The US’s largest Catholic parish is opening in Visalia. Look inside the $21 million church

·6 min read

When the work is completed on the new $21 million St. Charles Borromeo Church in Visalia later this year, the historic building will be the largest Catholic parish church in North America seating 3,200 souls.

“We’re 85% complete. We’re looking at contractor completing it soon, but a dedication mass in early spring of next year with bishop, our Bishop Joseph Brennan,” said Pastor Fr. Alex Chávez as he gave a tour to Vida en el Valle on Aug. 4 of the construction progress.

In comparison, St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Lemoore is currently the largest parish church in the Fresno Diocese with accommodation for 1,500 parishioners. St. Stanislaus Catholic Church, in Modesto and part of the Diocese of Stockton, holds 1,326 people.

Construction of St. Peter’s and St. Stanislaus was completed in 2008.

Originally the Roman Catholic Dioceses of Fresno announced the consecration of St. Charles Borromeo Church for Nov. 4, 2022, however the date had to be changed to sometime in early spring 2023.

 Pastor Fr. Alex Chávez gave a tour to Vida en el Valle on Aug. 4 of the construction progress of the $21 million St. Charles Borromeo Church, the US’s largest Catholic parish opening in Visalia.
Pastor Fr. Alex Chávez gave a tour to Vida en el Valle on Aug. 4 of the construction progress of the $21 million St. Charles Borromeo Church, the US’s largest Catholic parish opening in Visalia.

“Due to COVID, labor shortages and supply chain, it’s just getting a little difficult to finish on the date that we had planned,” said Chávez, adding that those were typical delays that were caused by COVID and ramification that they had to deal with.

St. Charles Borromeo will be the new parish church of The Good Shepherd Catholic Parish in Visalia, which 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),

and, St. Charles Borromeo Hall (800 people capacity), adjacent to the construction site.

Once construction is completed, Chávez said “on Sundays, what the vision is, is to consolidate the 11 masses we had pre-pandemic because of the smaller venues to a bigger venue to bring down that number because of the shortage of priests nationwide.”

By reading the writings on the wall, Chávez 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.

The Fresno Diocese stretches more than 200 miles from Atwater in the north to Frazier Park in the south. Visalia centrally located.

“So, if you can imagine, Visalia lands right in the middle,” said Chávez, adding Steinbock envisioned a big enough venue “to host all the people of the faithful of the diocese to come together around their shepherd, the bishop.”

Fresno Diocese Bishop Joseph V. Brennan gave the new parish church his blessing.

“We hope that it will be a place where Catholics from all over the Central Valley, and we hope Catholics from all over the country, will come and gather,” said Brennan. “It’s just marvelous we’ll have this place where we can gather in large numbers and really celebrate that in a big way, literally.”

The Diocese of Fresno is nestled in the Central part of the San Joaquin Valley, expands over 35,239 square miles, and serves more than 2 million faithful. The diocese is made up of 87 parishes and 20 Catholic schools, which are within the counties of Fresno, Kern, Inyo, Madera, Mariposa, Merced, Tulare and Kings.

The parish church, said Brennan was “a project that grew over time. It started out fairly modestly by comparison to what it is today. It grew. It grew.”

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“And so that vision has now come to fruition,” Chávez said. “Not only does a diocese benefit, all the faithful, all the Catholic faithful of the diocese, but this parish because of the consolidation. And the priest number were diminishing.”

Chávez said the purchase of the property goes back to the 1940s when the pastor at the time started buying land on the opposite side of town because of expected growth.

In 2006, half of the property was sold to raise funds to build the current St. Charles Borromeo Hall next to the construction site.

Then Father Eric Swearingen, in conjunction with Bishop Armando Ochoa, held a groundbreaking ceremony for St. Charles Borromeo in October 2019.

“Little did we know that five months after, right, March 2020, that we would be completely shut down,” Chávez said. “And so, the challenges of building the largest parish church in North America became real at a different magnitude.”

Pastor Fr. Alex Chávez under the St. Charles Borromeo Church’s dome holding a replica of the mural that will be cover the dome.
Pastor Fr. Alex Chávez under the St. Charles Borromeo Church’s dome holding a replica of the mural that will be cover the dome.

“Without pandemic, a building of this size has its many challenges. Well, you add to that the pandemic, supply shortages, labor shortages. But God’s hand has been at work marvelously and has given us this, and things continue to move slowly but surely,” Chávez said.

“So, we’ve got many people with many talents from all over the world coming together for this masterpiece,” Chávez said.

The Good Shepherd Catholic Parish in Visalia serves 14,000 registered families.

At a glance

St. Charles Borromeo will host Sunday services to replace the 11 masses that were held at the other sites.

St. Charles Borromeo sits on 17 acres on the southwest corner of Caldwell Avenue and Akers Street on Megachurch Alley. The First Baptist Church is the neighbor to the west. North is Methodist Church; and, kitty corner are the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The master plan calls for a high school, but that is not expected soon.

St. Charles Borromeo will have a columbarium, a resting place for urns of ashes. Cremated remains will be laid to rest on the campus. The first phase will have 1,100 niches, and officials believe those will sell out quickly once they go on presale in November of December.

Engineering transfers the weight of the dome to the sidewalls, eliminating the need for any columns that could obstruct the vision of parishioners giving a clear line of sight. Stadium seating allows people to see the altar from any seat inside.

St. Charles Borromeo is being built by local contractors.

Many art pieces come from all over the world. The baptismal font comes from Italy. The Trinity (God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit) were carved out of wood in Spain by a Spanish artist.

The retablo – the 48-by-53-foot mural on the wall behind the altar - was created by a studio out of San Francisco by a California artist.

Pastor Fr. Alex Chávez in front of the St. Charles Borromeo Church’s retablo – the 48-by-53-foot mural on the wall behind the altar that was created by a studio out of San Francisco by a California artist.
Pastor Fr. Alex Chávez in front of the St. Charles Borromeo Church’s retablo – the 48-by-53-foot mural on the wall behind the altar that was created by a studio out of San Francisco by a California artist.

Twenty stained glass windows six-foot-tall saints stand guard.

The parish is still looking for “generous souls out there” to sponsor some of the art or other parts to help with the $21 million cost and fundraising effort to pay for the loan.

Because the pandemic made it difficult to host in-person fundraising, the church launched a virtual catalog that allows “for the faithful” or anybody who is willing to be part of the historical project to participate by sponsoring a piece of artwork in honor of with benefactors being acknowledged in a memorial plaque.