In the movie “Lady Bird” (above), the church scenes were filmed at St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Altadena, just five blocks from our church. On Facebook, people from that congregation who have seen the film mentioned a change they noticed in the artwork above the altar from what they remembered in they’re youth. One of them commented, “The altar has been altered.” They remembered an eye appearing at the top center, where we now see the Christian “IHS” (an abbreviation of “JESUS”) symbol. (I couldn’t find a better photo of the original eye at St. Elizabeth’s than the one below, but here’s one in a stained glass window in Wisconsin.)
On researching this, I was fascinated to learn that this church was designed in 1926 by the famous architect Wallace Neff, who is seen as the developer of the “California Style,” which was all the rage in the 1920s and 30s. The “Pickfair Estate,” the 25-room Beverly Hills mansion that was home to newlyweds Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, is his best-known project. He also designed homes for many other movie stars, including Cary Grant, Groucho Marx, Judy Garland and Claudette Colbert. A number of Neff-designed homes can be seen in the more affluent parts of Pasadena.
St. Elisabeth is the only church structure Wallace Neff ever designed. He took this project because it was his home church. Neff was born and raised in Altadena, and he wanted to show some love for his roots. He certainly put thought into the altar which was the focus of the worship space. He intentionally put the “All-Seeing Eye” at the top to remind worshipers that God is everywhere and has ultimate control over all that happens.
However, the symbol was also used in Freemasonry, a rather secretive and controversial organization. Some of our founding fathers were part of that group, and that’s how the eye symbol at the top of a pyramid became part of the design on the back of our one-dollar bill.
The symbol also shows up in the shadowy conspiracy stories about the “Illuminati.” Some traditional Catholics went so far as to identify this symbol as the “Evil Eye” or the “Eye of Satan.”
Somewhere along the way, the church officials at St. Elisabeth decided the eye symbol was ant-faith and had no place in a church, especially above the altar. (I’m trying to research when that actually happened.) It was taken down and replaced by the safer “IHS.” It may not have occurred to them that the new symbol, truly understood, was even more explosive and untamable. Early in his ministry, Jesus sent seventy followers out to announce the Gospel of the Kingdom of God, and The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us.” (Luke 10:17)
Jesus’ name will make even the evilest eye blink.
— Pastor George Van Alstine