By Larry Urish     9/18/2016

“The number 40 is in the Sacred Scripture and is truly a sacred number of journey and pilgrimage for God’s holy people: 40 years to the Promised Land [and] 40 days and 40 nights of the Lord in the desert, for example.”

So writes Bishop Kevin Vann, bishop of the Diocese of Orange that was established 40 years ago. One of the largest in the country, with more than 1.3 million members, the diocese has experienced many changes through the years.

History has repeatedly shown us that the only real constant in life is change. As we look at the history of the diocese, we must understand that every era, like every day, offers a new beginning, with new dreams, hopes and challenges.


A new mission

A look back at the diocese’s four decades would be incomplete without briefly exploring one of the first missions in California: how it faced its challenges, expanded and eventually accomplished its goals.

One of the driving forces behind the introduction of Catholicism in California was Saint Junipero Serra, a priest and friar of the Franciscan Order.

“The Franciscan missionaries employed new ‘techniques’ of catechesis to invite native peoples into the Christian way,” says Rev. Msgr. Arthur Holquin, episcopal vicar of divine worship of the diocese and pastor emeritus of Mission San Juan Capistrano. “[They] were receptive to the Franciscan way of life.”

On Oct. 30, 1775, Fr. Fermin Lasuen, at the behest of Fr. Serra, rang in a new mission named for San Juan Capistrano. However, “the mission was abandoned because of an Indian attack on the San Diego mission,” says Fr. Bill Krekelberg, archivist emeritus of Mission San Juan Capistrano. “The soldiers of the guard had to rush to their headquarters, in San Diego, for reinforcement. Without military protection, the inhabitants of Mission San Juan Capistrano were forced to abandon.”

The Mission was officially re-established the following year, on Nov. 1, All Saints Day. It soon grew into a thriving community. By 1800, more than 2,000 people had been baptized there.

After Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1822, the land surrounding the Mission was split up and given to the native people. A few days after the Civil War ended, however, President Lincoln signed a document that returned the Mission to the Catholic Church. Today, this document is located at the mission – in the bell tower of the parish church, says Father Bill.

California became a new U.S. state in 1848, and the famed Gold Rush turned parts of the state into a frenzy the following year. Much of California had been divided into huge ranchos owned by a number of rich families. “The wealthy rancho families took the faith seriously and helped to secure its expansion of the faith in California,” says Msgr. Holquin.

However, a devastating drought in 1863 and 1864 led to the ranchos’ collapse and the eventual influx of developers, who established new towns throughout Southern California. Between 1857 and 1872, Anaheim, Tustin, Orange and Westminster were founded, soon followed by Garden Grove, Buena Park and several others. In 1899, these towns joined together to become a county named after a sweet citrus fruit that helped cultivate the local economy.


A new proliferation

Orange County grew rapidly during the postwar population boom in the ’40s and ’50s. Many new parishes were established.

“Disneyland came to the county in 1955, and that started a lot of development here,” says Shirl Giacomi, chancellor of the Diocese of Orange. “Many churches and schools sprang up.”

Later that year, Dr. Robert Schuller broke ground for his Garden Grove Community Church, the first-ever drive-in church.

“As a child, I remember how amazed we were when Dr. Schuller built his first church…now called the Arboretum, the building that we presently use for our worship space,” says Fr. Christopher Smith, rector and episcopal vicar of Christ Cathedral. “Even as youngsters, we were proud to see the beginnings of Dr. Schuller’s [church] from the vantage point of my grandparents’ orchard, which was right next door. Little did I know that someday I’d be celebrating Mass there.”

During the postwar era, Catholics in OC established 29 schools in just two decades. In the meantime, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles had been making a concerted effort to expand. “Aggressive acquisition of land for future parishes was a major priority,” says Msgr. Holquin.

The Archdiocese eventually grew too large. “It wasn’t manageable,” says Chancellor Giacomi. “[Its boundaries] ran all the way down to San Diego.”

In addition, OC’s population grew by more than 700,000 during the 1960s. Forward-thinking church leaders saw the population boom and knew that local centralized leadership would be best for the county’s parishes and the Catholic community as a whole.

“We had tremendous growth, and one of our challenges was reaching out to all of the new people in the area,” says The Most Rev. Tod D. Brown, bishop emeritus and the third bishop of Orange. “Part of that included bringing on a sufficient number of clergy personnel.”

“Some key questions needed answers,” says Sr. Katherine (Kit) Gray, director of mission integration and ongoing formation at Christ Cathedral. “‘What were the ministerial and pastoral needs of the community? Did we need more parishes? More schools? Where should they be located?’ It really boiled down to what the people needed.”

What they primarily needed was their own home.


A new Diocese

Filling a critical need, Pope Paul VI appointed the creation of the Diocese of Orange on March 30, 1976. Bishop William Johnson was soon installed as the new diocese’s first bishop.

“Bishop Johnson helped everyone form an identity as a new diocese,” says Sr. Kit. “He really set the tone, and that tone was quite pastoral.”

“One of the first things he did was commit himself to visiting the existing parishes and hold ‘listening sessions’ with parish leadership to help determine the priorities for the new diocese,” says Msgr. Holquin. “Out of these sessions came the commitment that [each of] the parishes needed to make youth ministry a major priority. And he realized that the acquisition of land for future parishes would be critical.”

The first Pastoral Services Office opened on Sept. 13, 1976. Bishop Johnson soon organized the first permanent deacons for the diocese and opened new offices of Catholic Social Services. All the while, Orange County and the local Catholic community continued to flourish.

Bishop Johnson died on July 28, 1986. “It’s sad he was here only a short time,” says Sr. Kit. “Having him named bishop was a cause of great joy. He was very highly regarded.”

Bishop Norman McFarland, a California native, succeeded him on Feb. 24, 1987.

“While Bishop Johnson led the diocese’s startup phase, in so many ways Bishop McFarland led the stabilization phase,” says Sr. Kit.

“[He] brought a keen sense of fiscal management to our ‘adolescent’ diocese,” says Msgr. Holquin. “The development of parishes, judicious expansion of diocesan services and ongoing formation of future clergy and laity required the careful husbanding of fiscal resources.”

Aware of the growing diversity in the county, particularly an influx of Vietnamese parishioners, Bishop McFarland presided at the groundbreaking for the Catholic Vietnamese Center, in Santa Ana, on Sept. 26, 1992. Four years later, he celebrated his Golden Jubilee – 25 years as a bishop and 50 as a priest – with a ceremony attended by 40 bishops and more than 200 priests. The diocese’s 20th anniversary fell on that same day in 1996.

Pope John Paul II appointed Bishop Tod Brown the third bishop of Orange on June 30, 1998, following the retirement of Bishop McFarland. He was installed on Sept. 3.

Bishop Brown shepherded the diocese through, as Msgr. Holquin says, “the Church’s worse crisis since the Reformation: the sexual abuse crisis. He was committed to doing all that might be possible to create healing in a just and honest way.”

“He instituted safe-environment measures and opened an office that focuses on this,” Diocese Chancellor Shirl Giacomi says. “He also wrote the Covenant of the Faithful.”

This 2004 document pledged to correct abuse issues and to assist the victims of abuse.

“While this challenge consumed so much of Bishop Brown’s time and energy, he should be remembered for his great love of the Vietnamese community and the encouragement of an incredible growth in vocations to the priesthood from that community within our local church,” says Msgr. Holquin.

The Pope recognized this with the appointment of the first Vietnamese auxiliary bishop in the U.S., Bishop Dominic Luong.

Bishop Brown appointed Sr. Katherine Gray the first female chancellor for the diocese. Two years later, Shirl Giacomi, a lay married woman, was appointed to the same position.

“[Bishop Brown] wanted a woman on his executive staff, and that says a lot about him,” says Chancellor Giacomi.

In addition, he connected with other faith communities. “He really stressed the importance of ecumenical and interreligious relationships, which enabled our Catholic community to reach out to the community as a whole,” says Sr. Kit.

Bishop Brown and other diocese leaders realized that, as the Archdiocese of Los Angeles had grown too large to manage efficiently, the diocese had grown too large for its cathedral. The decision he made to address this problem is, Msgr. Holquin says, “one of his great and lasting legacies.”


A new cathedral

By 2002, the diocese had far outgrown Holy Family Cathedral in Orange. Property was purchased and blessed in Santa Ana, and plans were made for the new Christ Our Savior Cathedral.

However, the summer of 2011 saw an unforeseen turn of events, when Dr. Schuller’s world-renowned Crystal Cathedral, which had been dedicated in 1981, declared bankruptcy. The property was up for sale.

The diocese soon put in a $50 million bid.

“Chapman University was the highest bidder,” says Chancellor Giacomi, “but Dr. Schuller wanted to sell it to the church. He wanted the campus to be, as he said, ‘for Christ forever.’ That became the [capital] campaign’s name.”

After the sale was finalized at $57.5 million, the diocese had a glorious new home – and a laborious new challenge.

“We had to move entire communities here,” says Sr. Kit. “St. Callistus relocated here. The administrative offices had been at Marywood, supporting the bishop and many others. Everyone there was relocated to the new campus. It was all a huge undertaking. We had to figure out how to share the new space with a vibrant on-site parish.”

With an abundance of brainpower, patience, teamwork and faith, the massive transition was handled successfully. The diocese’s new home was named Christ Cathedral. A massive campus-renovation project began on Feb. 4, 2013, just two months after Bishop Kevin Vann was installed as the fourth bishop of Orange.

“God providentially sends ‘the right bishop at the right time’ for us in the diocese,” says Msgr. Holquin. “Bishop Vann has enthusiastically taken up the challenge of following through with realizing Bishop Brown’s dream of a worthy cathedral for the diocese within the fully functioning Christ Cathedral campus.”

In addition, “He has continued to establish good ecumenical and interreligious relationships with other Christian churches and other faith communities,” says Bishop Brown.

While OC’s population has doubled since 1976, the Catholic population has risen from 333,000 to 1.3 million. The spectacular Christ Cathedral campus, though still under renovation, is today a home for faithful from all over Southern California – and visitors from throughout the world – to gather, worship and serve God. And on Sept. 23, 2015, Pope Francis canonized St. Junipero Serra, the man who, more than anyone, brought Catholicism to the Golden State.


Today, the spiritual way of life that the Franciscan monks brought to this region more than two centuries ago flourishes in ways they could never have imagined. Even the changes that have taken place in only four decades have been nothing short of mind-boggling.

No one at the beginning of the diocese in 1976 had any idea of what it would look like today,” says Fr. Krekelberg. “Father Serra, back in 1776, would’ve had a hard time recognizing the world now, but he’d certainly recognize human nature. And human nature doesn’t change.”

“It’s not about living in the past, but stepping from where we’ve been into the future,” says Sr. Kit. “That future has a focus on Jesus Christ and on the mission that Jesus left to the Church: to be His presence in the world.”

With this singular, dedicated focus behind every plan, prayer and action in the Diocese of Orange, each new day will offer the same bright promise for many, many years to come.

A new beginning.