History of Orange County

OC’s three famous churches

Mission San Juan Capistrano.

Mission San Juan Capistrano.

By Pete Zarustica

Over the years, Orange County has been marked by much more than amusement parks, beaches and housing tracts. Houses of worship have played a key role in the history of the area, and none more than these three: Mission San Juan Capistrano, Calvary Chapel and the Crystal (now Christ) Cathedral.

All are internationally famous and all have a resonance far beyond just spiritual matters.

   Mission San Juan Capistrano: The oldest church in Orange County, of course, is the mission. This is really where Orange County history begins, with the establishment of the new church midway between San Diego and San Gabriel. Father Junipero Serra, the principal figure behind the string of missions in Alta (Upper) California, celebrated high mass on Nov. 1, 1776. That’s considered the official founding date of the church.

A vineyard, a large stone church and other structures were built, but the mission suffered heavy damage from an earthquake in 1812. A pirate raid in 1818 brought combat to Capistrano, with the buccaneers overwhelming defenders and looting the mission.

By modern standards, some practices of the priests bordered on slavery. Some Juaneno natives were pressed into labor, although others voluntarily converted to Catholicism and worked at the mission.

A political earthquake hit in 1821 when Mexico won its independence from Spain. The mission declined in importance and fell into repair, and was confiscated by the Mexican government in 1834.

A decade later, California was ceded to the United States as a consequence of the Mexican War (1846-48). Abraham Lincoln restored the mission to the Catholic Church in 1865, and publicity about the church led to restoration efforts. The most recent work for a $7.5 million seismic refit in 2004.

The mission, which now sits in the middle of the bustling city of San Juan Capistrano, attracts over a million visitors a year. Among them are 80,000 schoolchildren. It’s a rare local child who hasn’t been taken on a school field trip to the mission.

A tent meeting of Calvary Chapel in late 60s.

A tent meeting of Calvary Chapel in late 60s.

Calvary Chapel: This highly influential evangelical church is not one congregation, but many. It started in Orange County, but there are over 1600 associated churches worldwide, and the ministry includes a university, schools and radio stations.

It all started in 1965 in Costa Mesa when Chuck Smith, a pastor with the Four Square denomination, told followers he had received a revelation to renew his church. In 1968 the congregation broke from the Four Square and officially established Calvary Chapel.

Services were held in homes and on the beach and under a tent. Smith, together with Lonnie Frisbee, is credited with starting the “Jesus Movement,” which combined informal worship with traditional fundamentalist theology. Surfers, hippies and others with a counter-cultural bent were among the first converts.

An early tenet of the Calvary Chapel was that the Second Coming of Jesus would be happening soon. Indeed, Smith predicted it would happen in 1981.

The church – and its imitators – grew rapidly over the following decades. It helped inspire other, similar, “casual” church services with rock and roll Christian music that appealed to a younger audience that was deserting the main-line Protestant churches.

Smith died in 2003; Frisbee in 1993. They left behind an original Orange County creation with a worldwide influence.

Crystal (Christ) Cathedral: Robert Schuller is the founder of the famous glass church in Garden Grove. He started the Garden Grove Community Church in 1955, and held some services in the nearby Orange Drive-In.

Schuller sought to reach out to the car culture of the suburbs. Not only did he offer a drive-in church, but also he preached the gospel of “possibility thinking,” which was influenced by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale’s “Power of Positive Thinking.”

A permanent home was built in 1961 at Chapman Avenue and Lewis Street in Garden Grove. The soaring Tower of Hope opened in 1967. Radio and television broadcasts of Schuller’s upbeat services helped fuel rapid expansion, and in 1980 the glass Crystal Cathedral opened (cost: $18 million).

Crystal (Christ) Cathedral in Garden Grove.

Crystal (Christ) Cathedral in Garden Grove.

The name of the congregation was changed to Crystal Cathedral in 1981.

As Schuller aged (he was born in 1926) issues began to arise about his succession. First the title of senior pastor was passed to his son, Robert A., in 2006. But he was removed in 2009 in favor of sister Sheila Schuller Coleman.

Financial problems connected to the Great Recession and a declining (and older) congregation resulted in bankruptcy action in 2010. In an effort to pay off debts, the congregation sold the church campus (which included expansive grounds, a cemetery and other buildings) to the Catholic Diocese of Orange for $57.5 million in 2011.

It will serve as the new center of Catholic life in the county. The cathedral building is undergoing renovations for its new role and is expected to be officially consecrated as the Christ Cathedral in 2016.

Sources: Calvary Chapel, Diocese of Orange, Wikipedia, Garden Grove Journal

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