By Amy Toxin, Associated Press
SANTA ANA (AP) — The Crystal Cathedral will sell its iconic, gleaming glass building to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange in an effort to get back on solid financial footing after declaring bankruptcy last year.
The move was approved Thursday by U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Robert N. Kwan after a bidding war between the diocese and Orange County’s Chapman University for the sprawling 40-acre property — and was opposed by many Crystal Cathedral congregants who fear it will be the end of their church
The diocese will pay $57.5 million to use the building in Garden Grove made of 10,000 panes of glass as a long-sought countywide cathedral.
“It will become a true center for our Catholic community in Orange County,” Bishop Tod D. Brown told reporters after Thursday’s packed hearing in federal bankruptcy court.
The decision will force congregants of the Crystal Cathedral to find a new home after three years — possibly in a Catholic church up the street that the diocese will vacate.
But some fear the ministry won’t survive the move as congregants — and possibly “Hour of Power” television viewers — feel dismayed after pouring their hearts, and pocketbooks, into the elaborate campus.
Rather, churchgoers threw their support behind a proposal by Chapman University for the site to expand its health sciences offerings and possibly start a medical school — a plan that would have paid up to $59 million for the site allowed the church to continue to use the famous building designed by renowned architect Philip Johnson.
For the last two weeks, the board of directors of Crystal Cathedral Ministries had supported Chapman as the preferred buyer. But the board did an about-face Wednesday and voted to back the diocese instead to preserve the church as a religious institution, citing church bylaws and a wish to respect the spirit of donors who footed the bill for the building.
“I’m really pleased to know that this campus is likely for at least decades, if not centuries, to be kept as a sacred place of worship,” Carol Milner, daughter of church founder Rev. Robert H. Schuller, said after the hearing.
The decision riled several dozen congregants who attended the six-hour hearing in bankruptcy court and pleaded with the judge to let them remain in their beloved church.
“It shouldn’t be about the money. It should be about what’s inside your heart,” Jim Kirkland Jr. told the court, breaking into tears. “A lot of these beautiful people have put in their hearts, put in their time.”
Schuller started the Crystal Cathedral as a drive-in church in the 1950s under the auspices of the Reformed Church in America. Decades later, the Southern California ministry evolved into an international televangelism empire and erected its now-famous building.
In 2008, the church’s revenues plummeted amid a decline in donations and ticket sales for holiday pageants due to the recession, church officials said. But some experts say the church failed to attract younger members while alienating older churchgoers with an ill-fated attempt to turn the church over to Schuller’s son, ending in a bitter and public family feud.
The church laid off employees and cut salaries, but its debts surpassed $43 million, prompting the Crystal Cathedral to declare bankruptcy last year.
Much of Thursday’s hearing was devoted to analyzing the church’s sudden change of heart about a buyer, with Kwan urging the church to justify its reason for choosing a lower bid and one that went against the wishes and recommendations of many of its congregants.
Some congregants at the Crystal Cathedral said losing their church would be a sign of failure of the ministry’s leadership and they wouldn’t follow its leaders to a new site.
Churchgoers also questioned whether the ministry that shares the name of the building it inhabits would be financially viable elsewhere, noting that viewers of the “Hour of Power” are equally attached to the glass-spired church and are the source of 70 percent of the church’s revenue.
But those who supported the board’s decision said the congregation will continue to thrive through the good-hearted people who worship together and band together to help those in need.
“The Crystal Cathedral will go on,” said Susan Dawson, whose husband was recently appointed to the church’s board. “They will love wherever we go because we are a community, we are a community of loving believers.”