The Crystal Cathedral opened with great promise three decades ago in Garden Grove, Calif., about an hour’s drive south of Los Angeles. It has since served as the headquarters and principal place of worship for Crystal Cathedral Ministries, a church founded by the Rev. Robert H. Schuller and affiliated with the Reformed Church in America. Preaching a mix of Protestant Christianity and the power of positive thinking à la Norman Vincent Peale, it became known internationally, in large part to its weekly television program “Hour of Power.”
But in recent years, the ministry has suffered from declining membership, dwindling donations and an abundance of negative press. The Cathedral filed for bankruptcy protection in 2010, and in 2011, went up for sale. The $57.5 million bid of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, long in search of an appropriate and affordable site for a new cathedral and chancery, was selected as the surprise winning bidder in November.
“The bottom line was that the majority of our board wanted the Crystal Cathedral site whole and used exclusively as a worship center,” said John Charles, Cathedral spokesman. The alternative bidder, Chapman University in Orange, had offered $59 million and said church services could continue on the site, but had planned to transform it into a satellite campus. Alan Martin, lead attorney for the diocese, said, “We were pleasantly surprised and quite pleased our offer was accepted.”
10,000 panes of glass
Robert Schuller founded his ministry in 1955. He began his preaching on the roof of a concession stand in a former drive-in movie theater. In 1970, he launched his weekly “Hour of Power” television program and became a nationally known televangelist.
In 1977, architect Philip Johnson was commissioned to build a church for Schuller’s growing congregation on a 31-acre site. Over 10,000 rectangular panes of glass were used in its construction. (Technically, the Crystal Cathedral is neither; the building is not made of crystal nor does it house a bishop’s chair.) It was completed in 1980 at a cost of $18 million. Among its many features is its 16,000-pipe organ, one of the five largest in the world, which accompanies its 100-plus Hour of Power choir, seating for nearly 3,000 and an electric fountain/stream that runs down the middle of the central aisle.
The Cathedral offered the ideal backdrop for Schuller’s “Hour of Power.” In addition to his inspirational message, the Cathedral regularly welcomed celebrity guests to share their message of faith, including Charlton Heston, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Norman Schwarzkopf, and performers such as Glen Campbell and Crystal Gayle. The televised “Hour of Power “accounted for 70 percent of the church’s revenue, Charles noted, and its declining viewership in recent years has been a major factor in the Cathedral’s financial woes.
Despite its prominence in the Orange County community, the Crystal Cathedral had also been the target of increasingly negative media coverage. In recent years, such stories had focused on Schuller family in-fighting (for example, after designating his son, Robert, as his successor, a father-son conflict led the son to resign from the church in 2008), and the comfortable six-figure salaries family members enjoyed at a time when the church was unable to pay vendors.
Charles acknowledged that the bad press had taken its toll on membership and donations, but stressed that church leadership has always acted in good faith and that the Cathedral had done much good in the community. He said, “Our programs have helped thousands.”
The Diocese of Orange chancery is currently located at Marywood Center in Orange, a former all-girls Catholic high school. Located in a quiet residential neighborhood on a hillside overlooking Orange County, Marywood serves as the diocese’s chancery and retreat center. The diocesan cathedral, Holy Family, is located about a 10-minute drive away. Orange Bishop Tod Brown had long sought to build a larger cathedral and to combine it with the chancery offices.
The diocese had purchased a site in Santa Ana to build its chancery and cathedral, but the Crystal Cathedral site offered a cheaper option, as the cathedral would not have to be built from the ground up. Additionally, it is centrally located in the diocese, with sufficient space for all chancery offices. Marywood would be sold once the relocation occurs.
Chancery officials have pledged to retain the outward appearance of the Cathedral, while making the needed interior changes to make it an appropriate Catholic worship space. Funding for the purchase will come from donations and bank loans, Martin said.
Once escrow closes, the Crystal Cathedral staff has up to three years to vacate the premises, said Marc Winthrop, bankruptcy counsel for the Crystal Cathedral. The Crystal Cathedral Academy, a K-12 school, can remain on the premises until the end of the 2012-13 school year. Robert Schuller has the option of keeping his 12th floor office in the Tower of Hope, a building on the grounds, as long as he wishes. A nondenominational chapel will also be maintained.
In a videotaped message to parishioners on the cathedral website, Senior Pastor Sheila Schuller Coleman (Schuller’s daughter) said she is still hoping for a “miracle” before escrow closes, a $50 million-plus donor to save the site.
The diocese has offered the cathedral the option of relocating to one of its parish sites, St. Callistus, located on the same street a few blocks away. Although the board has yet to decide, it’s an option for the cathedral, said Charles. St. Callistus will be closed regardless, said Martin, and current parishioners invited to join the new cathedral community.
Jim Graves writes from California.