Onetime Crystal Cathedral is in transition to a Roman Catholic site

Los Angeles TimesSeptember 28, 2013 

GARDEN GROVE, Calif. — Towering like the Emerald City, the cathedral formerly known as Crystal sits at what might be Orange County's nucleus, a trinity of confluencing freeways, the Angels and Ducks stadium and a glimpse of a sacred place of a different kind — Disneyland

From that gleaming sanctuary, evangelist Robert Schuller delivered sermons that were beamed to televisions around the world. His ministry became synonymous with the megachurch, designed so the light and the breeze could stream through, a grand replica of his humble beginnings preaching on the roof of an Orange drive-in's snack shop.

The Crystal Cathedral was to Schuller what Graceland was to Elvis. Now it has been bought by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, which has long coveted having a cathedral that sat at the center of its vast footprint of nearly 1.3 million Catholics.

The name has already been changed to the Christ Cathedral. But the work of liturgical consultants, priests and architects to transform a temple so closely identified as a symbol of Schuller's sunny, uniquely Southern Californian theology into one that conforms to the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church has just begun.

"The exterior will always be the Crystal Cathedral, at least for a while," said Duncan Stroik, a professor of architecture at Notre Dame and editor of the publication Sacred Architecture Journal. "Catholic on the inside, but kind of Protestant on the outside."

Those who have taken on the project recognize that their assignment is an intimidating one, but they also have faith:

They can turn the Crystal Cathedral into the Christ Cathedral.

Rob Neal can imagine a Sunday morning a few years from now. The Catholic worshipers arrive at a shimmering cathedral — a fabrication of glass, metal and air — that reaches toward a cobalt sky.

They will dip a finger into blessed waters and make the sign of the cross. They will sing along as the rumbling organ, among the largest in the world, plays traditional hymns. And they will kneel as the priest leads them in prayer during the transubstantiation of unleavened bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.

It will be an "intrinsically Catholic" sanctuary," said Neal, the Orange County property developer who has volunteered to help lead the conversion.

The diocese bought the Crystal Cathedral campus in 2011 for $57.5 million, bidding for the Garden Grove property after Schuller's ministry filed for bankruptcy.

When the diocese was formed in 1976, a large suburban church, Holy Family in Orange, became its headquarters. For some, the absence of a centrally located cathedral became increasingly noticeable as the diocese grew. The church needed a place that, as Bishop Kevin Vann described, demonstrated the scope of Orange County's Catholic community.

"It helps them see their faith is larger," he said.

"It's a God-given opportunity to build a community of faith here," Vann said. "It's easy to get to, it's visible, it's on bus lines."

The diocese launched a $53-million undertaking to refurbish the complex, moving the congregation of nearby St. Callistus to the Christ Cathedral campus and handing over the old Catholic church to the Crystal Cathedral's refugees. (The transition hasn't gone without tension: The removal of engraved markers, called Walk of Faith stones, during the construction process has upset some of the Schuller followers who bought them.)

Walking the cathedral grounds, Neal marveled at what the Catholic Church has acquired: The Richard Neutra-designed Arboretum, where experts were at work restoring the architect's original vision. The cultural center, so futuristic in its design that it stood in as Starfleet headquarters in a Star Trek movie. And his favorite place, the Chapel in the Sky, the penthouse peninsula of windows from which he could see the far reaches of the diocese's domain.

But as he stood in the church's courtyard on a bright afternoon, the noontime sun splashing off its reflective facade, Neal knew the cathedral that serves as the heart of this campus would likely make for the most daunting project of his career.

"I want people to come in and be overwhelmed," he said, "by the sense of God and the sense of beauty."

For most of the buildings, Neal said, the church has turned to secular experts, such as scholars so schooled in Neutra's work they can handle the meticulous job of picking colors and even deciding where to set landscaping stones in a way that fits in his vision.

The same applied to the exterior of the Crystal Cathedral.

"That's yours," Neal said he told the preservationists, referring to the places the diocese intends to keep as ecumenical, or non-denominational, spaces.

Then he gestured at the cathedral. "But that's ours."

As a schoolboy in St. Louis, Brother William Woeger was captivated by the impressive stature of a cathedral. He was drawn by the stained-glass windows, the art and the way architecture seemed to glorify his emerging beliefs. That sense of wonder has never ebbed.

His day job is director of worship for the Archdiocese of Omaha, but for more than 30 years he has worked on the side as a liturgical designer. He has been involved in the design and renovation of Catholic churches built in Romanesque style, Victorian style and even contemporary.

But he said that nothing in his career rivals the project in Orange County.

"It's unique because of the history, it's unique because of the legacy of Dr. Schuller," Woeger said.

Scholars said transforming sanctuaries of other faiths — or even secular spaces — into cathedrals wasn't unprecedented in the history of the church. In Rome, even pagan temples had become cathedrals.

In more recent times, the project stands alone.

Influential architect Philip Johnson designed the star-shaped structure that stood 128 feet tall, 415 feet long and 207 feet wide, with more than 10,000 glass panels attached to a latticework of white steel trusses using a silicone glue. The chancel, a 185-foot-wide span of marble quarried in Spain, could hold more than 1,000 singers and musicians.

"It's probably the first megachurch turned into a Catholic place," Stroik said. "It's an interesting shape, it's glass, it's not cruciform. All those things would not be traditional, or typical, of a Catholic Cathedral."

A cathedral, at least in the Catholic standard, tends to evoke a mental image of a gilded Roman basilica. Woeger is quick to correct that: A cathedral — named for the cathedra, the bishop's chair — can be gothic, it can be Byzantine, it can be as modern as the Crystal Cathedral.

The overarching requirement, Stroik said, is that Catholics believe the cathedral is God's house; as such, the structure should reflect that: "It should be beautiful, it should be worthy."

One point of concern, Stroik said, are the church's three balconies, which hold thousands of people.

He said they allow for a much larger congregation but fall outside the tradition of the Catholic Church, detracting from the notion that it is "one body in Christ" who have gathered. Other scholars agreed, but Woeger countered that the balconies could also be seen as bringing more people closer to the fore.

Stroik noted that within the fraternity of architects there would be a more earthly worry: "You don't want to be the guy that gets credited with destroying Philip Johnson's building."

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