Reflection, serenity and hope are at the heart of the Christ Cathedral Memorial Gardens expansion, a project that more than doubles the size of the existing campus cemetery. Initially scheduled for completion more than a year ago, the project was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and then subsequently by delays in the shipment of materials. The expanded portion of the cemetery opened to the public in July and the finished product was worth the wait.
Originally opened in 1991 by the late Rev. Robert Schuller as part of the Crystal Cathedral campus, the $18.5 million expansion brings the Cathedral Memorial Gardens close to 1.6 acres and has added more than 6,400 burial spaces in the forms of niches, wall crypts and lawn spaces. Interest from the local Catholic community was an important reason behind the expansion.
“We saw that families have a need,” said Alma Ochoa, the Diocese’s associate director of administration for Cemeteries. “When we took over the cemetery (in 2012), we had so many families that were Catholic who wanted to be here.”
The expansion takes into account the design and flow of the existing cemetery space, adding to what Schuller and his team set in motion decades ago. The same red granite is used for the additional exterior niches and wall crypts. The new secondary entrance includes peaceful fountains, a nod to the water features located at the original main entrance.
Additionally, the placement of the secondary or processional entrance holds significance as the path leads from the Cathedral and past the Baptistry, reflecting where life in Christ begins through baptism.
“There was a lot of thought and intent that went into the procession from the Cathedral through the Baptistry,” said Director Michael Wesner. “It really gets us back to how the churches were in Europe, where the cemeteries were next to the church, which is very important in our faith to be able to do that in such a special place.”
Upon entering the Memorial Gardens from either entrance, the sunken elevation provides a natural screen, silencing the surrounding environmental noise and creating a solemn, quiet place to reflect.
The expanded area, designed by McCleskey Mausoleums, features new sections that are named after the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit. From several vantage points, visitors are provided with stunning views of the campus architecture.
The landscape, designed by landscape architect Rio Clemente, includes climate friendly plants, as well as plants and trees that were selected from biblical reference, such as olive trees.
Across from the exclusive 6- to 10-person Family Estates sits a five-foot tall bronze statue of the Archangel St. Michael, with red granite sarcophagi on either side that face toward the Cathedral.
The highlight of the Memorial Gardens expansion project is the Sanctuary of Eternal Life, an indoor private family mausoleum of sarcophagi and niches. The room features Italian marble and granite, background music, creative lighting and air conditioning, all combining to create a place of comfort and beauty.
Bronze statues of Archangels Raphael and Gabriel are surrounded by a collection of niches with fronts made of granite, see-through glass, or stained glass with handmade prisms.
The focal point of the Sanctuary of Eternal Life is an architectural stained glass art piece by artist Elizabeth Devereaux. “The Risen Christ” symbolizes Jesus rising from the tomb on the third day, with the Christ figure flanked by angels on either side.
Devereaux’s design features “flashed” glass with layers of color, reminiscent of a watercolor painting more than a traditional stained-glass mosaic. Christ’s garment is kiln-fired with 24 karat gold luster and is surrounded by beveled prisms, or “rays of light” that resemble the Crean Tower. The face of Jesus is “no face” or “all faces” as a way “to invite and include all of humanity in the face of the Risen Christ.”
Unlike traditional stained-glass windows, the art piece is designed and lit in such a way to be appreciated day or night, with the light reflection providing new and unique dimensions at different times of the day. As was a condition of the sale of the property in 2012, the Cathedral Memorial Gardens is the only one of the cemeteries in the Diocese of Orange that maintains ecumenical status, accepting all those of the Christian faith.
A dedication ceremony honoring the families of those who have purchased or are interred is planned for Nov. 2 at 2 p.m. It will include a Mass, a procession, live music and a blessing of the cemetery grounds by multiple priests. The public is invited to attend. Father Christopher Smith, who along with Wesner and Ochoa was integral in the planning of the expansion, believes the promise of eternal life makes this cemetery a beautiful refuge.
“Catholic cemeteries are so important because they are places of hope,” said Father Christopher. “They give testimony to what’s at the core of our faith, and that’s that death is not the end of things. Our life here is destined to full life with the Lord.”
For more information about funerals, costs and cemetery availability, visit occem.org