VISALIA— It is billed as the largest Catholic parish in the United States and is being built about 200 miles north of Los Angeles, in what is often referred to as “the heart of California’s dairy industry.”
With an estimated price tag of $ 18.5 million, St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church will accommodate 3,200 people, cover approximately 33,000 square feet and is expected to open in the spring of 2022. The church is under construction in Visalia, a town in Tulare County, and Catholic leaders hail it as the largest parish in the United States in terms of seating capacity.
The new church – funded by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno and private donations – will feature 9-foot-high stained glass windows in its sanctuary, a baptismal font at the entrance to the parish, a Stations of the Cross with 14 devotional posts, and an octagon. dome-shaped accented with antique gold with murals of the four evangelists.
The church, which will reflect “California mission inspired” architecture, will also feature a 48-foot-high devotional painting on canvas depicting portraits of archangels hovering above as saints kneel and worship the Blessed Virgin Mary. Trinity. The painting will pay homage to the region with images of citrus, cattle and green pastures that are synonymous with the agricultural central valley.
Visalia will house the largest Catholic church in America
Saint Charles Borromeo will be able to accommodate more people than the Cathedral of Christ – formerly the Crystal Cathedral, Robert H. Schuller’s mega-church taken over by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange in 2012 – which can accommodate 2,248 faithful. And while St. Matthew’s Catholic Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, may have over 11,000 registered families, it can accommodate approximately 2,100 people. The National Shrine in Washington, DC can accommodate 3,500 people but is not considered a parish church.
For Reverend Alex Chavez, pastor of the Catholic parish of the Good Shepherd in Visalia, the new church is a sign of “divine providence”, especially in the midst of the pandemic when “everything is drab and depressing, here in this small part of California, we’re building this juggernaut.
“It’s the country’s best-kept secret – little Visalia is building the largest parish church in modern US history,” Chavez said.
Visalia, a city of just over 140,000 residents, is squeezed between Fresno and Bakersfield in the San Joaquin Valley – an area where, according to US Census Bureau figures, Latinos are in the majority in six of its eight counties. The city has experienced population growth over the past decade, with the population increasing from 124,442 in 2010 to 141,384 in 2020, according to census figures.
While it may seem shocking that such a massive church is located in a county where, as a 2017 Visalia Times Delta headline noted, “there are almost more cows than people,” Chavez said. . do – is necessary to deal with the boom in the Catholic population in a region where, like much of the world, there is a severe shortage of priests.
Massive Church Tackles Catholic Population Boom
There has been uneven growth of Catholics in the United States over the past 40 years as the western and southern states have experienced a boom in the Catholic population, said Jonathon Wiggins, director of parish surveys at the Center. for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
In 1980, 16% of all Catholics were in the West, and by 2019 that number had risen to 27%, Wiggins said.
Growth is apparent in the Diocese of Fresno where the number of Catholics, between 1980 and 2019, increased from approximately 307,000 to 972,000.
Meanwhile, the number of active priests in the diocese has increased from 90 to 67 during the same period, Wiggins said. In 1980, the ratio of Catholics to active priests was 3 411 to 1. In 2019, the ratio was 14 511 to 1.
“In places like the West and the South, you see these bigger churches because you have a lot of Catholics there,” Wiggins said. “You have fewer priests than 40 years ago, while you get more Catholics, so you need bigger places.”
“What you are seeing in California is pretty significant growth,” he added.
The lack of priests a factor in the consolidation of parishes
To serve the growing Visalia congregations with fewer priests, the city’s three churches were merged in 2016 into what is known as the Catholic Parish of the Good Shepherd. A small congregation near Goshen is also part of this umbrella.
Before the pandemic, Chavez – a former engineer who grew up in the nearby town of Porterville – and two other priests traveled from church to church to celebrate 11 Masses in English and Spanish over the weekend. Now, in the wake of COVID-19, Chavez and another priest are holding a total of five weekend masses on Sunday in a church hall behind the construction of the new church.
“We were running like a headless chicken,” Chavez said, noting that the pandemic allowed them to consolidate masses in one place in the church hall.
Parish consolidation is happening across the country, said Scott Thumma, a sociologist of religion at Hartford Seminary. The shortage of priests is one of the main reasons, but it also varies by region, with their own growth or declining rates.
While the western and southern states have seen an increase in the number of Catholics, some churches in the east and midwest have seen a decline in attendance. Thumma said dioceses in those areas could look at deferred church maintenance and necessary repairs and decide it “makes more sense to consolidate.”
The Archdiocese of Chicago announced in May that a number of parishes would consolidate amid financial difficulties, declining attendance and a shortage of priests. Years earlier, in 2014, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York announced the amalgamation of 112 parishes into 55 new parishes as it faced similar circumstances.
The project was delayed due to lack of funds and a pandemic
The idea for a new and larger church in the area emerged about two decades ago, said Chavez, when then-bishop John Thomas Steinbock envisioned a geographically central location to gather for celebrations, but that the mother church of the diocese, St. John’s Cathedral, could only accommodate 450 people.
Plans for the church began to take shape in 2008, when, according to The Business Journal, the diocese obtained a conditional use permit from the city to build a church, parish hall, school and other buildings. on a 17 acre parcel. The parish hall – where the faithful currently gather for Sunday mass – has been built, but construction of the church has been stalled due to lack of funds. Efforts to build the church resumed in 2017, but suffered a number of delays during the pandemic.
Once Saint Charles Borromeo is finished, all Sunday Masses in Visalia and major diocesan celebrations, such as priestly ordinations, will take place there. Baptisms, funerals, weddings, confessions and daily masses will continue to be celebrated in the parishes of the district. “That’s how we keep them going all week,” Chavez said.
Across Visalia, the construction of the church is “the talk of the town,” said Chavez. But at first there was some resistance.
The faithful hesitate to spend small masses at the mega-church
Some worshipers, Chavez said, feared losing the identity of their neighborhood church and wanted to keep Sunday Mass in the parish where generations of families had attended. St. Mary’s Catholic Church, for example, is over 150 years old.
“They want to keep what they’re used to, the neighborhood church, and that’s where the resistance is,” Chavez said. “This is where the difficulty lies, letting go.
But Chavez said it simply wouldn’t be possible to continue weekend services in each individual church. “One or two of the parishes would be without a pastor,” he said.
Henry Medina, deacon and director of administration for Good Shepherd Catholic Parish, recognizes that parishioners will move from their small community churches to a mega-church that is not necessarily in their neighborhood. It is also an opportunity to unite the Catholics of the region, he said.
The new church, Medina said, will be a place where Latino, Portuguese, White, Vietnamese and Filipino parishioners as well as farm laborers, farmers and professionals can come together under one roof.
“You are starting to see, now, the mixing of all the different cultures,” he said. “All these parishes now have a new identity and what they had in the past is now historic.
Chavez added: “Now all the Catholics in the city of Visalia are under one roof united under one God.”
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