“You can go to Europe and see Gothic cathedrals,” said a priest in response to one of a million complaints regarding the latest example of modern architecture confronting the citizens of the Bay Area. “You can come to Oakland and see this.”
Well, we went to Europe for five of our last six vacations and we visited many magnificent Gothic cathedrals. Romanesque, Renaissance, Baroque and Neoclassical, too. So a couple of weeks ago when we got a day off from our grandkids daycare service we skipped flying 5,000 miles to Europe and instead drove 20 miles to Oakland to see the newest and closest cathedral: The Cathedral of Christ the Light. We walked through the main entrance to the baptismal font, gazed at the view of the entire interior from there and uttered that one magical three-letter word: “Wow!”
The Diocese of Oakland was created in 1962 and Floyd Begin was appointed the first bishop and the downtown parish church of St Francis de Sales turned into a cathedral. Then came the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 and there went the cathedral. Finally, after years of meditating, negotiating, praying, planning and raising money, the construction of a new cathedral on the shores of Lake Merritt commenced in 2005. The Cathedral of Christ the Light was completed in 2008 with a solemn dedication on September 25th of that year and Bishop Begin, who had died in 1977, was re-interred in the Cathedral’s mausoleum a few weeks later.
Craig W. Hartman of the architectural firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill designed the church and it was built by Webcor Builders out of Douglas fir, steel, concrete and lots of glass. It was designed to resemble a fish and the Vesica Piscis shape, formed by the intersection of two circles, dominates the building. The ceiling and roof is an oculus containing 140 aluminum panels. There are two main windows in the church: the Alpha Window at the entrance above the baptismal font and the Omega Window behind the altar. In this latter window are 94,000 pixels, basically holes in aluminum panels, that project the image of Christ the Light. The image is taken from the tympanum above the Royal Portal of Chartres Cathedral’s west facade.
The cathedral’s design was not the only controversy that stirred up passions during the building project. The estimated cost of $190 million also caused quite an uproar, especially during a period when the diocese was being sued for a series of child sex abuse incidents by priests. A number of cost-cutting measures took effect during the last year of construction and the final cost for the project was only $175 million. There is also a garden and sculpture in the Cathedral Plaza dedicated to the victims of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.
The Cathedral has received several awards for religious architecture, interior design, wood construction and architectural engineering.
The Cathedral is located on the corner of Grand Avenue and Harrison Street just across the street from the lake and the Cathedral Plaza adjoins Ordway Plaza (home of the Kaiser Permanente Ordway Building) which is just across 21st Street from Kaiser Center. The main entrance to the second floor is from the plaza. The Harrison Street entrance is to the mausoleum, Events Center and Diocesan offices. There are internal and external staircases as well as an elevator to the second-floor entrance.
There is no admission fee to tour the cathedral but parking was a problem. We had to pay $2 every 30 minutes at a parking lot across from the Ordway Plaza and we stayed over an hour. The Cathedral charges $5 for validated parking at their underground parking garage on 21st Street. Parking is free on Sundays for those attending Mass. A couple of A/C buses stop on Grand and Harrison. And the BART 19th Street station is only six blocks away. There’s also easy access from freeways 580, 880 and 980. We took the Grand Avenue exit from 580 and drove about a mile to Harrison. See http://www.ctlcathedral.org/visit/getting-here for more detailed information on directions and parking.
The entire Cathedral complex includes a rectory / Bishop’s residence, conference rooms and a Health Center. There are also a bookstore / gift shop and a cafe in the Cathedral Plaza.
There is a three-day festival at the Cathedral every year celebrating the Nativity Scene This year’s Creche Festival will be held on December 12- 14th. See http://www.ctlcathedral.org/visit/creche14 for more information.
Was Gertrude Stein wrong?