GARDEN GROVE, Calif. — In 2012, Bishop Kevin Vann of Fort Worth, Texas, was visiting southern California and got a chance to tour the Crystal Cathedral, the iconic late-modern glass church built for Robert Schuller in 1980.

Schuller was once a highly successful  “mega-church” preacher with a global television audience. But in 2010 his Crystal Cathedral Ministries declared bankruptcy, and the 34-acre campus was sold to the Catholic Diocese of Orange for $57.5 million in 2011.

The sale prompted questions about the financial and practical feasibility of the Catholic Church acquiring a modern cathedral designed by Philip Johnson, one of the 20th century’s pre-eminent architects. Skeptics contended that the interior of the auditorium-style church — designed to highlight Schuller’s preaching and accommodate one of the largest organs in the world — was unsuitable for Catholic liturgical worship.

However, the Vatican approved the purchase, and then-Bishop Tod Brown of Orange predicted that the cathedral and the six other buildings on the campus would be a boon to the diocese’s 1.2 million Catholics.

Bishop Brown has since retired. Responsibility for approving the redesign of the glass-walled structure, now called “Christ Cathedral,” has fallen to his successor, Bishop Vann, who learned he would be the new bishop of Orange one month after his first glimpse of the cathedral.

“The cathedral will be a focus of the New Evangelization and a focus of unity that builds on the history of the Church in Orange,” Bishop Vann told the Register during an interview in early August.

“I have recalled the cathedrals in Florence, Notre Dame, St. John Lateran. The whole world swirls around these great places of worship that are designed to bring daily life to God.”


Local Church Centerpiece

In the wake of his December 2012 installation, Bishop Vann has made the cathedral campus the centerpiece of the local Church’s ambitious plans for religious and civic engagement in Orange, the 10th-largest diocese in the nation. Those plans include making the campus a place to showcase and celebrate the arts.

In the late 1970s, Schuller commissioned Johnson to design the cathedral.  Another leading architect, Richard Neutra, designed the striking arboretum, where Schuller's congregation originally gathered, and the “Tower of Hope,” once the tallest building in Orange County. And in 2003, the Welcoming Center, designed by Richard Meier, opened.

The redesign of the cathedral’s interior promises to be the most challenging project, and it could take several years to complete. Meanwhile, the diocese has moved quickly to renovate several other buildings on the sprawling campus.

Neutra's arboretum has undergone a $5.7 million renovation, and it will temporarily serve as the place of worship for the cathedral parish community. In late June, parishioners from St. Callistus Church, the large Catholic parish previously located across the street from the cathedral complex, came together for their first Mas s in the arboretum.

When the school year begins in late summer,  the Cathedral Academy, a preschool and  kindergarten-through-eighth grade elementary school, and the diocese’s new pastoral center will be open for busiiness in what was previously the Family Life building. for Crystal Cathedral Ministries.

The lay-led cathedral architectural renovation committee will soon select the architect who will tackle the redesign of the cathedral’s interior. The diocese’s $100-million capital campaign will finance the project, while also providing subsidies for various other programs and ministries, including education, priest retirements and seminary formation.


Good Value

When bankruptcy proceedings brought the property to the market, Tim Busch, the chair and founder of the Napa Institute, and CEO and founder of Busch Firm, a tax and corporate law firm with a specialty of representing religious organizations and foundations, contacted Bishop Brown, who had spent much of his tenure looking for a way to build a cathedral.

Naysayers quickly challenged the plan, arguing that it was too expensive and that Schuller’s cathedral would be unsuitable for Catholic liturgies. However, Busch believed the property offered great value to the local Church, and he won over Bishop Brown and other leading Catholics in the diocese.

“The Oakland cathedral is on two acres and cost $200 million, and the Los Angeles cathedral is on five acres and cost $200 million,” he told the Register, noting the much greater costs associated with building a cathedral from the ground up.

The acquisition of Schuller’s 34-acre campus, by comparison, “cost a total of $120 million, including $63 million  for renovation and carrying costs.”

Robert Neal, managing partner of Hager Pacific Properties, a Newport Beach, Calif.-based real estate investment firm, is the chairman of the architectural renovation committee. He told the Register that the acquisition of Schuller’s campus provided the Orange Diocese with a unique opportunity.

“The Catholic Church has been a leader in art and architecture for the world,” Neal said. “That legacy poses a special challenge for us as we find ourselves dealing with structures designed by three great architects.”

However, while Neal and his team respect the genius of Philip Johnson, who viewed the Crystal Cathedral as one of his most important buildings, they have not lost sight of their central mission: transforming the interior of the cathedral into a place worthy of the Mass.


Challenging Renovation

The committee has turned for guidance to De La Salle Christian Brother William Woeger, the director of worship for the Archdiocese of Omaha, Neb., and a well-known consultant who helped to guide the design of the Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland, Calif., among other projects.

“We have a unique situation. The cathedral is an iconic building,” Brother William told the Register.

 “We need someone who would respect the buildings but also balance that to make the kind of design changes to accommodate Roman Catholic liturgy.”

He noted that the architect must tackle a number of challenges, from controlling the light in the glass-enclosed space to figuring out the proper placement of the tabernacle, the ambo and the bishop’s chair, as well as the baptismal font.

“One way to have this dialogue,” he suggested, is to work through all the liturgical elements of the Triduum, which incorporates the “fullness of liturgical expression.”

Brother William acknowledged that modern Catholic cathedrals have stirred controversy among the faithful, and he predicted that this cathedral’s specific design problems would take time to resolve. But he did not anticipate any protracted conflict.

“Everyone recognizes that we have a late-mid-century modern structure, and it is what it is. If the clients abhorred that, they would never have purchased the property,” he said.

When Catholics raise questions about whether a “modern” church is appropriate for worship, he suggested, “it is more about bad architecture than something inherently” opposed to Catholic liturgical worship.

“At no point in history has the Church made the Sign of the Cross over a particular style of architecture. What we are really after is good design that is in the service of the liturgy.”


Bishop Vann’s Vision

Robert Neal told the Register that he expected the cathedral redesign and renovation to be finished by early 2016, at the latest, and that interlude will give Bishop Vann time to implement his broader vision for the complex as a religious and cultural center in a fast-growing region with vibrant Hispanic and Asian immigrant communities.

“We are working on the space, but at the end of the day, this campus will distinguish itself not by what we build, but what goes on programmatically,” said Neal. “We see it as a center for liturgy, art and culture.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.