Neither Crystal nor Gold — How the Protestant Crystal Cathedral Became a Catholic Cathedral

Catholic business leader Tim Busch, who contributes the foreword to the book, describes the Crystal Cathedral’s purchase as “providential” and a story that needed to be told.

The exterior of Christ Cathedral in Orange, California, at night.
The exterior of Christ Cathedral in Orange, California, at night. (photo: Christ Cathedral / Diocese of Orange)

Robert W. Artigo has written a new book, Neither Crystal nor Gold, which tells the story of Robert Schuller and the Crystal Cathedral, and how the centerpiece property of his ministry was transformed into Christ Cathedral and the chancery offices of the Diocese of Orange. The book is copyrighted by the Busch Group, led by Catholic business leader Tim Busch, who played a key role in the purchase of the Crystal Cathedral.

Those who grew up in or around Orange County, California, and have reached middle age know the story of Robert Schuller (1926-2015) and the Crystal Cathedral. Schuller launched his Crystal Cathedral Ministries in 1955, preaching on the roof of a concession stand in what was once a drive-in theater — the only facility he could afford at the time. In 1970, he launched his Sunday Hour of Power television program and soon became a nationally-known televangelist. Schuller was affiliated with the Reformed Church in America, and preached a mix of Protestant Christianity and power of positive thinking popularized by Norman Vincent Peale. Unlike some prominent Protestant preachers of his era, however, he was always friendly with Catholics.

Schuller’s ministry thrived for many years, with the Hour of Power drawing such luminaries as Archbishop Fulton Sheen, Charlton Heston and General Norman Schwarzkopf.

But by 2010, Schuller was entering the final years of his life without a clear successor to his ministry — his son, Robert, was named senior pastor in 2006, but left the position over differences of opinion in 2008 — and the Crystal Cathedral was facing serious financial problems. When it was announced that the Crystal Cathedral site would be sold, Busch approached the Bishop of Orange at the time, Tod Brown, with the suggestion that the diocese purchase the 34-acre site and its buildings. Since becoming Bishop of Orange in 1998, Brown had sought to build a new cathedral from the ground up, as he deemed the previous site, Holy Family in Orange, inadequate for the diocese’s needs.

Brown was cool to the idea as he worried it would harm relations with non-Catholic religious groups. But Busch reassured him that it was Schuller’s desire that the site continue to be used for religious purposes. Chapman University in Orange was the diocese’s chief competitor and bid on the property — ultimately a more generous offer than the $55.7 million the diocese was able to offer — and wanted to convert the site into an auditorium and pharmaceutical and veterinarian schools. Schuller also liked that the Catholic Church had a 2,000-year history — unlike some denominations, he knew it was here to stay.

Brown had begun efforts to build a cathedral on a site in Santa Ana, but the alternative site was a smaller property with a less desirable location, and would have cost the diocese much more to build. Difficulties in fundraising had stalled that project. 

So, Bishop Brown agreed, and there began a lengthy and often uncertain process in which the Diocese of Orange was ultimately selected by a 5-4 vote to purchase the property, with Schuller and his wife Arvella casting their votes in favor of the diocese.

Artigo is a journalist whose first book, Black and Pro-Life in America: The Incarceration and Exoneration of Walter B. Hoye II, was released by Ignatius Press in 2018. Before being approached by Busch to write Neither Crystal nor Gold he had some familiarity with Schuller because of his Hour of Power program, but did not realize the diocese had converted the Crystal Cathedral into Christ Cathedral until he visited the site in 2019 for a screening of the pro-life film Unplanned.

Busch, who contributes the foreword to the book, describes the Crystal Cathedral’s purchase as “providential” and a story that needed to be told. Artigo does an outstanding job telling that story, by way of a series of interesting interviews with people who were part of the story.