Finally! Catholic Diocese Owns the Crystal Cathedral

Well, I had thought the Crystal Cathedral deal was final last November, when I wrote about it on my blog.  Not so, though! 

The Crystal Cathedral’s congregation, in spite of their bankruptcy claim, was understandably sentimental about the Orange County landmark; and they tried one more time to recover Orange County’s architectural jewel. 

Yesterday, it was finally over.  A federal bankruptcy judge ordered the sale to proceed. 

Here (following) is my post from the week of the sale, including my interview with the lead attorney for the Diocese of Orange, Timothy R. Busch.

CRYSTAL CATHEDRAL:  Was the Holy Spirit the Highest Bidder?

Since 1980 the Crystal Cathedral—that prismatic glass tower that slices Garden Grove’s cerulean skies—has refracted the seven colors of the spectrum in the California sun.  Soon, though, the familiar landmark will shine with the light of the Catholic faith and the seven sacraments.

“I don’t think it’ll happen,” said Tim Busch on Monday, November 14, referring to the Diocese of Orange’s bid to acquire the famed Crystal Cathedral, home to iconic televangelist Robert H. Schuller’s “Hour of Power” broadcast.  “It would take a miracle.”

Bishop Tod Brown and his team of advisors and legal experts may have gotten their miracle three days later, when a bankruptcy judge ruled that the Crystal Cathedral Ministries board of directors had acted within the law when they accepted the offer of the Diocese over that of competing bidder Chapman University.

The Bidding War

In a nail-biting bidding war for the property, the Diocese of Orange had originally offered $50 million for the property, which includes the Crystal Cathedral and a number of additional buildings on a 31-acre plot.  That bid was countered by Chapman University, which offered $51.5 million with a 15-year leaseback and a five-year buyback option.  The Diocese increased its bid to $53.6 million, with a lease-back provision at below-market rates; this was followed by increases in the bid to $55.4 million and finally 57.5 million; but Chapman University, intent on acquiring the property, made two additional offers:  first, an offer to purchase the Cathedral for $51.5 million with a $1-per-month, 15-year lease for core buildings without a buyback option; and then on Wednesday, November 16, just 30 minutes before the Ministries’ Board meeting, a second offer of $59 million plus additional incentives.

According to Busch, corporate counsel to the Diocese of Orange and an advisor to Bishop Tod Brown, media reports of a $1.5 million gap between the university’s bid and that of the diocese were grossly understated.  Counting the additional rent and long-term occupancy incentives offered by Chapman University, Busch estimated that the Diocese of Orange was actually overbid by as much as $30 million.

But with U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Kwan’s ruling late Thursday, November 17, the Crystal Cathedral, designed by architect Philip Johnson and boasting more than 10,000 glass panels, was sold to the Roman Catholic diocese.

The diocese has agreed to allow the ministry to remain on the property, leasing the main cathedral building for up to three years.  During that three-year period, the diocese will work with architects to plan the eventual renovation of the cathedral premises—maintaining the elegant glass exterior but gutting the interior to make the space suitable for Catholic liturgical worship.

What renovations will be necessary?

Well, of course, Catholic worship requires an altar on which to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  In addition, Bishop Brown will be outfitting the church—built in the tradition of the Reformed Church of America—with an ambo, a presidential chair, a tabernacle, candles, and a baptismal font.  The current seating will be replaced with more typical pews (and kneelers).

Only the organ—with 273 rank, five manual pipes—will remain and will be used in worship.  The grand organ incorporates both the Aeolian-Skinner organ built in 1962 for New York’s Avery Fisher Hall, and the Ruffatti organ which had been installed in the church’s earlier sanctuary.

How will the Diocese of Orange finance the deal?

Tim Busch projected that beyond the $57.5 million purchase price, the total cost of renovations will reach another $50 million.  In the immediate future, the focus will be on necessary refurbishments for the various smaller buildings on campus—buildings which were constructed in the 1960s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, with the most recent construction having been completed in 1995.  Once the main cathedral building is vacated in one to three years, it will be completely emptied and modified to accommodate the Catholic liturgy.

The total $110 million cost is actually substantially lower than the estimated $250 million required to design and build a new cathedral for the diocese’s 1,200,000 members.  Some of the funds will be gained through the sale of diocesan property which will no longer be needed, such as the Chancery building.  Busch acknowledged that there was already at least one offer for the Chancery property, and he expected others.

Why did the Crystal Cathedral prefer the Catholic bid?

A major concern for Crystal Cathedral Ministries was that Chapman University would not use the facility for worship but would convert it for secular use, purportedly as a performing arts center.  The Catholic Church, in contrast, would continue to pray and worship in the building.

And what’s more, Sheila Schuller Coleman, daughter of Robert H. Schuller and current pastor of the church, remarked in a video on the Crystal Cathedral’s website that the Chapman University plan provided no space for the church’s children:  for youth ministries or Sunday school or classroom space for preschool, kindergarten, elementary and high school students. 

 In the end, the Crystal Cathedral board voted to accept the offer of the diocese. 

The Schuller family’s friendly relationship with the Catholic Church

Robert H. Schuller spoke often about how he was influenced by the great gothic cathedrals of Europe.  Unable to find a similar worship space in Orange County, California, he set out to build one—and he enlisted the help of modernist architect Philip Johnson to reinterpret the strong vertical elements of Catholic cathedrals utilizing modern materials such as glass.

Schuller was always respectful of the Catholic Church, saying that the Roman Catholic Church is “the mother church.”  He professed, “You are the church that has been here since the Resurrection, and you will be here 100 years from now.”

On several occasions, Schuller invited Bishop Fulton J. Sheen to speak at his church.  A bronze statue of Bishop Sheen stands at the Crystal Cathedral, commemorating his visit and serving as a reminder of Schuller’s friendly respect.  Roman Catholic theologian Henry Nouwen also preached from their pulpit.

There is a story of how Bishop Sheen, after speaking at the Crystal Cathedral, was being led through a roped-off passageway by Robert Schuller, as devoted fans reached out to touch him.  As he passed this area heading toward the car, one elderly woman handed him a note, which he tucked into his pocket.  Once inside the car, the bishop opened and read the note and asked Schuller, “Do you know where this trailer park is?”  Schuller did know; and he agreed to take Bishop Sheen to the trailer park, just a few miles away, before they ate lunch.  Once there, Bishop Sheen knocked at the door of one trailer, where the elderly woman received him with a shocked expression.  After a few minutes he came out again, returned to the car, and said, “Now she’s ready for living—in this life and the next.”  I suppose he had heard the woman’s confession.

After Robert H. Schuller’s 1,000th broadcast of the “Hour of Power,” leaders from many faiths stepped up to congratulate him.  One of the congratulatory messages was from Mother Teresa.

The Holy Spirit was involved, and He changed hearts.

According to Tim Busch, one member of the Crystal Cathedral’s board told him as the court proceedings drew to an end, “I like the way you guys have handled this, and I’m going to convert to Catholicism.”  Wednesday evening in the courtroom, she walked up to the bishop and repeated that.

Schuller himself gave his blessing to the sale.  “I could not abide the thought,” the 85-year-old minister wrote in a letter to the court, “that Chapman might someday use the cathedral for nonreligious purposes.”  Catholic leaders had promised that they would “take on your calling of proclaiming Christ’s message to humanity” and “care for the campus like the treasure it is.”

I asked Tim whether he had any personal thoughts about the sale, or about the long road that had brought the Diocese of Orange to this point.  He answered easily:  “Highlight that the Holy Spirit was involved, and that He changed hearts.”

The Crystal Cathedral board acted prudently; it wasn’t all about the money or all about them. They knew that God had given them this property, and they sought to preserve it as a place of prayer.  It was truly a conversion, and truly an opportunity to see how the Spirit works.  That is the story.

  • readering

    Beautiful and informative post. I had not realized so much money would be needed for conversion, but it makes sense.
    Seems ironic that almost all the most beautiful older churches in England and Ireland have for a long time not been Catholic, thanks to the Reformation, but here in Southern California one of the most beautiful modern houses of worship is passing in the opposite direction.

  • MG

    Wow. As a fallen-away Catholic, I was given Robert Schuller’s autobiography as a groomsman’s gift. It was an enjoyable and inspiring read. Soon after, I learned of a men’s conference at the Crystal Cathedral and made a six-hour drive to attend. This was one of the first steps in what turned out to be a return to my Catholic faith and Church. From time to time when I look at my bookshelf and see “My Journey”, I recall Fulton Sheen’s statue near the elevator on my floor in the hotel I stayed at during the conference, as well as references to him by Schuller and marvel at the curious ways the Holy Spirit uses to lead us. When I read this story about the Crystal Cathedral itself “joining” the Catholic Church, I almost fell over. Incredible.

  • Grateful Alive

    We were told as kids to pray for my dad’s conversion to Catholicism and we did, especially my mom and sister. Eventually, I ended up giving up on the Catholic Church and, like my dad, watched Robert H. Schuller for inspiration on Sunday mornings often.

    In the past 3 or so years, I’ve watched Schuller’s ministry and family fall apart, I myself have started going back to Mass, my dad has converted to Catholicism after 50 years of marriage and now, the Crystal Cathedral, which my father had attended on multiple occasions (even though he lives 2k miles away), will be a Catholic place of worship for Orange County, and more importantly, for Southern California.

    Like the Catholic Church itself, the history of Robert Schuller and family has had its ups and downs. I am grateful to Schuller for his amazing vision, his intellectual curiosity and his openness to God’s influence. Like CS Lewis, Schuller’s collections of thoughts and writings stand up to history for all Christian denominations. I pray for nothing but the best for him and his family.


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