguing aspect," says one funeral industry source, "is that there's no outlay involved for the archdiocese. The money [from Stewart] is theirs to spend on anything they see fit." According to documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company has thus far spent at least $22 million to build mortuaries and mausoleums at 5 of the 11 L.A.-area Catholic cemeteries. It aims to build on at least four others.


The Stewart family, which comprise the company's largest bloc of shareholders, has long been prominent within Catholic circles. Sources say that the unusual -- and controversial --arrangement was initiated by Mahony, not Stewart, and that the cardinal dealt directly with Frank Stewart Jr., the company's chairman.


As a tax-exempt religious organization, the archdiocese's partnering with a giant of the death-care industry has generated much ill-will among independent mortuary operators, some of them Catholics. They have bitterly accused Mahony of conspiring with their competition in an attempt to drive them out of business, now that Stewart and the archdiocese share a common interest in who provides mortuary services for greater L.A.'s Roman Catholics.


The arrangement has upset more than a few priests, some of whom have chafed at what they perceive as pressure from the archdiocese to steer their parishioners to Stewart-operated funeral homes at the Catholic cemeteries. This, despite the cost sometimes being double or more than that of independent mortuaries, say priests and independent funeral operators.


Against that backdrop, it isn't difficult to see why speculation about Stewart's alleged involvement with the cathedral has become a hot topic even among the faithful. "Why would [the archdiocese] push such a thing?" asks one L.A. area priest, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We're surmising that the cathedral has a lot to do with it."



Soaring skyward beneath construction cranes, Our Lady of the Angels towers above the north end of downtown, commanding attention from all directions. The church occupies the westernmost part of the site. It is separated from the conference center and the cardinal's quarters (he moved in last March) by a plaza to be filled with palm trees, fountains and a waterfall. Beneath its main floor, in the undercroft, 1,270 crypts and nearly 5,000 niches are being prepared for future burials. Alongside the church is a detached campanile topped with a 30-foot cross that will eventually house a carillon of 18 bells. The conference center is only slightly smaller than the 58,000-square-foot cathedral. Beneath it are parking spaces for 600 cars.


The cathedral's massive windows, allowing for long shafts of natural light, will frame the largest use of alabaster in a sacred building in the world -- all 27,000 square feet of the delicate stone having been quarried in architect Moneo's native Spain. Moneo designed the windows as a mosaic of thousands of tiles of nearly 20 different sizes set horizontally in rows that range from 3 to 24 inches wide and 13 to 34 inches tall. Belgian tapestries depicting saints will line the nave. Mahony himself designed the altar, made of burgundy Turkish marble.


Yet, for all its apparent opulence, Tamberg of the archdiocese refers to the cathedral as "plain vanilla," citing that the cardinal made clear it's to be "a work in progress" in which space will be left for future generations to leave their mark. In fact, archdiocese officials and others say a big reason for the increased cost was Mahony's insistence that the cathedral be constructed to last 300 years and withstand a major earthquake. Typically, skyscrapers and other large institutional buildings are designed to last 50 to 100 years.


That the enormous project should bear the imprint of the man who conceived, promoted and marshaled the resources to pay for it comes as no surprise. Born in Hollywood as the son of an electrician who later opened a family poultry business, Mahony cast a larger-than-life image from the time he was appointed to head the L.A. archdiocese in 1985. Pope John Paul II elevated him to cardinal in 1991. His being chosen for the L.A. post surprised some within the church who had expected a Latino to be named.


In hindsight, Mahony seems the perfect fit. Hardworking, organized and fiercely loyal to the Vatican, he is not only fluent in Spanish but offered a personal history that immediately enamored him to many of the archdiocese's Latinos. While serving in Fresno and Stockton during the 1960s and '70s, Mahony had befriended United Farm Workers president Cesar Chavez during the labor organizer's struggle against wealthy San Joaquin Valley grape producers. He served as former California governor Jerry Brown's first chairman of the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board, supervising the farm workers' elections.


But as times have changed and his power -- both within the church and as a political force -- has increased, Mahony has drifted from liberal stances on social issues to a growing conservatism. Some liberal Catholics were alarmed in the early '90s after Mahony was widely perceived as having scuttled an effort by poor, mostly immigrant Latino Catholic cemetery workers to organize a labor union. To this day, Western Sequoia Corp., the commercial firm responsible for cemetery-plot sales that once were handled in-house by employees of the archdiocese, employs people on an "at will" basis, meaning they may be terminated for any reason, at any time.


The cardinal's political alliances have also drawn criticism, as when he gave communion to Riordan the day of his mayoral inauguration, even though the venture capitalist had been divorced, had remarried and was at the time separated from his second wife. (Riordan's wife, Nancy Daly, is his third.) Mahony and Riordan have long been close. Now a Republican gubernatorial candidate, the hugely wealthy Riordan was a significant donor to the new cathedral. He went to bat for Mahony during the cardinal's bitter and unsuccessful struggle to demolish Saint Vibiana Cathedral.


It was Riordan who, in 1987, gave Mahony his famous $400,000 helicopter, which Mahony piloted for several years before being persuaded to give it up. Shortly before Riordan left the mayor's office last year, Mahony played a key role in helping to engineer the renaming of L.A.'s Central Library in Riordan's honor, even though it meant scratching off the name of a former USC president who had been a longtime library champion.


While cultivating friends in high places, Mahony has earned a reputation as someone who rigidly toes the line on papal issues, and gives little quarter to subordinates who stray from the fold. Within priestly circles, he is famous for writing so-called "midnight epistles" -- which one cleric once termed "snot grams" -- to underlings in whom he finds displeasure. Jeff Dietrich of the Catholic Worker, who professes respect for the cardinal despite their differences, recalls being on the receiving end of one of Mahony's missives for his anti-cathedral protests, even though the lay group has no official connection to the archdiocese. "He essentially wrote to say how dare we call ourselves Catholic," Dietrich recalls. "But then afterward he came personally and unescorted to visit [the group's hospitality house] and even said mass around the butcher block table in the kitchen. Still, I can see why [when it comes to the cathedral] no priest wants to cross him."


Although the formal dedication of the church and altar is slated for Labor Day, archdiocese officials acknowledge that the planned festivities will be far too large to be accommodated by a single event. Mahony has announced no fewer than 13 separate events in connection with the opening, geared to various constituencies, from donors and civic officials to cathedral construction workers, clerics and even the homeless. Cracked one cathedral cynic, "I doubt you'll see Rupert Murdoch breaking bread with anyone from Skid Row."


The donor list is a who's who of philanthropists, foundations and prominent Catholic families. The archdiocese says that the largest contributions remain the combined $35 million from the cathedral's two founding donors, the Dan Murphy Foundation and the Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Foundation. Among the many individual donors are Betsy Bloomingdale, whose in-laws founded the department store chain; comedian Bob Hope, who was awarded a papal knighthood in 1998; former Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley; Riordan; and Roy E. Disney and his wife, Patty. Other high-profile donors include the Murdoch family and the Doheny, Hilton and Ahmanson foundations.


On the corporate side, the list includes Walt Disney Co., Kaiser Permanente, Edison International, Wells Fargo, Bank of America and the Times Mirror Foundation, the latter a relic from the days before Times Mirror and its flagship L.A. Times were gobbled up by Chicago's Tribune Company. Also on the corporate list is Western Sequoia, with headquarters in Inglewood. Unlike Stewart, which operates mortuaries on church property, Western Sequoia has an exclusive relationship with the archdiocese as a broker of graves, crypts and niches at the Catholic cemeteries. The archdiocese has provided little information about how much money Western Sequoia, or most of the other individual and corporate donors have contributed.


Perhaps most conspicuous are the two corporate donors listed merely as "anonymous corporations." Tamberg of the archdiocese dismissed the entries as "not unusual at all," saying that some corporations, like individuals, prefer to give in secret for their own reasons.


But others, including several professionals within the charity world, offer a contrary view. "Corporations aren't famous for hiding their charitable giving from public view," says Pete Manzo, executive director of the Center for Nonprofit Management, an L.A-based charity clearinghouse. Flo Green, executive director of the California Association of Nonprofits, which operates like a chamber of commerce for charitable organizations, offers a similar view: "It is unusual, although that is not to say that it doesn't happen."


Asked if Stewart Enterprises was one of the unidentified donors, Tamberg replied, "You want me to out an anonymous corporation? I'm not going to play that game. The sea is full of anonymous corporate donors." He also declined to discuss the archdiocese's relationship with Stewart, insisting that none of the money the archdiocese has realized as a result of the Stewart deal has been spent on the cathedral: "Those moneys go to our ministries and for the maintenance of our churches and schools and other institutions."


In fact, Tamberg said that the huge sums donated for the cathedral had not had a negative impact on any of the archdiocese's ongoing charities, including the Father McIntyre Fund, which helps impoverished families, and an education foundation that dispenses $6 million annually to provide scholarships to Catholic youths.


Yet, just this month, the archdiocese cited cost in announcing that it will close Queen of Angels Academy in Compton, a high school for girls, when the academic year ends. It follows the closure in recent years of several other area schools serving mostly low-income and minority Catholic students. "Look, these [cathedral] donors are people who've said we want to build a new cathedral and we want to give money to our Catholic charities," says Tamberg. "It hasn't been an either/or proposition."


Dietrich, for one, isn't buying it.


From the Catholic Worker hospitality house in Boyle Heights where he and his wife, Katherine Morris, live with 15 other lay workers, he sees the cathedral rising over downtown to the west and calls it "preposterous to think that all that money [spent on the cathedral] will not reduce the resources the archdiocese will have to devote to its poor. And even if it doesn't -- which I don't believe -- just look at how much more could be done for the cost of that building."


For Morris, who helps run the group's soup kitchen on Skid Row, even the new cathedral's location is pregnant with meaning. "I think Cardinal Mahony is getting what he wanted, which was to move the cathedral away from the poor," she says. "Up there at Temple and Grand, with the power players on Bunker Hill -- it's a good placement for his own little empire."




On May 23, 1996, a small earthquake of magnitude 3.6 jangled nerves to the east of downtown Los Angeles. There were no reports of damage or injuries. But for the cardinal, eager to raze the 125-year-old Saint Vibiana Cathedral, the otherwise trivial seismic event offered a rare opportunity. Exactly one week later, on May 30, a senior official of the city's building and safety department, accompanied by a structural engineer hired by the archdiocese, arrived at the historic church at Second and Main for an unusual inspection -- one that the archdiocese welcomed with open arms.


During a 20-minute visit, the official, who did not go inside the church, took note of several cracks in the church's 83-foot-tall bell tower. To the dismay of preservationists, the next day the department issued an ultimatum. Declaring that damage from the quake had created an "imminent hazard," the city gave the archdiocese 72 hours to abate the problem. Mahony, with the cooperation and blessing of his pal Mayor Riordan, quietly authorized demolition to proceed.


Mahony had let his desire to level the church be known early in 1995, but ran into opposition from the Los Angeles Conservancy, the city's preeminent preservation group. The cardinal's announced objective was to clear Saint Vibiana out of the way and acquire the dozen or so parcels on the same city block that the archdiocese did not already own to make room for a new, much larger cathedral. Even now, some naysayers privately question whether Mahony really wanted to build anew at the site, or whether he may have cleverly used the Saint Vibiana imbroglio and ensuing hints about building a new cathedral away from downtown as a means of leveraging support to move to Bunker Hill. After all, the Union Rescue Mission, which has since relocated, was immediately next door to St. Vibiana and the cathedral steps had become an encampment for the homeless. On occasion, visitors literally had to step over bodies to get inside.


Regardless, preservationists were appalled at the prospect of demolishing what was arguably the city's most historically significant religious structure. Built in 1876, Saint Vibiana was named for a third-century Christian martyr whose remains were brought to the church from Rome nearly a century ago. (Her remains, which are to be reinterred in the new cathedral, are currently in a mausoleum crypt at Calvary Cemetery in East L.A.) In private discussions spanning several months, conservancy officials tried to persuade the cardinal and his emissaries to preserve Saint Vibiana and incorporate it into a new cathedral complex, similar to how new cathedrals have been built in Europe.


But Mahony rejected the idea.


He insisted that the archdiocese could not afford the $20 million he said it would take to seismically retrofit Saint Vibiana as the result of damage sustained from the 1994 Northridge earthquake. That was above and beyond the $45 million then being projected as the cost of the new cathedral. (As it turns out, the estimate for the retrofit was wildly exaggerated. The building's new owners expect it to cost just $2.5 million.)


As talks dragged into 1996, Mahony became increasingly eager to get the new cathedral project moving. During a two-day workshop, called that February ostensibly to discuss possible options for saving Saint Vibiana, the cardinal dropped a bombshell. He proclaimed that the archdiocese didn't intend to spend any money to save the church. "The phrase I recall was, "not a single dime,'" says Linda Dishman, the conservancy's executive director, who was among those present. "There was an air of finality to it."


In hindsight, those struggling to save the old cathedral might have taken a hint from the archdiocese's removal of assorted historical artifacts, including its stained-glass windows, during the second week of May 1996. But not even they could have imagined the anguished scenario that played out in the days and weeks after L.A. officials conveniently issued the abatement order that the archdiocese used as the pretext for attempting to dismantle the graceful old church.


Perhaps mindful of the potential public-relations fallout should it be perceived as having bulldozed the cathedral in secret, the archdiocese issued an unusual early-morning press release the Saturday after the abatement order. Amazingly, it announced that demolition was to proceed that day. Many of the city's leading preservationists, including Dishman, were attending a state conference in San Jose that weekend. Upon being notified of the press release, Dishman caught the first flight home. Jack Rubens, the conservancy's attorney in the matter, already knew about the order and was getting ready to put in a weekend of legal preparation to challenge what he expected would be an attempt by the archdiocese to acquire a demolition permit the following Monday.


But a conservancy staffer phoned him early Saturday with the surprising news that the bell tower was about to be razed -- and right then. By the time he got downtown, there were dozens of workers inside the fenced-off cathedral grounds, and huge cranes were moving into position. Dishman, who got there shortly after Rubens, says workers had already ripped ornaments and other materials from inside the building. "We yelled for people who were on the other side of the fence to come over and at least talk with us, but they pretended we weren't there," she recalls. In a frantic series of phone calls, Rubens learned that the archdiocese had not obtained a demolition permit and was proceeding -- erroneously -- on the presumption that it didn't need one.


But for that miscalculation, Saint Vibiana might have been reduced to rubble.


Later that morning, Superior Court Judge Diane Wayne issued a temporary restraining order via telephone to stop the wreckage. In hearings during the next two weeks, another superior court judge, Robert H. O'Brien, upheld the order. In doing so, O'Brien rejected the validity of the abatement order based on alleged damage from the May 23 tremor. After its own examination, the conservancy insisted that the tremor had caused no damage to the bell tower. In fact, its lawyer asserted, the "cracks" in the mortar observed by the city inspector were test cracks placed there during a seismic retrofit following the 1987 Whittier quake. A structural engineer procured by the conservancy observed that all the anchors and pylons put in place as part of that retrofit were undisturbed.


Having lost before two judges, Mahony and the archdiocese refused to give up. To move the demolition along -- and avoid being delayed by having to prepare an expensive and time-consuming environmental impact report -- the archdiocese faced a peculiar hurdle. Under the state's environmental protection law, known by its acronym CEQA, the city could not lawfully issue a demolition permit for Saint Vibiana without triggering the need for an EIR, since the building had long ago been designated as a Los Angeles cultural heritage landmark. In the hopes of solving the problem, Mahony turned to the California Legislature, seeking a special law to exempt the archdiocese from environmental review. The effort died in a Senate committee by the thinnest of margins, with former state senator Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles) standing in the way.


The cardinal then flexed his muscle at L.A. City Hall, persuading 14 members of the City Council (maverick former councilman Joel Wachs was the lone dissenter) to de-list the cathedral as a landmark. But a judge again blocked demolition, and when a state appeals court sided with preservationists, Mahony finally gave up and moved to secure the Bunker Hill site. When the county board of supervisors expedited the archdiocese's purchase of the parking lot for about $8 million, both politicians and the downtown business establishment breathed a collective sigh of relief. Mahony had gotten what he wanted, and civic leaders no longer quivered in their wing tips over losing the cathedral to the suburbs.



Come Labor Day, four years after the official ground blessing, the faithful are again scheduled to focus on Mahony as he dedicates the church of his dreams. Yellow armadillo or not, the cathedral's completion will represent the crowning achievement of the cardinal's long ecclesiastical career -- unless, of course, he should someday become pope.


But now, at the church the cardinal left behind, developer Tom Gilmore is already planning the reopening of Saint Vibiana as the crown jewel of an educational, cultural and residential center to be known as Vibiana Place. Preservationists and, indeed, once-skeptical city bureaucrats (who now see the redevelopment as a sorely needed tourist draw for downtown L.A) are touting the idea a triumph. Gilmore has won high praise from preservationists for his restoration and reuse of several old buildings along Spring and Fourth streets in downtown's so-called Old Bank District. His group bought Saint Vibiana and its surrounding church buildings in 1999 for $4.6 million. The archdiocese, which had quietly shopped the property around, was glad to get rid of it.


Saint Vibiana itself will be transformed into a performing arts center, with Cal State L.A. -- which intends to make it a key component of its performing arts program -- as the primary tenant. The Spanish colonial-style rectory, with its charming courtyard and fountain, will become a bed-and-breakfast, and a restaurant on the ground floor will offer indoor and outdoor dining.


Groundbreaking is planned soon for a new Little Tokyo Branch Library on a corner of the property, and a 300-unit mixed-use apartment building will rise on the rubble of a former office building next to the church. Vibiana Place is slated to open officially in 2004, although the former cathedral (where seismic work is slated to start next month) should be open by early in 2003 -- a few months after the unveiling of Our Lady of the Angels.


"The cardinal has been very accommodating with us," Gilmore says. In fact, Mahony attached only one restriction to the sale, and it relates to what the new project might be called. He insisted that the word "cathedral" not be in the name.

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