North America’s largest Catholic parish church – St. Charles Borromeo with seating for 3,200 souls – was officially dedicated Thursday (Feb. 2) in front of a packed house that included bishops from throughout California.
The $21 million church in west Visalia may be sparkling new with its 48-by-53-foot mural on the wall behind the altar, dome murals and California mission-style exterior, but it has already garnered attention nationally.
St. Charles Borromeo, the new parish church of The Good Shepherd Catholic Parish in Visalia, is a template for the Catholic Church as it consolidates smaller and struggling parishes into one site.
A big deal
Fresno Diocese Bishop Joseph V. Brennan, who officiated the almost three-hour long bilingual mass of dedication, called the parish “a big deal.”
It was Brennan’s first dedication of a church.
“We’re hoping that this becomes an example, if not a model, for the church in the States,” said Brennan.
A priest shortage hasn’t been as acute as in previous years, said Brennan. But an increase in the number of parishioners has required the Catholic Church to get innovative in its planning.
“That does take on national significance because every community of faith faces these same issues, as we do, in a different context and different areas of the country.”
That means that any new church built in the Fresno Diocese must hold at least 1,500 people.
“This (St. Charles Borromeo) is only twice as big as that,” said Brennan. “This could probably even have been built bigger to serve the needs of this community as we speak.”
St. Charles Borromeo consolidates different parishes and includes four worship sites:
▪ St. Mary’s Church (650 people capacity)
▪ Holy Family (450 people capacity)
▪ St. Thomas the Apostle in Goshen (150 people capacity)
▪ St. Charles Borromeo Hall (800 people capacity), which is adjacent to the new parish.
St. Charles Borromeo will host three Sunday services – two in Spanish and one in English – to replace the 11 masses that were held at the other sites, said Pastor Fr. Alex Chávez.
St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Lemoore now has the second-largest parish church in the Fresno Diocese with accommodation for 1,500 parishioners.
St. Stanislaus Catholic Church in Modesto, part of the Diocese of Stockton, holds 1,326 people.
Construction of St. Peter’s and St. Stanislaus was completed in 2008.
From construction project to dedication
Brennan said the St. Charles construction project had been in the radar of other dioceses and bishops. He received a few calls from his fellow bishops in California just to “kind of track the progress” because they have heard about it and have an interest.
He wouldn’t “be surprised” if he gets called to explain how the project came together.
“And I wouldn’t be surprised if Father Alex, the pastor here, has already received similar phone calls,” Brennan said.
A groundbreaking ceremony for St. Charles Borromeo was held in October 2019 by then-Father Eric Swearingen, in conjunction with Bishop Armando X. Ochoa. Five months later, March 2020, the project which was expected to be completed in late spring 2021 was shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ve changed the date for this dedication at least three times,” Brennan said, blaming the pandemic.
Brennan said everyone is excited to finally have the dedication of St. Charles Borromeo that will “serve the local community every week and every Sunday. We hope to be serving at least 15,000 people every single weekend.”
Archbishop Emeritus Cardinal Roger M. Mahony; José H. Gómez, the Archbishop of Los Ángeles; Stockton Diocese Bishop Myron J. Cotta; and Ochoa, the Bishop Emeritus of the Fresno Diocese, anointed the walls of the church during the dedication mass.
Chávez said the dedication is “a great testament of God’s hand at work. God in our midst creating this beautiful worth of space.”
“My sight was always past dedication. Because of bringing the communities together in one worship site. We stop being divided and worshipping in all these sites. Now we come together and worship together,” Chávez said.
For Chávez, the work now starts.
“Because God is going to inspire so many people and now those that were not coming to mass will be moved to come,” Chávez said. “I think it’s a tremendous honor to be able to worship God in such a beautiful space.”
Chávez sees himself as “very privileged” to have the opportunity to see the “Holy Spirit moving in a very dynamic way,” something that can only be witnessed in big masses or big gatherings.
“The Holy Spirit works in very different ways with the bigger crowd. I’m looking forward to how the Holy Spirit manifests himself with as many people in one site,” Chávez said.
Chávez said after the dedication, “this building becomes a sacred ground. Now it could be called the church after today, and so today opens the floodgates to the many worship service masses that we will have here beginning this Sunday.”
On Friday, the parish is having a thanksgiving mass at 7 p.m. open to not only the parishioners who couldn’t obtain a ticket to the dedication, but to the dioceses’ faithful.
The Good Shepherd Catholic Parish in Visalia serves 14,000 registered families with 70% being Spanish-speaking community and 30% English-speaking.
Chávez said the other worship sites within the Good Shepherd Catholic parish will still be kept alive through daily sacraments, daily mass, funerals, baptisms and weddings.
For long-time parishioner Carlos Acevedo, it was a privilege to attend and take part in the mass dedication celebration.
“It is a blessing to serve Christ and to be with him and to serve in all aspects, both personally and as a family,” said Acevedo who previously attended mass at Holy Family. “And I am here now serving, it is a privilege to be in this church and that God gives us the license to be here, it is a blessing.”
Like Acevedo, another parishioner Lourdes Muñoz said felt “super happy” of witnessing the dedication.
Since she arrived in Visalia four years ago from San José, Muñoz said she wanted to return to the church because she “no longer felt the same without coming to church.
“And I felt happier when I found out that they were building a church and I said I am going to help in that church, and I am going to get involved. And that is what I am doing,” said Muñoz, adding “we are going to put a lot of effort into making this church exceptional.”
A ‘gathering place’
St. Charles Borromeo will also serve as a “gathering place” for the Fresno Diocese which stretches more than 200 miles from Atwater in the north to Frazier Park in the south. Visalia is centrally located.
The Diocese of Fresno is nestled in the central part of the San Joaquin Valley, expands over 35,239 square miles and serves 1.2 million faithful. The diocese is made up of 87 parishes and 20 Catholic schools within the counties of Fresno, Kern, Inyo, Madera, Mariposa, Merced, Tulare and Kings.
“It will be a gathering place for our major events like the ordination of priests or the very special chrism mass. The mass of the holy oils, right before Holy Week, where the whole diocese is invited,” Brennan said.
Then-Fresno Bishop John T. Steinbock, who died in 2010 at age 73, had already envisioned a big venue like St. Charles Borromeo that is central to the diocese.
“It’s going to be a place where many people will come throughout the diocese to experience not only beauty but also to experience praising God in a special way not only in different languages, but also in different dioceses events and also different parish events here in Visalia,” said Monsignor Patrick McCormick. “And the part of the whole process has been to help people to realize that you come into a space, and you’re moved by the most beautiful art.”
In his homily, Brennan told parishioners that with a “giant church” like St. Charles Borromeo, the challenge would be to make the church smaller and personal.
Brennan extended an open invitation for people to “come when we have major events in the future to this beautiful, sacred, holy place.”