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Can Crystal Cathedral survive without its church?

By Amy Taxin

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Nov. 17 2011 1:35 a.m. MST

This Oct. 27, 2011 photo shows the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif. As the ministry famous for its “Hour of Power” television program muddles through bankruptcy, churchgoers face the possibility of seeing the property sold to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange and being forced to move to a new location.

Jae C. Hong, Associated Press

GARDEN GROVE, Calif. — For worshippers at the Crystal Cathedral, the future of their ministry depends on who wins the bidding war over the bankrupt gleaming glass megachurch made famous in televangelism's heyday.

A federal bankruptcy court judge will decide on Thursday whether the cherished home of the "Hour of Power" broadcast is sold to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange or a local university that will let followers continue to flock there.

Some Crystal Cathedral members fear their church will dwindle if the 40-acre grounds are sold to the diocese and they must move to a new location, noting congregants emptied their pockets to help build the elaborate building in the heart of Orange County and many planned to be buried in the nearby cemetery.

Others fear the broadcast that funds 70 percent of the church's revenue will lose viewers if moved to a different, less striking setting.

"That's our church — the Crystal Cathedral. We bought and paid for it," said Bob Canfield, a 73-year-old general contractor who joined the church five years ago. "We feel like we've been raped of our ministry."

When Catholics talk of "the church," they don't mean a building. But for many congregants at the Crystal Cathedral, the church building designed by renowned architect Philip Johnson and made up of 10,000 panes of glass has become intertwined with the church's identity.

"They're no different than any other business. They have to market themselves, and they have a particular branding and they've put all their eggs in that basket," said Richard Flory, director of research at University of Southern California's Center for Religion and Civic Culture. "That would be a difficult transition for them to make."

Rev. Robert H. Schuller started the Southern California ministry as a drive-in church in the 1950s under the auspices of the Reformed Church in America. Decades later, the church 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.

U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Robert N. Kwan has said he believes bids from Orange County's Chapman University and the diocese are both feasible options, and asked the Crystal Cathedral's board to state its preferred buyer at Thursday's hearing.

To date, the board and many congregants have favored the university's bid — which was raised Wednesday — so the church can remain on site.

Chapman's $59 million bid includes provisions for the church to continue using Crystal Cathedral and oversee the cemetery while ceding other buildings to the university to expand its health sciences offerings and possibly start a medical school.

Not so under the diocese's $57.5 million offer to turn the sanctuary with seating capacity for 3,000 into a long-awaited countywide cathedral and offer Crystal Cathedral congregants use of a smaller Catholic church up the street.

The diocese has tried to assuage congregants' concerns by preserving a chapel on campus for interfaith use and assuring they will honor existing contracts for cemetery plots regardless of a person's religious affiliation. The glass-spired Crystal Cathedral — which lets worshippers see the sky and palm trees through the walls and ceiling of the church — would remain intact but undergo interior renovations to create a central altar and baptismal font and other structures to serve Catholics' needs.

"We have promised to maintain the integrity of that beautiful piece of architecture," said Maria Rullo Schinderle, general counsel for the diocese.

In exchange, Crystal Cathedral congregants could move to the 1,200-seat St. Callistus Catholic church less than a mile away — a cream-colored sanctuary lined with wooden pews and adorned with a stained glass window on the ceiling.

Parishioners at St. Callistus, who would be asked to make the switch, said they could worship anywhere — in an enormous sanctuary or tiny room.

"My faith does not depend on a building," said Rosemary Diliberto, 84, on her way to morning Mass at the ethnically diverse church dotted with signs in English, Spanish and Vietnamese. "God is God, wherever we go."

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. Others said a move could jeopardize the "Hour of Power," which is broadcast to 1.5 million viewers weekly in the United States in addition to other countries.

"The Crystal Cathedral is the face of the ministry to the world," said Michael Nason, a church member for 39 years and past producer of the "Hour of Power." ''If you take it somewhere else, down to St. Callistus, it doesn't have the same experience."

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