Diocese of Orange unveils planned alterations for former Crystal Cathedral

The Diocese of Orange is modifying the former Crystal Cathedral, now called Christ Cathedral, to conform with Catholic tradition while also acknowledging its unique design.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The glass-paneled megachurch where Robert H. Schuller once delivered sermons broadcast around the world is being transformed into a more subdued sanctuary that will conform to the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church, a process that will soften the vision of the former preacher yet take advantage of the majestic architecture he left behind.

Nearly three years after it bought the Crystal Cathedral, the Diocese of Orange on Wednesday unveiled its ambitious design for a place now called the Christ Cathedral.


Christ Cathedral: An article in the Sept. 25 LATExtra section about the conversion of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove into the Diocese of Orange’s Christ Cathedral misspelled the last name of the Rev. Msgr. Arthur A. Holquin as Holguin. —
Since the diocese purchased the sprawling Garden Grove campus for $57.5 million in 2011 after Schuller’s ministry filed for bankruptcy, religious advisers, architects and designers have sought to reimagine the modern church in the Catholic tradition while maintaining the unique qualities that have made it a destination for religious and secular visitors from around the world.


“We are inheritors of an iconic building … and we needed to be respectful of this environment,” said Rev. Msgr. Arthur A. Holguin.

During a preview of the proposed plans, those involved in the project said many people — among them architecture buffs, Schuller devotees and local Catholics — have asked how the massive cathedral could be changed, and whether it could ever fill its role as the gathering center for the diocese’s 1.2 million members.

Rob Neal, a volunteer who serves on the cathedral’s architecture board, said the designs addressed those concerns.

“We did what many people said we couldn’t do, which is create an intrinsically Catholic space in a late modern building,” he said.

In redesigning the cathedral, some considerations were practical — such as how to protect worshipers from the bright light that can stream through the church’s 10,000 glass panels, creating glare and heat.

Others were foundational — such as how to create a church that focused attention not on the pulpit where Schuller preached but on the altar, which is central to Catholic tradition.


To pull it off, the interior of the cathedral will be almost entirely remade.

“We’re beginning almost with a complete clean palette inside the cathedral,” Holguin said.

Shade structures in the shape of quatrefoils (similar to four-petaled flowers) will line the interior glass and tall walls will surround much of the worship area, creating an environment that is more inward oriented than the current cathedral, which was designed so that the outdoors felt near and light could pour into the sanctuary.

At the center of the space, a platform will hold the altar, a lectern and the bishop’s seat — known as the cathedra. One thing that could not be moved is the massive Hazel Wright pipe organ, one of the largest such instruments in the world. Instead, it will be refurbished and refinished in a more muted color so that it blends into the background rather than taking center stage, Neal said.

In the redesign, the cathedral will be set apart from the rest of the campus by a large plaza ringed by hundreds of crape myrtles. The building, originally designed by Philip Johnson, is expected to reopen in 2017.

Sections of the seven-building, 34-acre campus have already been opened to worshipers and visitors. On weekends, 11 Masses are held in the Arboretum, which was Schuller’s original sanctuary on the campus.

When worshipers and visitors come to the cathedral, said Bishop Kevin W. Vann, “I hope they’ll feel drawn to God. I hope they’ll feel a sense of continuity, that this is the Crystal Cathedral but now it’s a Catholic cathedral.”

Reached by phone Wednesday, Schuller’s grandson Pastor Bobby Schuller praised the design.

“I think they’ve done a really good job preserving the intent of the original architect … while still being able to adapt it to the worship needs of an altar-centered liturgy,” he said.


He noted that his grandfather advocated for the Roman Catholic diocese to prevail in its purchase of the cathedral.

“We knew they had a real love and a high value for grand architecture,” the younger Schuller said. “For my grandfather that was hugely important. For him architecture was an aesthetic way to worship God, a way to use beauty and art to bring glory to the name of God.”

In a nod to the past, church leaders said a Crystal Cathedral Ministries Legacy Garden will feature a large screen with replicas of nearly 2,000 religious steppingstones, which were purchased by supporters of the original cathedral and formed what was known as the Walk of Faith. During renovations, the diocese began removing the stones.

Creating the screen, Neal said, is a “tribute to the people whose work ... we’ve really inherited.”