Seeing Stars: Churches of the Stars..

12141 Lewis Street (at Chapman Avenue),
Garden Grove, CA. / (714) 971-4000 or (714) 544-5679

If ever there was a "Hollywood" church, in the true sense of the word, it is the Community Church in Garden Grove, better known as The Crystal Cathedral. Ironically, it isn't even located in Hollywood; it's just a couple miles away from Disneyland, out in Orange County. But the Crystal Cathedral is pure show biz, from its movie star guest speakers to its artful use of the power of TV.

The largest glass building in the world, the Cathedral was built by the late Rev. Robert Schuller. Schuller started out in 1955, as pastor of California's first "drive-in" church, in Garden Grove. (Yes, it was actually situated in an old drive-in movie theatre, and Schuller preached from the roof of the concession stand.) After significant success on the airwaves, Rev. Schuller opened the Crystal Cathedral in 1980.

Each week, the Sunday services at the Crystal Cathedral were broadcast live across the nation as "The Hour of Power," and they often featured Hollywood stars such as Glen Campbell, Crystal Gayle, The Judds (Wynonna & Naomi), John Tesh, Jim Nabors and Roger Williams, plus celebrity speakers such as actors Arnold Schwarzenegger, Charlton Heston, and Miss America (Heather Whitestone).

And that's not to mention the cathedral's pipe organ (with 16,000 pipes, it's among the five largest pipe organs in the world), the 100-plus voices of the Hour of Power Choir, or the electric fountain/stream that runs down the middle of the central aisle.

But the real star of the show was the building itself; each week its soaring heights are captured in glittering detail by the television cameras.

The mammoth church is indeed impressive, and it was open daily for free public tours.

Made almost entirely of glass (and a spiderweb framework of white steel), the star-shaped "cathedral" is something to behold: over 400 feet long and 200 feet across, rising some 12 stories above the ground, with an angular, mirror-like exterior, its transparent, sun-lit interior features a giant television screen, and an altar of rich marble (bearing a natural image that some think resembles Christ on the cross).

The church seats almost 3,000 worshipers for Sunday services. But giant, sliding glass doors on the side of the church allow even more worshipers to watch the services from their cars in the parking lot.

Boasting over 12,000 panes of glass, and a sparkling, contemporary bell tower, the "cathedral " is an Orange County landmark visible for miles around.

The glass tower was added in 1990, and is a stunning edifice in its own right; at the tower's base you will find a tiny, dome-shaped chapel housing an uncommon, cross-shaped crystal.

In the simple gardens on the south side of the church, you'll find statues of Job, and of Christ as the Good Shepherd. The patio (like all of the walkways here) is studded with marble plaques bearing short, inspirational Bible verses and the names of contributors (somewhat like a religious version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame).

There were frequent special events, concerts and recitals held at the Cathedral, as well as three annual holiday events.

Each year, the Crystal Cathedral put on two major pageants: "The Glory of Christmas." (in December), and "The Glory of Easter" (in March). These dramatic religious spectacles blended religion & show-biz; they feature a cast of 200 in Biblical period costumes, a choir, flying "angels," live animals, and joyous music from a 70-piece orchestra. (You haven't been to church until you've seen live camels walking up the aisle, and an "angel" flying overhead on wires!)

Tickets to these special holiday pageants would set you back $25-$30 (The radio commercial for the "Glory of Easter" mentioned that the show included the scene where Jesus drives the money-changers out of the temple...)

In May, at the Cathedral's annual Memorial Day service, they unveiled the world's largest flying American flag, hanging ceiling-to-floor above the altar.

Besides hosting weekly televised services, concerts, and seasonal events, the church also offered guided tours for visitors. No appointment was necessary. Just drop by on most weekdays (as long as no special event is planned).

The "tours." of the church were informal, and access is limited. Most visitors simply walk in through the main church doors (on the south side), and gaze in awe at the Cathedral's sparkling interior; others opt to sit down and listen while as a guide in a red jacket recites a short lecture on the history of the church.

But the main and side aisles are roped off (as is the altar), restricting visitors to the back rows of the church, and you are not allowed upstairs at all. The electric fountain is inactive during these tours, and of course there are no celebrities or choirs on these weekday tours. So the "tour" of the church isn't exactly an exciting experience; in fact, it's not really a tour in the strict sense of the word, since you don't actually explore the church - you simply sit down in the back row and appreciate the unique architecture. After the brief lecture about the building, the guide will also answer any questions you might have about the Cathedral. But even including the lecture, it's unlikely that you will spend over 30 minutes inside the church.

(I received an email from one of the tour guides at the church, who took the time to point out that I apparently missed a good part of the tour. It seems that the experience is not limited to the church itself, but continues with a full guided tour of the grounds surrounding the church, including at least one other building, and provides information about the statues on the grounds, as well as about the various ministries offered through the Cathedral.

The limited access to the church itself apparently stems from concerns about security purposes as well as visitor safety - especially about "deep stairs in the balconies - in addition to the slipperyness of the chancel, made of Roso Allicante marble.")

Nevertheless, the building itself is a majestic structure, with its soaring ceilings and sparkling glass & girder construction, and well worth seeing once.

And your brief visit will be comfortable: instead of the usual wooden church pews, the "cathedral." offers soft, theatre-style, individual seats (each bearing a small plaque with the name of a donor). During Sunday services, the church offers a nursery and child care services; they also collect some $40 million via the collection plates and mailings.

There is a small cemetery next to the church, and in 2011, pianist Roger Williams (who hit the Top Ten charts with instrumentals such as Autumn Leaves and Born Free, and who often played for the Cathedral) was buried in its mausoleum.

: In 2010, due in part to the recession, the Crystal Cathedral fell into bankruptcy.  In order to pay their debts in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, they were forced to sell the church.

A bidding war ensued, and in late 2011, the board of directors chose to accept an offer from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, which paid $57.5 million for the landmark building. (The other bid was from Chapman University, but the board preferred to keep the church as a place of worship.) The Catholic Diocese is in the process of making the Crystal Cathedral building into their actual cathedral for Orange County.

In 2012, it was announced that the new name for the church will be "Christ Cathedral".

The "Hour of Power" ministry left the church in June of 2013, after which the Catholic Church began renovating the church, e.g. adding a central altar & tabernacle.  As of March 2015, that process is still underway.

I can't help but think that the fate of the original Crystal Cathedral was very much tied to that of a single personality: the charismatic Rev. Robert Schuller. His amazing success as a preacher was what brought the Crystal Cathedral into being, and as he grew old and was forced to give up the mantle of leadership, the church seemed unable to maintain that level of success without his guidance.  In a way, it was a church built on a star, that declined when that star declined.  (Update: Rev. Schuller passed away in 2015.)

It's worth noting that Reverend Schuller had met with Pope John Paul II on several occasions, and had expressed admiration for him.  He had also maintained warm relations with local Catholic leaders, and once had Cardinal Roger Mahony, as a guest at the church.  And there are those who say that Rev. Schuller modeled his own preaching style on that of an early religious TV star, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. So, in a way, it's somewhat fitting that the Crystal Cathedral became the new Catholic cathedral of Orange.

Hours: Guided tours every half-hour, Monday through Saturday, from 9 AM to 3:30 PM. Sunday church services are at: 9:30 AM and 11 AM, plus an Hispanic (Spanish-speaking) service at 12:45 PM, and an evening (English-speaking) service at 6:30 PM.  [At this point in time, I don't know if the tours will continue after ownership changes hands.]

Parking: There is ample free parking in outdoor parking lots, in front of the church, off Chapman, and in the rear (south) of the church.

Getting there: The Christ Cathedral is situated in Garden Grove (in Orange County) just blocks away from The Block (shopping/entertainment center), and less than two miles from Disneyland, Anaheim Stadium and the MainPlace/Santa Ana mall.  Christ Cathedral is at the southwest corner of Chapman Avenue and Lewis Street - between Harbor Boulevard and The City Drive. / From Disneyland, take Harbor Boulevard south (one mile) to Chapman Avenue. Turn left (east) on Chapman, and go one and a half miles east to Lewis Street. The Cathedral will be on your right (south) side. / From the Garden Grove (22) Freeway, take The City Drive exit, and drive north (about half a mile) to Chapman Avenue. Turn left (west) on Chapman, and go four blocks west on Chapman to Lewis Street. Turn left (south) into the lot, just after passing under a pedestrian bridge that spans Chapman.

[You can access thr Crystal Cathedral's official website at:]

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