Trailblazing preacher Robert Schuller dies; built first megachurch, supported transition of cathedral campus to Catholic stewardship

By Patrick Mott Editor, Orange County Catholic     4/2/2015

The Rev. Robert H. Schuller, the charismatic and entrepreneurial preacher who oversaw a world-famous television ministry, commissioned the building of the former Crystal Cathedral and its campus, and lent his counsel and support to the Diocese of Orange when the diocese purchased the campus in 2012, died April 2. He was 88.

Schuller had suffered from esophageal cancer and died at a skilled nursing facility in Artesia.

Bishop Kevin Vann called Schuller “a man of great passion and love for Christ and the people of God. His ministry touched the hearts and minds of millions and showed the light of Christ to people all over the world.”

Basing his sermons and writings on a theatrically upbeat presentation that drew much inspiration from Norman Vincent Peale’s philosophy of positive thinking—Schuller called his own approach “possibility thinking”—the tall, silver-haired evangelist began his ministry in Orange County with only a few dollars in his pocket and built it into a media empire that reached millions worldwide.

Born in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1926, Schuller married Arvella de Haan, the organist at his hometown church, in 1950, the same year he received his Master of Divinity degree from Western Theological Seminary. The couple moved to Orange County, where Schuller first preached from the roof of the snack bar at the Orange Drive-In Theater to worshipers sitting in their cars, listening on the tinny drive-in speakers.

By 1961, Schuller was able to transfer the concept to the first drive-in-walk-in church. Designed by famed architect Richard Neutra, Schuller’s new Garden Grove church was known as the Arboretum, and could accommodate a seated congregation indoors as well as a drive-in congregation outside in their cars—once again, listening on in-car speakers.

Schuller’s greatest fame and influence came with the debut of the “Hour of Power” television program in 1970—a weekly broadcast that, in its most successful days, reached nearly 20 million viewers worldwide. Broadcast from the Arboretum, the show attracted celebrities, politicians, famous musicians and other household names and made Schuller one of the most widely recognized religious figures in the world. He was also a prolific author, writing dozens of inspirational books.

Expanding on the idea of a church that was open to views of the outdoors, Schuller raised millions of dollars from his ever-growing congregation to finance the construction of what would become known as the Crystal Cathedral, an all-glass church designed by the renowned architect Philip Johnson and constructed of 10,600 individual panes. It became the home of the “Hour of Power” for more than two decades.

It was not to last. As a result of declining congregants and viewers, family disagreements, and legal and economic problems Schuller’s ministry filed for bankruptcy in 2010. Schuller had turned the ministry over to his son, Robert A. Schuller, four years earlier. Today, the “Hour of Power” continues to be broadcast weekly with Schuller’s grandson Bobby Schuller at the helm. The younger Schuller’s ministry is known as Shepherds Grove, located in the buildings of the former St. Callistus Church, just a few blocks from the cathedral campus.

Two years after the bankruptcy, the Diocese of Orange acquired the 40-acre Crystal Cathedral campus, re-naming the iconic glass church Christ Cathedral. Schuller, a member of the Dutch Reformed Church, expressed satisfaction at the time that the property and buildings would continue to be used for Christian ministry.

“Since my appointment as the Bishop of Orange I have had the blessing to come to know Rev. Schuller and his family,” said Bishop Vann. “Rev. Schuller and I, along with Father Christopher Smith, the Rector of Christ Cathedral, have been able to visit with Rev. Schuller and his family, and to pray with him on a number of occasions. I especially enjoyed our visit last year at this time, when I told him that I had seen him a number of times on television at my grandparents’ home. We reminisced together about his friendship with the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen. I thanked him for his inspiration to so many in his preaching of the Word of God. He was truly a man of great compassion and giving of his entire self to the mission of Christ in the world.

“We are blessed to honor his memory on the Christ Cathedral campus and to continue the mission of service, charity and evangelization begun here so many years ago. As we prepare to celebrate the resurrection of the Lord, we pray for the soul of this humble servant of God as he is welcomed into eternity.”

Schuller’s wife, Arvella, died last February. He is survived by his son Robert Anthony and daughters Sheila Coleman, Jeanne Dunn, Carol Schuller-Milner and Gretchen Penner, as well as 19 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.


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