VISALIA, Calif. — St. Charles Borromeo Church, which officially opened on February 2, is now the largest Catholic parish church in the United States. With a seating capacity of 3,148 and nearly an acre of interior space, it can accommodate nearly 1,000 more worshippers than the previous record holder: St. Matthew Church of Charlotte, North Carolina. The church stands out for its spaciousness and strong sight lines, which are meant to help generate the sense of community and inclusivity recommended by the Vatican II council on church design. Its large capacity will also allow a diminishing number of priests to serve a rapidly growing local population.
Completed after 11 years of planning and various delays, St. Charles occupies one of the four corners of a busy intersection of West Caldwell and Akers Street. Three other churches — Visalia First Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Visalia United Methodist Church — rest on the remaining three corners. Featuring Mission Revival architecture, arched entryways, and a curvy Neo-Baroque facade, its scale and architectural ambition distinguish St. Charles from its more conventional neighbors.
The impressive mass of St. Charles faces a circular plaza, composed of concentric rings of soil and concrete walkways, that will soon be fully landscaped; when completed, it should provide an inviting outdoor space where people can gather and mingle with easy access to the church, its nearby offices, and a convenient 880 space parking lot.
When entering the building worshippers will first pass through a narthex, an enclosed porch that features colorful paintings by California artist Debra Sievers which personify the four parish communities that it unites and serves. After passing an elegant baptismal font — decorated with an Italian mosaic depicting the holy spirit — visitors will look up and into a spacious nave towards colorful murals behind the altar. The floor of the building has been sloped down 21 inches to improve the building’s sight lines. Illuminated by natural light from arched windows, an oculus (skylight), and hanging electric chandeliers, the warmth of the well-lit interior is enhanced by a planked cedar ceiling.
To keep the nave and transept visually open and free of columns, the project’s structural engineers devised a system of glue-laminated timber beams over 80 feet wide which support massive joists hidden in the 400-ton plywood roof. At the crossing of the building’s cruciform footprint a nearly 100-foot diameter dome adds height and visual drama. The dome, which has an octagonal format, is decorated with eight panels that rise and recede towards a golden-ringed oculus.
The four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, appear on four of the dome’s panels, all eight of which are decorated with golden rays, filigreed edges and stylized stars. Each saint is accompanied by a symbolic mascot: Mark by a lion, Luke by an ox, and John an eagle. Matthew—the patron saint of accounting — does not rate a spiritual support animal and is simply given an admiring blond angel.
The figures and their surrounding cosmos, which includes imagery taken from the observations of the Hubble telescope, were painted by a team of liturgical artists supervised by Rolf Rohn of Philadelphia’s Rohn and Associates.
“They are nationally renowned muralists,” says Father Alex Chavez, one of several parish priests whose congregations will be attending mass at St. Charles. “They are not Catholics, but they felt in their hearts the challenge to do a Renaissance piece.”
A climactic burst of garish colors — golds, reds, oranges and violets — activate the upper section of the murals suggesting the energy and chaos of creation as the paintings give way to the view of actual sky visible through the oculus.
Beneath the dome, an altar and ambo (pulpit) carved from pink Mexican cantera stone rest on a spacious white travertine platform. A sequoia wood tabernacle will be added in the near future. A pair of 38-foot-tall retablo murals by Rohn and Associates Design, painted on canvas and joined at the center, displays a host of angels and devotional figures who look towards a carved Trinity that juts forward from the wall.
The Trinity, carved from linden wood in Sevilla, Spain, incorporates polychromed figures of God the Father (the largest at 10 feet tall), a crucified Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Supported by special steel frames devised by structural engineers, this sacred tableau shoots rays of light towards the heavens and also downwards towards the purple hills and grazing cattle of an idealized Central California landscape. Filled with local flora — Valley Oaks, California Poppies and citrus trees —the mural has a high-key presence that feels a bit like a Pixar movie.
St. Charles is an impressively coordinated building that manages to meet California’s strict energy and earthquake requirements while also referencing the past architecture of the state’s many missions.
What also stands out is that the building has no electronic display screens, which have become a staple of newer Protestant “Megachurches” serving over 2,000 people. When asked if St. Charles might be considered a Megachurch, Father Chavez responded that to call it that would be a “mis-labeling.”
“Personally I don’t see it as a megachurch,” he says. “It feels very warm, as big as it is. Nothing clashes: it all blends in. You walk in and it reminds you of a cozy cabin.”