Iconic glass-paned Crystal Cathedral converted to Catholic church

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GARDEN GROVE — An iconic glass-paned church in Southern California that once housed a booming televangelist ministry has been transformed into a cathedral to give the region's Catholics a long-awaited and much larger place to congregate and pray.

The landmark, with a facade made up of nearly 11,000 glass panes, was long known as Rev. Robert H. Schuller's Crystal Cathedral.

It appears unchanged from the outside. But the cavernous house of worship is covered on the inside with quatrefoil window shades that send sunlight cascading across a stone altar, wooden pews and prominent steel crucifix.

The changes are part of a $77 million makeover to convert the space for Roman Catholic worship by adding features such as the Bishop's chair and the geometric window shades that draw in light while keeping the 2,100-seat building now known as Christ Cathedral cool and airy under the glaring afternoon sun.

"Our hope is that through the beauty of this place people will be drawn closer to the divine," said Father Christopher Smith, episcopal vicar and rector of Christ Cathedral. "Every time people have walked in here since we've opened it up to people to see it, that is exactly what's happened."

The July 17 dedication of the building opens a new chapter for the diocese of Orange, which was formed in the 1970s when the county's population was much smaller. Since then, Orange County has grown into a densely-populated and diverse region between Los Angeles and San Diego that is home to more than a million Catholics.

For years, the diocese was planning to build a new cathedral to have a central place for special events such as ordinations. Auxiliary Bishop Timothy Freyer said he recalled being given a capped number of invitations when he was ordained three decades ago due to the limited seating at the county's much smaller cathedral.

The proposal, however, carried a steep price tag, and when Schuller's Crystal Cathedral went bankrupt in 2010 the diocese instead opted to buy the sprawling campus in Garden Grove for $57.5 million. In addition to the cathedral, the campus has a school, cemetery and offices surrounded by scenic gardens and water features.

"It would have cost hundreds of millions to build from scratch, and this was a godsend when we were able to get this in bankruptcy," Freyer said.

The diocese sought to reflect the community's traditions in the new cathedral. The relics that will be placed in the altar of the church are from martyrs and saints from Vietnam, Mexico and South Korea in addition to North America, reflecting Orange County's immigrant populations. They also are from St. John Paul II, who was pope from 1978 to 2005.

The building was designed by architect Philip Johnson and completed in 1980. At the time, it housed the ministry founded by Schuller, an Alton, Iowa-born pastor ordained by the Reformed Church in America who began preaching at a California drive-in movie theater in 1955 with his wife Arvella.

Schuller started the "Hour of Power" in 1970 to spread his message that "possibility thinking" and love of God overcome hardships. The program had millions of viewers at its peak but the church filed for bankruptcy after a disastrous leadership transition and a decline in viewership and donations.

Schuller died in 2015 after a battle with cancer. His grandson is a church pastor and has a television ministry in Orange County.

The new cathedral will be open for weekend Mass but closed weekdays until next year while the Hazel Wright pipe organ, the world's fifth-largest, is voiced and tuned.

The new space could put an end to overcrowded weekend worship in the parish, where some Mass times are standing-room-only, Smith said. It also holds meaning for churchgoers from other parishes who see the cathedral as a special place for the county's Catholics and faithful from all religions.

"What's the best part of it it's not only a cathedral, it's actually a center for the Catholic faith in Orange County," said Lorraine Fiori, a volunteer docent who gives tours of the campus. "We want it to be a welcoming center for people of all faiths."

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