Congregants stand at the start of the noontime mass Sunday held in the St. Charles Borromeo parish hall, which has been used as a church since 2011. The hall was built ahead of a church on the same parcel of land in Southwest Visalia, and on Oct. 22 work began to build the Catholic church. Photo by David Castellon
After more than two decades of stops and starts, construction finally began Tuesday on the site of a new Catholic church in southwest Visalia.
“The real driving force behind this, we just don’t have enough priestS, and we have just a huge parish” comprised of nearly 12,000 families, said Deacon Henry Medina.
He also serves as the director of administration for Good Shepherd Catholic Parish, which oversees St. Charles, along with Visalia’s two Catholic churches, St. Mary’s and Holy Family, and St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church in neighboring Goshen.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno, is building the 33,825-square-foot St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church off the southeast corner of South Akers Street and Caldwell Avenue.
If you aren’t a practicing Catholic living in the Visalia or Goshen areas, that might seem confusing, as there already is a building on that parcel where Catholics gather each Sunday for services, and it even has a cross on top and “St. Charles Borromeo” written over the entrance.
Though it looks like a church, it’s actually a parish hall, where the diocese has held masses since its construction was completed in 2011. Every week, about 900 chairs are unstacked and put out for congregants attending the three masses held there each Sunday.
To put that into perspective, St. Mary’s can seat about 750 people, while Holy Family can seat close to 500 and St. Thomas about 150.
But St. Thomas stopped hosting Sunday masses a couple of years ago, as the parish has only three priests due to a shortage OF priests nationally, which isn’t enough to lead services at all four worship sites on a single day, Medina said.
At the popular 1 p.m. Sunday mass at St. Mary’s, Medina said, “There we have standing room only. They’re up in the loft, in the aisles. There’s probably 850 [worshippers] on an average basis,” Medina said, adding that generally 6,000-8,000 people attend the 11 Saturday and Sunday masses held at the two churches and St. Charles’ parish hall.
It’s not clear how many of them attend services at the parish hall, but at the noontime mass there this past Sunday, more than two thirds of the seats were full, and some parishioners there said occasionally there aren’t enough seats for everyone.
That increased crowding, exemplified by a 7% spike in new members of the parish last year, is what revived efforts in the Fresno diocese to get the new church development going again.
The decision to build the new church actually was made back in 2006, and in 2008 the diocese got as far as obtaining a conditional use permit from the City of Visalia to build a church, a parish hall, a kindergarten-8th grade Catholic school and other church buildings on the 17-acre parcel owned by the diocese.
But there wasn’t enough money available to build the church right away, so church officials started off by building the less expensive parish hall that could greatly alleviate their space problems until the larger church could be built.
But about the time those plans were made, the Great Recession began, at which time money among congregants became tight and fundraising for the project became more difficult.
So the Visalia church project was put on hold until being revived in 2017, with the Fresno diocese applying to the city for a new conditional use permit. This time, however, the proposed church was more than 8,000 square feet larger than what was previously proposed, and the school and some of the church buildings weren’t included, though Medina said efforts to build the school may be revived after the new church is funded and built.
As for what revived the project, “We just ran out of capacity — physical capacity — to suit the needs of the people,” Medina said, adding that the new church would seat 3,097 people, and the plan is for it to be the site of all Sunday masses in the parish, while weekday and Saturday masses, weddings, funerals, bible studies, confessionals, religious education classes and special events would continue to be held the rest of the week at the other three churches.
There have been some news reports that St. Charles will be the largest Catholic church in the country.
That’s not quite right, said Medina, explaining that St. Charles certainly would be the largest church in the Fresno diocese. But on a national level, while it would have the highest seating capacity of any U.S. Catholic church, not including cathedrals and basilicas, the building as a whole wouldn’t be the largest church.
The new church is being designed in a mission style with a cross shape, which is traditional among Catholic churches. Inside, the church will have seating that almost completely surrounds the altar, which Henry said is “a pretty standard design” among newer Catholic churches.
A fundraising campaign began about three months ago to raise $16 million to cover the development and construction costs of the church, which is being designed by Radian Design Group, Inc. and built by S.C. Anderson, Inc. construction, both out of Bakersfield.
“Basically, we’re asking people not for pledges, but for what they can give from their hearts,” Medina said.
With money raised so far and dollars previously set aside for the project, the diocese has about $3 million, and the deacon said he’s confident enough will be raised to fully fund the project.
“I think overall, there’s lots of excitement about building the church,” Medina said of the Visalia and Goshen parishioners, but added, “There is a cautious excitement because it has been started and stopped in the past.
“But if you look at the generations, maybe between 18 and 40 [years old], you’re going to find them pretty excited, because they haven’t participated in the history.”
You can help
To find out more about St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church under construction in Visalia, a well as to find out how you can donate to fund the construction, go online to www.stcharlesvisalia.com.