Since it opened in 1991, the Memorial Gardens cemetery at the former Crystal Cathedral, now Christ Cathedral, has been a restful enclave where relatives of the dead could pray, reflect or grieve. Set below grade, in the shadow of the iconic glass cathedral and prayer tower, the 3-acre plot of green with a mausoleum and niches, flanked by fountains, has been a popular feature on the Christ Cathedral campus.
Once one of the best-kept secrets in the Diocesan roster of cemeteries, the Memorial Gardens are about to undergo a major overhaul and expansion.
“It’s an important feature for the community,” said Michael Wesner, director of cemeteries for the Diocese, calling it an “honor and a privilege” to oversee and maintain the grounds.
In recent years, as the small cemetery has begun to approach capacity, the Diocese began planning to undertake an impressive expansion of the space. In addition to expanding the footprint of the cemetery by nearly an acre, the grounds will expand capacity by about 450 percent, adding a Sanctuary of Eternal Life; mausoleum; sarcophagi, or stone coffins; and thousands of glass and marble niches.
“There is a demand. It’s very popular,” Wesner said of the cemetery. “[With] the location on campus, it’s a very beautiful place to begin with.”
In 2012, the Diocese took over maintenance of the grounds, which had become degraded as Robert Schuller’s church struggled through bankruptcy. Even when much of the campus was leased back space to Schuller’s church, the Diocese worked on the cemetery. The upgrades included landscaping, repairing the fountains and improving irrigation.
Wesner also said the grounds were expanded at the time, which opened space for in-ground burials.
“People lined up,” Wesner said. “In six to eight months we were sold out.”
In addition to the sold-out ground space, Wesner said, less than 100 traditional mausoleum spaces and a little over 1,000 cremation niche spaces remained. Wesner said there are currently about 1,800 interred at the site.
While the Diocese oversees more than 100 acres of property across four operating cemeteries, the parcel in the Christ Cathedral complex is unique. It is the only ecumenical burial ground, and a rare operating cemetery adjacent to a church.
Wesner said the cemetery will remain available to non-Catholics to honor the multi-denominational roots of the space. However, he said about 95 – 98 percent of those now purchasing spaces are Catholic.
Because of the cemetery’s ecumenical history and the modernist architecture throughout the campus, the expansion will be reflective of that look.
The new sanctuary will be “striking and modern,” according to architects, and feature “large doors embellished with glass artwork.”
“The expansion of Christ Cathedral Memorial Gardens cemetery is designed to promote reflection and prayer,” according to Barry Boudreaux, lead architect of Georgia-based McCleskey Mausoleum Co., which received the design build contract.
At 6 p.m., Monday, July 9, the Diocese will officially begin the expansion process with a groundbreaking ceremony. Scheduled to attend are Bishop Kevin Vann and Christ Cathedral Rector Fr. Christopher Smith.
“We are blessed as a Diocese that Rev. Robert Schuller had the foresight to include a cemetery in his plans for the Crystal Cathedral property,” Bishop Vann said in a statement. “Interment space is increasingly limited within Orange County and having such a serene, solemn and convenient location for families at the heart of our Diocese is a unique gift.”
The first phase of expansion is expected to be completed by December 2019. A 10-year second phase will follow and at that point Wesner said the Diocese will decide how and whether to proceed.
“We really won’t know the last phase until we see how the sales go,” Wesner said.
The expansion will be able to accommodate about 6,300 added spaces, including room for 1,200 more in-ground burials, which are sold in 600 two-space lots. Wesner expects these spots will go quickly. Already 30 have sold before the groundbreaking. Another 800 mausoleum spaces will be available and may take several years to sell out. There will also be more than 4,000 niches, which could remain available through the second phase of construction, Wesner predicted.
The project is being managed by Mike Padian of Padian Team Consulting.
In a video made for the expansion of the cemetery, Fr. Smith said having a cemetery on the church grounds is special.
“That whole idea of procession from church to cemetery is a symbol of the fact that life here is a journey to the Lord,” Smith said. “We’re on the way to the Lord and the final resting place is a symbol that someone has arrived.”