St. Charles Borromeo Church ‘Creates an Environment Which Makes You Think of the Eucharist’

Diocese of Fresno has dedicated the largest parish church in North America.

Bishop Joseph Brennan of the Diocese of Fresno dedicates St. Charles Borromeo Church in Visalia, California, on Feb. 2.
Bishop Joseph Brennan of the Diocese of Fresno dedicates St. Charles Borromeo Church in Visalia, California, on Feb. 2. (photo: Diocese of Fresno)

VISALIA, Calif. — The Diocese of Fresno in central California has dedicated St. Charles Borromeo, the largest parish church in North America, with Bishop Joseph Brennan presiding at the Feb. 2 dedication Mass. The church, with seating for 3,200 faithful, serves 14,000 registered families in the growing farming community of Visalia. 

The new Catholic church is one of four in the city all under the umbrella of Good Shepherd parish, served by two diocesan priests, including the pastor, Father Alex Chavez. It is open for Mass only on Sundays, and reflecting the large community it serves, two of its three Sunday Masses are offered in Spanish (with other Visalia churches used for weekday Masses, weddings and funerals). 

Due to its central location in the diocese, San Joaquin Valley locale and large capacity, it will henceforth be used for major diocesan gatherings, such as chrism Masses and ordinations, as well as for special events.

“We had not initially envisioned a church that large for that site, but instead had thought it would be a more typical-sized church, with a seating capacity of 1,500,” explained Bishop Brennan to the Register. “But with the projections of population growth in the area, and the diminishing number of priests, the diocese has to serve our people, the church size grew, and necessarily so.”

The new church encompasses 33,000 square feet of space, “a football field under a roof,” Msgr. Patrick McCormick, 76, a diocesan priest involved in its planning and who serves as a spiritual adviser for its artwork, joked to the Register.

The diocesan chancery is located in Fresno, about a 45-minute drive away from St. Charles. The diocese was founded in 1924, and St. John’s parish church in Fresno, with a seating capacity of only 500, was selected at the time to be the diocese’s cathedral. The building of a new, larger church in a more central location of the diocese had been the “dream” of previous Fresno Bishop John Steinbock (1937-2010), Msgr. McCormick said, which began with the building of St. Charles’ parish hall in 2011. 

The new church is being built in three phases; phase one, now finished, included the completion of some of the interior of the church, the installation of an electronic Allen organ, retablo (decorative altar piece), cupola (altar dome), sanctuary and baptismal font.

The initial price tag of the church was $21 million, Msgr. McCormick said. Phases two and three will commence as funds are raised and will include the installation of stained-glass windows, two alcoves with shrines to Our Lady of Guadalupe and Our Lady of Fatima, and confessionals. 

The church is designed in the California Mission style, with roots in Spanish architecture dating back centuries. The retablo has images of angels and the saints facing a central crucifix, with the saints selected coming from the parish churches of the diocese, as well as images of San Joaquin Valley farmland and cattle. A redwood tabernacle is below the crucifix. The altar has images of the apostles surrounding it. Three bells over the entry symbolize the Trinity. Its narthex includes paintings of the four churches of Visalia that make up Good Shepherd parish. 

“There is so much I like about this church, starting with the cupola over the sanctuary, which creates an environment which makes you think of the Eucharist,” Bishop Brennan said.

Above the sanctuary, he continued, “It also has a beautiful image, sort of a star cluster cloud, a painting of an image taken from the Hubble Telescope, that leads you to think, as we are all gathered at the altar, of God’s incredible creation of the universe and how we fit into it.”

Parishioner Steve Perry, who served as chairman of the St. Charles building committee, believes the crucifix behind the altar is the church’s most impressive feature. It was designed to have the Crucified Christ looking up at an image of the Father behind the cross with an image of the Holy Spirit just above the Father. In order to be seen from throughout the church, the corpus had to be seven feet tall; paintings of angels and saints throughout the church are life size, Perry said. “Because the church is so large, everything has to be proportionate.”

Among the painted images are depictions of St. Joseph, St. Thérèse of Lisieux and St. Anthony, favorite saints of longtime parishioner Bea West. “It’s fabulous,” she said of the church. “We love it. It’s like being in one of the great churches of France.”

Outside the church is a large plaza area to which will be added an image of Christ the Good Shepherd with four lambs, symbolizing the four churches of Visalia. Future plans for the church also include the creation of a columbarium in which cremated remains of loved ones can be interred according to Church teaching. 


Standing-Room Only

Since the church opened to the public, Masses have been standing room only, reported Father Chavez. Many are locals coming for Mass who work in agriculture or at a large hospital that serves the region, but some have come from throughout California after reading media reports about the new church. 

Perry added, “It’s been phenomenal. The church has become a destination. The old saying is true: ‘If you build it, they will come.’”

Because of the large crowds, Perry continued, parishioners’ have pointed out a shortage of parking. “Our Ash Wednesday attendance was off the charts,” he said. “I can’t imagine what our first Easter services will be like.” 

West advises visitors to come early if they want to get a seat close to the front.

The diocese’s upcoming “I Thirst Fresno” event, sponsored by Spirit Filled Hearts Ministry, on Saturday, March 18, featuring Mass with Bishop Brennan and presentations by prominent Catholic speakers, is part of the diocese’s plan to promote the National Eucharistic Revival among its parishioners.

Bishop Brennan will keynote the event with Mass; the day will also include music, time for prayer and presentations, including a talk in Spanish by Bishop Brennan. There will be both English- and Spanish-language tracks; Bishop Brennan has invited all interested Catholics to participate.

“I Thirst Fresno” is part of the Jesus Thirsts for America movement, which visits dioceses nationwide for Mass and prayer led by the bishop, a call to conversion and follow-up. The movement is the brainchild of Deacon Steve Greco, president of Spirit Filled Hearts Ministry and director of evangelization and formation for the Diocese of Orange, California. Speakers for the Visalia event include EWTN’s Teresa Tomeo and Father Chavez.

“We’re delighted that Bishop Brennan has welcomed the Jesus Thirsts for America movement to St. Charles Borromeo Church,” said Deacon Greco. “Its central location, large capacity and beautiful religious artwork make it an ideal location for a large revival event such as ‘I Thirst Fresno,’ and we’re confident that with Bishop Brennan’s participation, it will be a huge success.”

The parish awaits those attendees — and pilgrims of all sorts.

“People have been coming from San Francisco to San Diego to look at the artwork and architecture,” said Msgr. McCormick. “I believe that once we complete our two shrines, St. Charles will become a site for pilgrimage.”