From ‘Crystal Cathedral’ to Christ Cathedral: Orange Diocese to Celebrate Grand Opening

The first Mass and dedication of the new cathedral with Bishop Kevin Vann takes place this week on July 17, 2019.

Catholic elements are the hallmark of the renovation, from the large crucifix to window shades and baptismal font.
Catholic elements are the hallmark of the renovation, from the large crucifix to window shades and baptismal font. (photo: Courtesy of Diocese of Orange)

The Diocese of Orange, in Southern California, is preparing for the grand opening of its new Christ Cathedral with a series of events, the highlight being the first Mass and dedication ceremony with Bishop Kevin Vann on July 17. The dedication is an elaborate liturgy which includes, in addition to Mass, the solemn handing over of the building to the bishop, the ritual opening of the front door, the blessing of the walls and the anointing of the walls and altar. 

Notable in the cathedral’s opening is that, unlike other recently completed cathedrals built from scratch, Christ Cathedral was previously the world-famous Crystal Cathedral founded by Reformed Church in America pastor Robert Schuller (1926-2015), which was purchased by the diocese and has undergone extensive renovation to make it ready for Catholic worship.

“It’s been a wonderful journey, and now we’re looking forward to the dedication,” said Father Christopher Smith, rector and episcopal vicar of Christ Cathedral. “The grand opening is the culmination of a lot of hard work and vision, and we’re very excited.”

The cathedral building is the most prominent of multiple structures on a 34-acre site in Garden Grove. Schuller commissioned postmodern architect Philip Johnson to design the structure, which, when completed in 1980, was covered with more than 11,000 panes of glass and encompassed 88,000 square feet. It was dubbed the “Crystal Cathedral,” although it was neither: It was not made of crystal nor, as a structure built by evangelical Protestants, did it have a bishop’s chair, or cathedra — and therefore was not a cathedral. The building became the quickly recognizable backdrop of Schuller’s religious services and a prominent feature of the Orange County community.

The building’s grounds also contain a variety of other structures that are now occupied by Catholic ministries, including the diocesan pastoral center (chancery); the “Tower of Hope,” housing a counseling service; a theater currently hosting “Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Exhibition”; a carillon (bell tower) with 52 bells; the Christ Cathedral Academy for grades K-8; memorial gardens; and Schuller’s gravesite. The Tower of Hope also houses a radio recording and broadcasting facility; in 2015, it became the West Coast broadcasting center for EWTN, with Bishop Vann and Michael Warsaw, the chairman of the board and CEO of EWTN Global Catholic Network, as its first guests. The Register is a service of EWTN.



The cathedral renovation, which began in 2017, has had many components. A “Bishop’s Door,” comprised of two 20-foot-tall bronze doors, has replaced the cathedral’s glass doors. A baldachin, a centerpiece hanging 30 feet above the altar, and Crux Gemata, or large crucifix, have been added. Eleven thousand quatrefoils, or window shades, to regulate heat and deflect UV rays, have been installed on ceilings and walls. Bishop Vann traveled to Verona, Italy, to select the stone and marble used for the altar, cathedra, ambo and baptismal font. 

Relics incorporated into the cathedral include one from Vietnamese martyr Andrew Dung-Lac, as well as others from other saints, including California missionary Junípero Serra.  There is seating for 2,100 worshippers.

Renovation of other parts of the grounds began in 2012 and has included seismic retrofitting, installation of air conditioning and fountain repairs. After the grand opening, additional phases of construction are planned for the cathedral, including the addition of a bishops’ crypt, underground chapels and columbaria. Construction is also being considered elsewhere on the grounds for such additions as a café and a visitor’s center.

Christ Cathedral serves the 1.3 million Catholics of the Diocese of Orange. The diocese became independent of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 1976, and, today, it is home to 57 parishes, five Catholic centers and 41 schools. Its previous chancery was at Marywood Center in Orange, a former girls’ Catholic high school converted into offices and a retreat center.


Diocese Purchase

Following the bankruptcy of Crystal Cathedral Ministries, the Diocese of Orange bought the site for $57.5 million in 2012 and has since invested another $77 million to renovate it. In an interview with the diocese’s Orange County Foundation, Tim Busch, a prominent Orange County businessman who has spearheaded efforts to acquire and fundraise for the Cathedral, called its purchase “an absolutely incredible story.”

He noted that, in 2010, diocesan leadership had wanted to build a new cathedral to replace its Holy Family Cathedral, a parish converted into a cathedral, for a decade. He and other Catholic businessmen had learned that the Crystal Cathedral was in financial distress, and they went to the previous diocesan bishop, Bishop Tod Brown, suggesting to him that the diocese acquire the site for its new cathedral and chancery office. Busch recalled, “It didn’t seem conceivable, much less possible. The bishop was initially cool to the idea.”

The bishop had a change of heart, and the diocese began bidding for the property. Rival bidders included a local college, Chapman University. Chapman ultimately offered a higher bid than the diocese, but it was Schuller’s desire, Busch said, that the site continue to be used “for the worship of Jesus Christ.” With Schuller’s support, by a 5-4 vote, the cathedral’s board agreed to sell to the Diocese of Orange.

“The new Christ Cathedral is like having a downtown for the Diocese of Orange,” concluded Father Smith. “It has taken years to design and refurbish and will not serve just itself, but the entire diocese and the larger Church. It has invigorated the diocese, and we’re very much looking forward to its opening.”

Register correspondent Jim Graves writes from Newport Beach, California.