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Bishop Vann’s vision for the new Christ Cathedral

Bishop Kevin Vann of the Diocese of Orange poses for a portrait at Christ Cathedral in Garden Grove.
Bishop Kevin Vann of the Diocese of Orange poses for a portrait at Christ Cathedral in Garden Grove.
(Kevin Chang / Weekend)

The man donning the cowboy boots with an image of the Virgin Mary stitched in the front might have known three years ago when he arrived in Orange County with the unusual footwear that he would need all the support he could muster, spiritual and otherwise.

Kevin Vann, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, is head of the nation’s 10th largest diocese. He and 289 priests serve over 1 million Catholics in 55 parishes.

Having had success in improving a diocese in another state, Vann aimed to repeat his success in Orange County, and that includes establishing a vibrant community on the campus of Christ Cathedral, which opens next year on the site of the former Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove.

The Crystal Cathedral represented the empire and vision of the Rev. Robert H. Schuller, a televangelist and author who died this year. The organization suffered through a leadership transition, family feud and bankruptcy before crumbling in 2010. The bankruptcy filing revealed a pattern of lavish spending, including generous salaries and benefits for Schuller family members on the church staff, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The Diocese of Orange bought the Crystal Cathedral in 2012 and began design plans for the new Christ Cathedral in 2014.

And now Christ Cathedral, in its place, can form the basis for another’s vision, that of Vann.

The Garden Grove campus, Vann said, will create opportunities for visitors to grow in their faith, wherever they may be in their journey. Christ Cathedral also will be the site of the first West Coast broadcast studio for EWTN, the largest media network in the world transmitting Catholic programming 24 hours a day. And it plans to broadcast Mass live.

The radio and television shows will create a dialogue and entertain listeners, he said, so people can hear everything from sermons by the pope and questions asked of local priests.

Vann, a Twitter user, believes that among his greatest achievements is new means of communication.

To discuss topics on local parishes and the Catholic Church, the diocese introduced Immaculate Heart Radio AM 1000, a new network that has over 6 million potential listeners from the Los Angeles County line to the Mexican border.

The diocese also plans to add a Spanish-language program.

Vann, who is fluent in Spanish and Italian and is developing his Vietnamese skills, said the increasing number of non-English speaking Catholics who have emigrated from Latin America and Asia have presented the greatest challenge to the diocese.

The church, he said, is on a mission to minister to their special needs.

The Diocese of Orange currently holds Masses in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Cantonese and Mandarin in the Garden Grove campus’ arboretum.

“The idea is to make it a community center,” Vann said. “The campus energy reflects the energy of the diocese of Orange County.”

Schuller’s legacy, the Philip Johnson-designed structure made of steel and 10,000 panes of glass with room for nearly 3,000 worshippers, will remain on the site, but the diocese has planned some modifications in transforming the Protestant landmark into a traditional Roman Catholic cathedral.

The glass windows, through which bright light streams, will be dimmed with sun protective shields. And at the center of the space, a platform will hold the altar, a lectern and the bishop’s seat — called the cathedra. The altar, which is central to Catholic tradition, will be the focus of attention rather than the pulpit where Schuller once preached. The large Hazel Wright pipe organ, one of the world’s largest, will be refurbished.

Currently, l

ocals and tourists may tour the memorial gardens and an exhibit showcasing architectural and interior plans for the new cathedral.

Vann, a 64-year-old Midwesterner, has led thousands of parishioners before, having served as bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas.

During his 7 1/2 years as bishop, Vann, an advocate of immigration reform, served as the Texas bishops’ liaison to the Texas Mission Council and on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration.

He also expanded the city’s existing parish communities, including the construction of the Arlington Vietnamese Martyrs Church — one of the largest Catholic churches in the country serving a Vietnamese congregation.

And in support of Catholic education, Vann was recognized for restructuring the diocesan school system in order to ensure its financial stability. He received the schools’ annual Diocesan Leadership Award at the Celebration of Catholic Schools annual event.

He started witih the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth when it was beginning a period of explosive growth.

“Bishop Vann’s deep spiritual belief and his genuine love for people — from his priests to the individuals in his pews — enabled the diocese to grow spiritually and physically, all the while respecting the diocese’s history and diversity,” the diocese said in a statement. “His kindness to each and every member of his Fort Worth flock is remembered fondly.”

When Vann transferred to the Diocese of Orange in 2012 to succeed retiring Bishop Tod Brown, he was sure to bring his Our Lady of Guadalupe boots. The special pair, made in the stockyards where many of the Fort Worth congregation worked, showcase the Virgin Mary stitched on the front, surrounded by red roses.

“I enjoy Orange County,” he said. “I try to be grateful wherever I’ve been, and I’m happy to be here.”

When Vann is not updating his 4,000 Twitter followers with encouraging messages or images of holy sites and people visiting Christ Cathedral, he plays piano, particularly jazz and standards by George Gershwin, Scott Joplin and Rodgers and Hammerstein.

He also likes to walk his two rescue dogs, Griffin and Gracie.

But placing others first has been a lifelong habit for him.

“It was Mom, Dad, God and helping others,” said Vann, the oldest of six children growing up in Springfield, Ill. His father was a mail carrier, his mother a pregnancy nurse.

After earning a degree in medical technology from Millikin University, Vann worked as a medical technologist, drawing blood and running tests for three years. He quit the position after a parish priest inspired him to enter the priesthood.

“My parents were fine with that,” he said. “They said if it didn’t work out, I could always come back home.”

At 25, he entered the Immaculate Conception Diocesan Seminary in Springfield and spent four years at Kenrick Seminary in St. Louis, majoring in theology.

After his ordination in 1981, Vann was assigned to graduate studies in Canon Law at the Angelicum in Rome. Vann said Pope John Paul II became an inspiration to him because of his ability to connect with people.

Upon his return to Springfield four years later, Vann served as pastor of parishes ranging in size from 35 to 1,300 families.

While pastor of Blessed Sacrament Parish, he was called upon by Pope Benedict XVI to become the third bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth in 2005.

Seven years later, he was installed as the fourth Bishop of the Diocese of Orange.

Lucy Dunn, president and CEO of the Orange County Business Council, said that when Vann came to Orange County three years ago, she asked him to give the invocation at the business council’s annual gala. Vann delivered the opening prayer before the 800 guests and was introduced to the council’s business and community leaders.

“He was so gracious,” Dunn said. “For me personally, he is generous of heart and he values the struggling people of Orange County. There are some real issues here, and on top of that, he is such a great leader in taking care of such an Orange County icon. That is a legacy that will transcend generations, and he has been stalwart in achieving that goal.”

Vann said he believes Catholics should nurture relationships with family and friends to bring them into the church. He said worshipers have a call and responsibility to care for those who are lost and hurting.

“You have to grow with the people to become a family of faith that reaches out and evangelizes to come to know Christ,” Vann said. “We have to be missionaries and carry out the good news.”


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