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Steppingstones from Crystal Cathedral's Walk of Faith being removed

Marble slabs are being removed in the Catholic Church's renovation of the grounds. Congregants of the former ministry mostly understand, but some are upset.

September 14, 2013|By Adolfo Flores
  • A visitor strolls the Walk Of Faith on the grounds of the former Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove. The 1,800 steppingstones that make up the walk are being removed as part of the property's $53-million renovation.
A visitor strolls the Walk Of Faith on the grounds of the former Crystal Cathedral… (Mark Boster, Los Angeles…)

Nothing lasts forever, Omar Chatty knows that much.

Even so, when he heard that the hundreds of religious steppingstones at the former Crystal Cathedral were being removed, the 62-year-old San Jose man was caught off guard.

He bought his in 2006 for $2,500, an endowment he believed would "keep the gardens blooming, the water flowing and the Crystal Cathedral sparkling."

But his donation, and the hundreds of others from congregants who bought the marble blocks, wasn't enough to save the church from bankruptcy.

"They basically said, 'We'd appreciate a donation of at least $2,500 to go in for perpetuity' or until they go broke," said the retired accountant. "They got too big and too expensive, they lost sight of the basic administration of running a church, and it's really sad."

Now owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange County and rechristened Christ Cathedral, the church grounds in Garden Grove are being transformed to conform with the traditions of its new owners.

And the 1,800 steppingstones that make up the Walk of Faith, many dedicated to loved ones and adorned with Bible verse, stand in the way of the $53-million renovation to the grounds made famous by the Rev. Robert H. Schuller.

Diocese officials fear the marble stones will be damaged under the weight of the heavy-duty trucks and equipment brought in during the renovation. Some, especially those near the church entrance, already have been damaged by foot traffic over the years.

Chatty, whose 2-by-3-foot stone reads "The Lord Is My Shepherd, I Shall Not Want," still doesn't know when it will be removed.

"I'd just like to know when they're coming out so I can get ready to pick mine up," Chatty said. "They mean a lot to people. Some dedicated them to loved ones who died."

About 50 of the stones were removed this summer when crews went to work on an underground air conditioning system, said Ryan Lilyengren, spokesman for the diocese. Plans call for removing a majority of the stones in phases as construction necessitates.

"Many of the stones will not be removed for several years, and we can't remove stones before the renovation of the campus makes their removal necessary," Lilyengren said.

In August, owners of the Walk of Faith stones received letters letting them know the slabs would be stored and available for pickup. For the most part, Lilyengren said, congregants understood, but the diocese did receive a few angry calls.

"That's a lot of money to contribute, so we understand why they're upset," Lilyengren said. "At the same time, the diocese made a huge sacrifice buying the place with the expectation that they'd be able to renovate the building and turn it into a spiritual center."

None of the memorials will be destroyed, he said, but no decision has been made whether they'll be returned to the ground after construction is finished. Catholic officials said they'll arrange to ship the 100-pound stones to those who can't pick them up, but they won't cover the cost.

To help offset the backlash, Catholic officials photographed all 1,800 stones and created a searchable website for the Walk of Faith.

Pastor Bobby Schuller, grandson of the Rev. Schuller, declined to comment on the removal of the stones.

Laura Eilerts and her husband, Roland, were early followers of Schuller, back when he'd preach at a drive-in movie theater not far from where the Crystal Cathedral was later built.

"I'm just brokenhearted about this," Eilerts said of the church's bankruptcy. "It's unbelievable to me as far as what I thought would be the outcome."

Eilerts now resides in Kansas, but her connection to the Crystal Cathedral remains. Her husband is interred in the campus' garden next to the plot where she'll eventually lie.

Still, she has no interest in picking up their stone or getting it shipped.

"There's no place to put the stone, it's part of the past," Eilerts said.

Chatty knows exactly where he'd place his: right in front of his house.

"So that anybody who goes into my frontyard will walk on it," Chatty said.

"Having a virtual image was kind enough of them to offer, but it's not the same as having a living hard stone," he said.

adolfo.flores@latimes.com

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