North America’s largest Catholic church opens in Visalia

St. Charles Borromeo is now open to the public after years of construction, and is part of the Good Shepherd Parish under the Diocese of Fresno, which serves 1.2 million congregants and counting

VISALIA – The newly constructed St. Charles Borromeo is the largest Catholic church in North America. It is the most expansive building project for the church in modern history, and it just so happens to be in Visalia.

Shimmering red pews line the halls of St. Charles Borromeo, a church that is now home to 14,000 registered families in the Good Shepherd Parish, the largest parish in North America. As one walks down the large halls of St. Charles, they are met with a mural depicting every race and culture worshiping a grand statue of Jesus, and beneath them is the Valley, with lines of fruit trees and rolling foothills. After years of construction and planning, the Diocese of Fresno and Good Shepherd Parish dedicated the church building for the very first time on Feb. 2.

“Behind us stands just a building, but today it becomes sacred ground. That’s a cause for great rejoicing,” Rev. Alex Chavez, the pastor at St. Charles Borromeo, said. “The beauty inside will draw many; those that come to the Sequoias, those that are Catholic, non-Catholic and even those who appreciate fine art. I believe they will make it a point to come and see the beauty that God has created through all those who have worked tirelessly.”

Bishop Joseph V. Brennan said that dedicating the building is one of the most ancient rites of the Catholic church. With thousands in the audience, the church building was anointed with perfumed oil. The walls, Holy Chrism and the altar were all gently speckled with oil, which Brennan said sets the building apart as chosen and sacred. It is one of the only Roman Catholic Church rituals where an object is anointed, and has been a practice in the church for centuries.

“We hope that this place will be a place of pilgrimage, where people from California, the United States and from all over the world, will come to be inspired by not just the scope of [this church], but by the beauty of it,” Brennan said. “There’s an incredible human value to having your heart and your mind lifted up by the beauty of a place. It’s sacred space. We hope to make it so for many people, for generations to come.”

As thousands of congregants poured into the large halls to witness the dedication, a large beam of sunlight streamed in from the top of the building, as a large window was constructed to face the sky and look down on the congregation. Around the window was a galaxy, adorned with rainbow hues and images of saints. Though the beauty of the building has been a highlight for many, Brennan said that the church is geared toward teaching and guiding the masses of people that will enter through its doors. Mass will be held on Sundays at 9:30 a.m., 11 a.m. and 7:00 p.m.

“We want them to be fed and nourished by word and sacrament, in other words fed and nourished to the depth of the heart that they love with, and for the benefit of the souls that need to be saved,” Brennan said.

Brennan said building a church to serve as a central meeting location for the parish had been in the works since the 1980’s under the previous Bishop John Steinbach, but it was difficult to build a church at the scale in which St. Charles was built. However, that dream has now become a reality, as thousands of families will fill the pews each week. For many years, the largest parish title was held by St. Matthew Catholic Church in North Carolina, which holds roughly 12,000 registered families.

“A new church of this size and this scope, in a sense, takes on a life of its own, and requires a lot of time, and attention, amazing leadership, fundraising, all of that, that goes into a project of this nature,” Brennan said. “The community has changed, it’s getting bigger every day, growing exponentially. So, the scope of this project grew along with it.”

The church was built to hold up to 3,200 people at a single mass, and rightfully so. The church is expected to get congregants from cities within the Diocese of Fresno, extending as far as Frazier Park, Coalinga, Atwater and even Bishop. Steinbach’s vision for the church was always to be a central meeting location for all of the Diocese to come to. 

Since Visalia is the central city within the Diocese of Fresno, it was the perfect place to erect a new church. The Good Shepherd Parish altogether has four churches throughout Fresno and Tulare counties, which are St. Mary’s, Holy Family, St. Charles and St. Thomas. 

“I can’t express the amount of excitement and joy most of all, to see the people, makes me aware of just how significant and epic this day is for not only the Catholic community, but for the community at large; the state of California, our nation and I dare to say the world,” Chavez said.

The church was named after Saint Charles Borromeo who lived in the 1500’s in Milan, Italy. Borromeo dedicated his life to the church at the age of 12, but even in his youth showed ambition to further the goals of the church, often giving all the money he had to the poor and hungry. He suffered a speech impediment and endured a life of financial hardship, however that did not stop him from pursuing a career in the church. In the mid-1500’s, he was made a cardinal of the Catholic church in Rome by his uncle, Pope Pius IV. He later became Archbishop and was responsible for teaching against heresies that plagued Rome until his death.

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