Monday, August 01, 2011

Bankrupt Evangelical Megachurch May Get a Roman Catholic Makeover

The Crystal Cathedral, once a symbol of America’s evangelical movement where thousands of congregants attended services each Sunday, may be about to make a major religious conversion: The Roman Catholic Church is looking to buy the headquarters of the bankrupt megachurch. 

The Diocese of Orange has offered $50 million to buy Crystal Cathedral’s 40-acre campus and convert the landmark church into a Catholic cathedral, part of a plan to allow Crystal Cathedral Ministries, which operates the church, to emerge from bankruptcy proceedings. 

The diocese’s offer is one of several plans to be considered by the Crystal Cathedral Ministries board when it meets Thursday, before another hearing in bankruptcy court on Monday. 

Other plans would convert parts of the campus into a university health sciences center or apartments.

The diocese would renovate the interior to create an altar and other elements of a Catholic cathedral, but would leave the glass-paned exterior of the church, designed by Philip Johnson, largely unaltered.

“We want to make a transition to a Catholic ministry that is appropriate and respectful of what they have created,” said Alan Martin, a lawyer representing the diocese.

Founded by the Rev. Robert H. Schuller in 1955, the church is considered the nation’s first modern megachurch by many historians. 

At its peak in the 1980s, two million viewers tuned in every week to watch “Hour of Power,” the program filmed at the Crystal Cathedral, while more than 10,000 worshipers filled the pews.

But a succession battle after Mr. Schuller retired in 2006 alienated many worshipers, and the Spanish-language services on Sunday now draw greater attendance than those conducted in English by Mr. Schuller’s daughter — a reflection of the changing demographics of Orange County.

The ministry filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last year and owes creditors about $46 million. 

The diocese has pledged to erase Crystal Cathedral’s debt: all creditors would be paid by the end of the year, with some cash left over for the ministry, Mr. Martin said. 

Still, it is not clear exactly how the diocese would finance a $50 million purchase. 

In 2004, the diocese paid around $100 million to settle a sexual abuse lawsuit — at the time, the largest such settlement for any diocese in the United States, which led to layoffs and budget cuts. 

Stephen R. Bohannon, a spokesman for the diocese, wrote in an e-mail that the diocese would amass the $50 million through a combination of fund-raising and loans. 

Chapman University, which hopes to turn the church grounds into a health sciences satellite campus eventually, has upped its offer to $50 million from $46 million to match the diocese’s, and would also give Crystal Cathedral an option to buy back its landmark glass church. 

Many churchgoers at Crystal Cathedral also expressed hope that the ministry could continue to operate at its longtime campus. 

Some, however, hoped the Catholic bid would succeed, which would at least ensure that the church remained a house of worship.

A creditors committee initially supported the Chapman offer, before offers from the diocese and other institutions were made.

“I think the majority of the board and all of the members of the church would like to see an opportunity to continue the ministry at the location,” said John Charles, a spokesman for Crystal Cathedral Ministries. 

“But it remains to be seen how this will proceed in the court system.”

But one thing is clear: In the short term, if Crystal Cathedral Ministries is to continue holding services in the glass building it is so closely identified with, it will be as a tenant.
 

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