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A ‘towering light.’ California’s Central Valley is now home to the largest Catholic parish church

Esther Quintanilla
St. Charles Borromeo church in Visalia, Calif., is the largest Catholic parish church in North America. Church leaders say the church can hold more than 3,000 people.

VISALIA, Calif. – A few hours before Mass began, a line of parishioners was already waiting to be let inside St. Charles Borromeo church.

“[We are] always early to church. That’s just my belief. I always want to be early to church. I don't want to be way in the back,” said Charles Blue of Visalia.

Although he and his wife Carrie Blue had seen some photos of the church online, they wanted to be among the first to enter the facility.

“I’m wanting that feeling of walking in and saying, ‘This is home, This is where we were meant to be,’” says Carrie Blue.

The Blues had a reason to be excited. With the construction and opening of St. Charles church within the Good Shepherd Catholic Parish, the Central Valley is now home to the largest Catholic parish church in the country – and all of North America.

On a recent February day, the Blues were part of the ceremonial dedication Mass.

Construction on St. Charles started in 2019. When the pandemic started a few months later in 2020, plans were delayed due to labor shortages and supply chain issues.

But after nearly three years of rescheduling, the $21 million parish church is ready to seat 3,200 people in a single Mass.

In the United States, there are roughly 17,000 parishes. Parishes are subdivisions of the larger system of Catholic dioceses -- of which there are 12 in California.

'That's us. That's our story'

Walking through the arched doors of the church, thousands took in the first glimpses of the sanctuary.

Pillars line the rows of seats at the back of the hall, with a narrow path leading up to the pulpit. A ray of sunlight seeps into the room through a rounded skylight above the altar. A mural depicting different saints floating in the cosmos circles the beam of light and looks down at the pews where the Blues would take their seats.

“The dome, what you see up in the clouds, that's taken from the Hubble telescope,” says Father Alex Chavez, the priest in charge of the church.

He says all the artwork in the sanctuary was intentionally chosen to resemble the renaissance.

The architecture of the building was inspired by the Spanish missions across California. The Trinity was carved out of wood and sent from Spain, Chavez says.

The painting behind the pulpit depicts more than just the Trinity and the saints. It also pays homage to the region.

“You see the mural, you see the valley field crop, the valley oak tree that we’re known for the California poppy. You see the little patches, the Valley, the Sierra [Nevada]. That's us. That's our story,” Chavez says.

Esther Quintanilla
Bishop Joseph V. Brennan (left) and Father Alex Chavez (right) pose for pictures in the sanctuary of St. Charles Borromeo church in Visalia, Calif.

'A towering light in the city'

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno has more than a million registered members. It stretches across 200 miles of the San Joaquin Valley, from Atwater in Merced County to Frazier Park in Kern County.

“This is literally centrally located for the dioceses of Fresno and and pretty much centrally located for the state of California,” says Bishop Joseph V. Brennan, the head of the diocese. “It's a perfect location to draw people from every corner of the diocese.”

The church is expected to help alleviate the smaller churches in Visalia, which the diocese notes have outgrown their campuses.

“This city, this county, it's still exploding. [It’s still] building everywhere,” Brennan says.

Brennan noted the church may also address the shortage of priests in the region. The church will be able to consolidate church services without calling on numerous priests to tend to the up to 17 weekly Masses in Visalia, he said.

Chavez says there are already more than 14,000 families registered to attend St. Charles. He also estimates the church will serve more than 15,000 people each week.

The church will host three weekly Sunday services, two in Spanish and one in English. For those who will attend, the church brings a special feeling.

“[St. Charles] is going to be a towering light in the city. This will be the place for everybody to come. It's a blessing,” says Blue, who was eager to make it early.

This story is part of the Central Valley News Collaborative, which is supported by the Central Valley Community Foundation with technology and training support by Microsoft Corp.

Esther Quintanilla reports on diverse communities for KVPR through the Central Valley News Collaborative, which includes The Fresno Bee, Vida en el Valle, KVPR and Radio Bilingüe.