Crystal Cathedral: A Glass House of Cards

Dateline: March 10, 2012…

The Associated Press–“Dr. Robert Schuller and his wife Arvella announced “with great sadness” Saturday that they resigned from the board of directors of the Crystal Cathedral, the televangelist ministry he founded four decades ago in Garden Grove, California, and made famous through his “Hour of Power” television program. Their resignation was the latest upheaval for the financially-struggling megachurch, which sold its iconic home to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange last month to emerge from federal bankruptcy protection.

The Schullers’ daughter, Carol Schuller Milner, said her parents were stepping down because they and the board couldn’t reach a deal for housing benefits and fees for using her father’s writings and sermons as part of the bankruptcy proceedings. A board member said that the total debt was $55 million.

A series of financial setbacks led to the megachurch’s filing for bankruptcy in October 2010 and the forced sale of its 40-acre campus. Turmoil in the ministry included the firings of Schuller’s daughter Gretchen Penner and two sons-in-law in the past week. ” Then the 86-year old Schuller sued the ministry he had built from scratch for $5 million in a 10-day trial in Los Angeles.

Construction of the Crystal Cathedral began in 1977 and was completed in 1980, built at a cost of $18 million. The 18-story, 236-foot Prayer Spire was added in 1990.

The Catholic Diocese purchased the famous church known from the “Hour of Power” television ministries and its elaborate seasonal pageants. It was designed by Philip Johnson. The star-shaped architectural gem features 10,900 panes of glass to form the walls and roof. When built, it was the new focal point of a congregation once known primarily for its curious success as a drive-in church simultaneously serving parishioners in pews and parking spots, then as a place where the televised service made Schuller a nationally recognized minister.

John taking in the Crystal Cathedral. Even he admitted it was quite impressive!

Since its construction the building has been the principal place of worship for Crystal Cathedral Ministries, a Protestant Christian church organization founded in 1955 by Robert H. Schuller and affiliated with the Reformed Church in America. When the Reformed Church sent Schuller, his wife, and their two small children from Iowa to Southern California in 1955, he had nothing–no congregation, no place to preach, nobody who wanted to go to church.

The Los Angeles Times, 13 Sept 1980.
John checks out the House of Prayer chapel. To minimize damage in an earthquake, the supports of the Crystal Cathedral rests on giant Styrofoam blocks.

Schuller began his evangelical ministry humbly, by preaching from a tar-papered roof of the snack bar of a Garden Grove drive-in. When the Reformed Church sent Schuller, his wife, and their two small children from Iowa to Southern California in 1955, he had nothing–no congregation, no place to preach, nobody who wanted to go to church. That first Sunday, 16 families were in the drive-in theater to listen to this curious man.

Inside the domed House of Prayer circular chapel was a large revolving crystal with a hologram of Jesus.

On July 7, 2011, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, which had long been seeking to build a new and larger cathedral in or around Santa Ana, announced that it was “potentially interested” in buying the church campus for future use as its diocesan cathedral. Two weeks later, the diocese followed up with a cash offer of $53.6 million which included a lease-back provision at below market rates for a period of time. On November 17, 2011, a federal judge approved selling the Crystal Cathedral to the Diocese of Orange for $57.5 million.

Chillicothe Gazette (Ohio) 25 Feb 2006.

Under the terms of the sale the building and most of the campus continued to be used by Crystal Cathedral Ministries for the next three years before being renovated for use as a Roman Catholic cathedral. The Crystal Cathedral was eventually renamed Christ Cathedral.

We were lucky enough to catch a solo rehearsal of the pipe organist. He is the tiny little speck on the bench under the massive pipe organs. What a thrill to hear the organ in person!

In 2012, the church’s 273 rank, five manual pipe organ is one of the largest in the world. Constructed by Fratelli Ruffatti and based on specifications by Virgil Fox and expanded by Frederick Swann, the instrument incorporates the large Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ built in 1962 for New York’s Philharmonic Hall (now called Avery Fisher Hall), and the Ruffatti organ which had been installed in the church’s previous sanctuary. Swann was organist at the Crystal Cathedral between 1982–1998.

Crystal Cathedral, left side view from entrance. The cathedral seats over 3,000 worshipers.

Days after the judge’s ruling, Italian newspaper La Stampa used a picture of the Crystal Cathedral to illustrate an article reporting on the establishment of a Vatican commission “to put a stop to garage style churches, boldly shaped structures that risk denaturing modern places for Catholic worship.” The Vatican approved the building two weeks following the judge’s ruling.

Discovered a lovely but deserted wedding venue in one of the chapels just waiting for some happy bride and groom to show up. Note the massive pipe organs above the altar.

The sale to the diocese was finalized on February 3, 2012. Under the terms of the sale Crystal Cathedral Ministries will lease most of the campus including the church and continue to use it for three years; the diocese has offered Crystal Cathedral Ministries a longer-term lease at nearby St. Callistus Church, whose parish the diocese anticipates “will eventually transfer” to the Crystal Cathedral campus.

In 1997, The Des Moines Register reported The Crystal Cathedral received 15,000 letters weekly, most of them with cash. It’s annual budget was $50 million dollars.

The diocese announced that the transfer of the cemetery located on the campus would be “immediate”, and that it would soon be establishing offices on the campus. The building’s new name as a Roman Catholic cathedral will be designated by the Holy See while also taking suggestions from the diocese and its members.

Life-size Moses statue. John said it was a good resemblance to Charlton Heston!

Tod Brown, Bishop of Orange, stated that the diocese intended to hire an architect to renovate the 40 acre site “so it will be suitable for a Catholic place of worship”, but has “no intention to change the exterior of the building.”

Loaves and Fishes statuary.

From the proceeds of a “For Christ Forever” fundraising campaign held in 2012, the diocese allocated $59 million towards the cost of renovating the cathedral. In 2014, an anonymous benefactor contributed $20 million in additional funding. However, it was later found that the estimates were reached without “serious study or professional recommendations”; in July 2016, it was estimated that the total cost of the renovations, as originally planned, would actually be $108 million, which was later reduced to $72 million dollars.

On September 24, 2014, the diocese released its proposed redesign plans for the building, including extensive changes to the interior intended to make the building more suitable for the “altar-centered” Catholic ritual while retaining some qualities of the original design.

Each of the marble tiles had a prayer inscription and the names of contributors to the Cathedral.

Among the changes, the glass walls will be lined with angled “petals” that will reduce the amount of outside light, deemed as distracting from the altar. At the same time, the petals will include exterior lights to enhance the building’s visibility at night, producing an effect described as a “box of stars”.

The Daily World (Louisiana) 18 Nov 2011.

From 1993 to 2010, four members of the Schuller family received compensation of nearly $13 million, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The Good Shepherd tends his flock.

When the Crystal Cathedral ministry filed for bankruptcy, 20 family members were being paid a total of more than $1.9 million a year, the newspaper reported, based on court filings.

Life size statues of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

On June 29, 2018, the Bishop of Orange, Kevin Vann, proclaimed a “holy year of preparation” ahead of the consecration. The formal dedication Mass was held on July 17, 2019; at that time, Vann solemnly dedicated the former Crystal Cathedral building as Christ Cathedral.

The Prodigal Son.
The Desert Sun, 14 Mar 2012.

According to the Orange County Register, U.S. Judge Robert Kwan of Los Angeles granted an estimated $615,000 to the Rev. Robert H. Schuller over issues pertaining to a breach of contract dispute leveled by the Schuller family against Crystal Cathedral Ministries. While the amount given to the reverend behind the famous “Hour of Power” program may seem large, it is well below the several millions sought by the Schuller family, including $5 million for breach of contract.

The sun shines like a beacon through the beautiful monolithic spires. This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.

While you have likely seen the Crystal Cathedral during Sunday “Hour of Power” sermons on television, it is unlikely you’ve seen the ladies room before. It’s really beautiful! Who knew?

I hope this doesn’t offend anyone, but this is the inside of the ladies room. It was one of the most spectacular restrooms I’ve seen! Maybe I don’t get out enough. John later told me the men’s room was not quite so fancy. Maybe he gets out more.

Note the imported crystal chandeliers, ornate wooden ceiling, hand painted floral designs, marble walls and floor. And black toilets, in case you were wondering! Of course, like all of our above photos, this was back in 2012.


One thought on “Crystal Cathedral: A Glass House of Cards

  1. No matter what has happened, the Crystal Cathedral was there when we needed them. Our son was dedicated to God by Rev………..? Mid July 1970

    My mum Charlotte Barlow, was part of Rev Beckering’s team, and a Sunday School teacher of Carol’s for awhile

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