Christ Cathedral Does Christmas

Can the new Roman Catholic owners match the magnificent decadence of ’The Glory of Christmas’?

Ah, the braying donkeys, the bleating sheep and goats, the bellowing camels, the gathering storm clouds, and oh, the 25-mph angels soaring overhead. ¶ In a weird sort of way, I’m missing the livestock parade that each year formed the cast of “The Glory of Christmas,” the big-stage reenactment of the Nativity story that persisted at the Crystal Cathedral for nearly three decades. Weird, because I kinda, sorta used to make fun of it.

So I can only imagine how others must feel, those who took it more seriously and who incorporated it into their Christmas plans every year. Now that the Roman Catholics have purchased the iconic buildings of the former Crystal Cathedral, the thousands who ritually attended this grand performance have an ox-sized hole in their holiday traditions.

Apparently livestock doesn’t mesh with the internal architecture necessary for a Catholic Mass, or at least that’s what the rector, the Rev. Christopher Smith, tells me. And the diocese is remodeling the cathedral’s interior so that it feels less like an auditorium and more like a conventional church with an altar.

What we lost in the process, though, is the dramatic tension of bringing live animals into an all-glass church, all those bulls in a china shop.


“The Glory of Christmas” already had seen its glory days by the time the diocese paid $57.5 million for the 34-acre Garden Grove campus in 2011, after the Schuller ministries declared bankruptcy. But the end of the Christmas pageant doesn’t mean the new owners aren’t up for a few holiday traditions.

Last year, Christ Cathedral launched a massive, ambitious production of Handel’s “Messiah.” With a 36-piece orchestra and local parish choirs joining soloists from the Metropolitan, San Francisco, Chicago Lyric, and Houston Grand operas and other companies, the performance is on its way to becoming a new tradition.

I stumbled on it by accident, hunting for Pacific Symphony and Pacific Chorale’s “Messiah” at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, an Orange County tradition so venerable that this new one can only complement it, not upstage it. But I was curious about this new rendition, so I checked out a YouTube video of last year’s inaugural performance—and was hooked.

What really gives the “Messiah” production its punch are the amateur parish choirs from throughout the county. This year, those from Holy Family, Mater Dei, and St. Jude are scheduled to participate.
For now, church services and performances take place at the arboretum on the grounds, which formerly was the smaller, original drive-up Garden Grove Community Church. Until all the interior work on the big cathedral is finished in (gulp!) 2017—changing theater seats to pews, creating a new altar, dealing with glare, and, oh yes, renovating one of the world’s biggest pipe organs—that’s where Handel’s masterpiece will be performed.

But the newly renovated Richard Neutra-designed arboretum alone is worth the trip. The diocese not only maintained the basic design, it even restored the building to its absolute original-original design. For example, for many years a mysterious hunk of glass replaced what Neutra designed way back in 1960—a big slash of orange paint that marked where the Rev. Robert Schuller stood on a balcony to address the car-bound masses, much as he did in his original church, which was a drive-in theater. The new architects at Christ Cathedral spent hours trying to match the color, for which there was little photographic evidence. They finally settled on Dunn-Edwards’ Untamed Orange, a shade that they agreed matched the era.

Schuller and his congregation did us all a huge service by commissioning buildings from Neutra, Richard Meier, and Philip Johnson that would stand the test of time, buildings that are works of art. It’s divine that the glorious structures of the former Crystal Cathedral have been saved by another church—the 1.3 million-strong Roman Catholic Church of Orange County—and that the diocese has agreed to respect the architectural integrity of the building exteriors.

I met the “Messiah” brainchild, Chad Berlinghieri, a cantor familiar with many county congregations, and a tenor who once sang with the now-defunct Opera Pacific. Berlinghieri, who has performed in many venerable venues, including the Met, is organizing the “Messiah” for the second year as an outside contractor.

We sat in the lobby of the airy, uplifting Meier-designed former International Center for Possibility Thinking, which now is known as the Cultural Center. Usually a place of utter solitude, it was difficult to hold a thought because everything around us was under construction.

“There are all these major works that were commissioned for the church, by the church, and they need to be brought back into the church,” Berlinghieri told me, revealing that “Messiah” is only one of what he hopes will be many classical music performances at Christ Cathedral.

Because ritual is at the center of most faiths, we’ve already seen traditions form at the new Christ Cathedral, even as we await completion of the renovations. The church sits in the middle of major Anglo, Latino, and Vietnamese pockets, so the rituals will reflect many cultures. Already, the church has celebrated a feast for Our Lady of Guadalupe, Las Posadas at Christmas, the Vietnamese Martyrs’ Celebration Mass, a Lunar New Year celebration, and a Memorial Day rite for former Crystal Cathedral parishioners. Smith says more traditions will follow, as will a lecture series, concerts, and art exhibits aimed at the general public as well as parishioners.

The new church also has opened the green grounds at Lewis Street and Chapman Avenue as a community park, where the public can picnic or simply enjoy the outdoors.

“We’re building on what is entrusted to us,” he says. “We want to be good stewards and carry on the best of what was here before we arrived”—and not just the architecture. “One of the beautiful aspects of all of this is that we are maintaining a tradition that already was here on this campus, a tradition of welcoming people.”

Perhaps because of the world-class architecture, the cathedral has always felt like it belongs to all of Orange County. And we’re lucky we all can still enjoy holiday traditions there, even if the bleating sheep have been upstaged.

See It!
Handel’s “Messiah” will be performed from 7:30 to 10 p.m. on Dec. 18, and begins with singalong Christmas carols. Tickets at

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