Oroville Mercury-Register

The largest US Catholic parish rises in CA’s interior

- By Alejandra Molina

VISALIA » It’s billed as the largest Catholic parish in the United States and it’s being constructe­d about 200 miles north of Los Angeles in what’s often referred to “as the heart of California’s dairy industry.”

With an estimated $18.5 million price tag, St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church will seat 3,200 people, will encompass approximat­ely 33,000 square feet and is expected to open in spring 2022. The church is being built in Visalia, a city in Tulare County, and Catholic leaders there are hailing it as the largest U.S. parish in terms of seating capacity.

The new church — financed by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno and private donations — will feature 9-foot-tall stained glass windows in its sanctuary, a baptismal font at the parish entrance, Stations of the Cross with 14 devotional posts and an octagonsha­ped dome highlighte­d in antique gold featuring murals of the four Evangelist­s.

The church, which will reflect “California-mission inspired” architectu­re, will also showcase a 48-foot-high devotional painting on canvas depicting portraits of archangels hovering above as saints kneel and worship the Holy Trinity. The painting will pay homage to the region with images of citrus trees, cattle and green pastures that are synonymous with the agricultur­al Central Valley.

St. Charles Borromeo will be able to fit more people than the Christ

Cathedral — formerly the Crystal Cathedral, Robert H. Schuller’s megachurch taken over by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange in 2012 — which can seat 2,248 congregant­s. And while St. Matthew Catholic Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, may have more than 11,000 registered families, it seats about 2,100 people. The National Shrine in Washington, D.C., seats 3,500 but is not considered a parish church.

To the Rev. Alex Chavez, pastor of Good Shepherd Catholic Parish in Visalia, the new church is a sign of “divine providence,” especially amid the pandemic when “everything is dull and depressing, here in this little part of California we’re building this behemoth.”

“It’s the best-kept secret in the nation — little Visalia building the largest parish church in modern U.S. history,” Chavez said.

Visalia, a city with just over 140,000 people, is wedged between Fresno and Bakersfiel­d in the San Joaquin Valley — a region where, according to U.S.

Census Bureau figures, Latinos are the majority in six of its eight counties. The city has experience­d population growth over the last decade, with the number of residents increasing from 124,442 in 2010 to 141,384 in 2020, census figures show.

While it may seem jarring for such a massive church to be located in a county where, as a 2017 Visalia Times Delta headline noted, “there’s nearly more cows than people,” Chavez said the large-scale parish — which has been years in the making — is necessary to address the Catholic population boom in a region where, like much of the world, there is a dire shortage of priests.

There’s been an uneven growth of Catholics in the U.S. over the last 40 years as Western and Southern states experience­d a boom in the Catholic population, said Jonathon Wiggins, director of parish surveys at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

In 1980, 16% of all Catholics were in the West, and by 2019, that rose to 27%, Wiggins said.

 ?? ALEJANDRA MOLINA — RNS ?? The Rev. Alex Chavez in front of the St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church constructi­on site in Visalia on Sept. 9.
ALEJANDRA MOLINA — RNS The Rev. Alex Chavez in front of the St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church constructi­on site in Visalia on Sept. 9.

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