Former Evangelical Cathedral’s Future Is Crystal Clear

Robert Schuller’s 'Crystal Cathedral' is now 'Christ Cathedral'

(photo: Bobby Deal/Real Deal Photo/

GARDEN GROVE, Calif. — In Orange County, California, an iconic church of 20th-century evangelical Protestantism will no longer be called the “Crystal Cathedral.”

For the past several months, the 1.2 million Catholics in the southern California county have been calling it “our new cathedral.”

But as of June 9, when Bishop Tod Brown announced at the end of an ordination Mass that the proposed new name for the Reformed Church in America’s Crystal Cathedral had been approved by the Vatican, they are calling it Christ Cathedral.

“I wanted the name to be Christological,” said Bishop Brown. “Our cathedral can unite all Christians to share our common belief in Jesus Christ.”

Founded by pastor Robert Schuller, Crystal Cathedral filed for bankruptcy in October of 2010 when some of its creditors sued for payment.

In November 2011, a bankruptcy judge ruled that the Crystal Cathedral and the campus on which it stands would be sold to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange — an outcome that had seemed anything but certain in the months the diocese had worked to acquire the 34-acre property in Garden Grove.

When lay leaders first suggested to Bishop Brown that the diocese should look into the possibility, the bishop was not so inclined. The diocese had established Christ Our Savior Cathedral parish just a few years before. Bishop Brown’s former priest-secretary was named rector, and an architect was engaged. The parish was thriving, with seven weekend Masses in three languages.

But the projected cost savings (tens of millions of dollars at minimum) of purchasing the Crystal Cathedral, the Memorial Gardens, school and accompanying buildings that could house the diocesan offices, rather than building a new cathedral from the ground up — and the possibility that the Crystal Cathedral might no longer be a place of worship in the hands of another purchaser — changed the bishop’s mind.

An early leader in the process, the diocese was swiftly overtaken by Chapman University, located in Orange — the same city where the diocese’s Holy Family Cathedral stands. At one point, the private university was declared the preferred buyer — and small wonder: Chapman’s offer included one component that the diocese’s plan lacked: the opportunity to lease back and even repurchase some of the core buildings.

What the diocese could offer was, as General Counsel Maria Schinderle dubbed it, a “soft landing” that would offer a chance for Crystal Cathedral Ministries to continue its work.

In addition to renting back the property after purchase, this “soft landing” included an option for Crystal Cathedral Ministries to move onto the campus of St. Callistus Catholic Church, located a few blocks from the Crystal Cathedral. On June 7, Crystal Cathedral Ministries announced that it would exercise that option, moving to St. Callistus in June 2013. The St. Callistus congregation and school will then move to the cathedral campus.

The Diocese of Orange purchased the property for $57.5 million. The “campus swap” will be among the earliest of many changes for the diocese and Holy Family, Christ Our Savior, and the Marywood Pastoral Center that houses the diocesan offices. 

St. Callistus parishioners and clergy alike expressed tentative enthusiasm for their future facilities on a recent tour of the property. After all, they point out, the church is not the building in which the people meet, but the people themselves.

“I follow Christ,” says Luis Avila, a Hispanic community liaison for the parish, where he has worshipped since 2000. “Wherever he takes me, that’s where I go.”


Transformation Begins

But the lineup of changes for the diocese starts well before the proposed moves for Crystal Cathedral Ministries and the St. Callistus congregation; they begin July 1, when Father Christopher Smith, the diocesan vicar for priests, starts in his new position as episcopal vicar and rector for the cathedral. He will oversee a transformation that will include installing a cathedra, or bishop’s seat; baptismal font, pews and kneelers; creating a place for the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament, and selecting sacred imagery that will honor centuries of Catholic tradition without clashing with the very modern architecture of the building itself. Once all this has been taken care of, the cathedral will be solemnly dedicated in the first Catholic Mass celebrated there.

For Holy Family Cathedral — a parish church that was elevated to a cathedral when the diocese was created from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 1976 — little is likely to change (besides the church’s name, which may become Holy Family Pro Cathedral).

With 850 seats, the church has long been too small to host diocese-wide celebrations — such as the chrism Mass or ordinations to the priesthood — so those have taken place at the 1,500-seat St. Columban Church in Garden Grove. The Crystal Cathedral, by contrast, seats  3,000.

Christ Our Savior — such a new parish that the community worships in modular buildings — is located in the county seat of Santa Ana, which is already home to eight Roman Catholic churches (in addition to two Eastern-rite churches), many of them with standing-room-only Masses on Sundays and major feast days. Its name will change at least in part — it is no longer the cathedral parish, after all — but construction of a church will proceed, albeit on a smaller scale than originally planned.

And the hilltop home of the diocesan offices, the Marywood Pastoral Center, is expected to be sold to help fund the new property’s purchase. (Diocesan offices will move to the new campus.)

The diocese is well aware that its work on the Crystal Cathedral campus will capture not only the attention of local Catholics and non-Catholics but also that of fans of Schuller’s Hour of Power television program around the world.

The diocese’s move has not occurred without criticism. A recent essay by Duncan Stroik, a founding faculty member of Notre Dame’s classical program in the school of architecture, pointed out to readers of Sacred Architecture his belief that “without a radical transformation the building will always come across as a technological mega church rather than as a sacred place.”

“Can the Crystal Cathedral be converted to a Catholic cathedral?” he asks. “We shall see.”

In the Diocese of Orange, many parishioners don’t harbor such doubts.

“This property ... will be completely Catholic,” said Rob Neal, the chairman of the architecture and renovation committee. “Our hope is that, many years in the future, some people will have to be reminded that it was anything but a Catholic church.”

Register correspondent Elisabeth Deffner writes from Orange, California.