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Michael A. Wesner, director of cemeteries for the Catholic Diocese of Orange, gives a tour of the Crystal Cathedral cemetery in Garden Grove, Calif.

Crystal Cathedral going Catholic

– Retired schoolteacher Dolores Rommel has followed the Rev. Robert H. Schuller almost her entire adult life: She was baptized in his church as a young woman, sent her children to his Sunday school and laid her husband to rest near the soaring, glass-paned Crystal Cathedral that was to be the televangelist’s ultimate legacy.

But when the Roman Catholic church bought the famous sanctuary and its cemetery in bankruptcy court last year, Rommel began looking for another spiritual home. She has resigned herself to being entombed in a Catholic cemetery so she can be near her husband, but not without plenty of soul-searching.

“I have no choice. I am going to be buried there because that was his choice, and we paid a lot for that vault,” said Rommel, who bought a two-casket tomb with her husband in 1997. “At the time, who would know that this was going to happen?”

The Crystal Cathedral congregation recently announced that it will vacate its modernist steel-and-glass church by June 2013.

The Diocese of Orange re-baptized the church Christ Cathedral this month and plans to turn the Protestant landmark where the “Hour of Power” TV ministry is based into its spiritual and administrative headquarters. The fast-growing, 1.2 million-person diocese bought the church campus for nearly $58 million last year.

The upcoming transition has been an emotional one for many longtime congregants like Rommel, who watched Schuller’s blockbuster dynasty struggle to survive in recent years amid declining donations, a disastrous leadership transition and an endless family squabble that split the congregation.

Reaction to the church’s sale was at first bitter: The children of one prominent philanthropist publicly threatened to disinter their father from its cemetery and another congregant sued for $30 billion, saying the transfer to Catholic hands had “permanently desecrated, defamed, polluted and cursed” the church.

Tempers have since cooled, but the recently announced timeline for the transfer to Catholic hands has revived questions about the fate of Schuller’s ministry once it leaves behind the iconic building that gave it its name. The diocese will grant the congregation six months rent-free at a nearby Catholic church and it plans to continue filming the “Hour of Power.”

“We could film in a studio,” said John Charles, the new CEO of Crystal Cathedral Ministries. “We’re still going to have the same great preaching, the same great music and pulpit guests. The ministry is not about the building – it’s more about our congregation and who we are.”

Schuller tapped into California’s blossoming car culture and the optimism of a post-World War II generation when he began preaching in 1955 from the roof of a snack bar at a drive-in movie theater in suburban Orange County. He exhorted worshippers to “come as you are in the family car” and his upbeat message resonated.

By 1970, Schuller was airing the “Hour of Power” and in 1980, he dedicated the Crystal Cathedral, an architectural marvel that served as the backdrop for the show. At its peak, the broadcast attracted 20 million viewers around the world.

The Rev. Christopher Smith, the Catholic Episcopal vicar and rector of the newly baptized Christ Cathedral, recalls as a child watching from his grandparents’ backyard as the young, energetic evangelist preached from the roof of the drive-in theater’s concession stand.

Now, Smith is in charge of a delicate transition as the diocese prepares to move into a religious and architectural touchstone cherished by evangelicals around the world.

The diocese hopes to honor Schuller and the history of his ministry with a museum that begins with the drive-in movie theater and ends with the Catholic acquisition. The diocese may also move its archives, which are currently not publicly available, to the Cathedral grounds, Smith said.

“I just hope that we attend well to all the different people who are affected by this and also that this place be seen as a place where everyone is welcome to find hope and consolation and inspiration, whether they’re Catholic or not,” Smith said.

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