Cathedral of Christ the Light – Oakland, California - Atlas Obscura

Cathedral of Christ the Light

A massive ultra-modern church presents a science-fiction view of Catholicism's inclusive future. 


After the Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989 damaged the Cathedral of Saint Francis De Sales, the Catholic Diocese of Oakland was left without a Cathedral. But in May 23, 2004 Oakland’s third bishop Allen J Vigernon blessed 2.5 acres of ground on the northwestern edge of Lake Merritt and construction of the Cathedral of Christ the Light began. The architect Craig Hartman managed to successfully blend modern architectural style with spiritual symbolism in order to create a unique modern cathedral.

Completed in 2008 the Cathedral of Christ the Light cost an estimated $175 million and at night shines like a beacon along the lakeshore. It is constructed around the symbol of a vesica piscis (“fish bladder” in latin), a shape that is the intersection of two circles of the same radius. This almond shape, which can bring to mind an ichthus fish, an eye, or an older yonic symbol, describes the footprint of the building and the two large windows at the front and back, known as the Alpha Window and the Omega Window. The ceiling of the Cathedral is known as the Oculus and is covered with 140 aluminum panels angled in strange ways that let in a diffuse and gentle light. Curved beams of Douglas Fir wood function as the skeleton of the cathedral and give the sense of being in a vast ship, or the belly of a fish. The surface of the building is made entirely of glass and provides the interior with unique appearances at different times of day. The decision to focus on light, both in the design and naming of the cathedral (as opposed focusing on a specific saint) was made to resist prioritizing any ethnic identity, and be inclusive of all the diverse population of Oakland.

The Omega Window rises over the nave and displays a 58-foot image of Christ taken from the transept of the Chartes Cathedral in France. This ancient image of Christ Enthroned in the Final Judgement dates back to the construction of the Chartes Chathedral in 1150 and is displayed in the modern cathedral by 94,000 holes pierced through the aluminum panels of the Omega Window. The initial design by Hartman did not include the image of Christ, but was added at the request of Bishop Vigernon.

The level beneath the assembly is a mausoleum decorated with stained glass and thin panels of marble lit from behind. Bishop Floyd Begin, the first Bishop of Oakland, was entombed there after being moved from the Holy Sepulcher Cemetery in Hayward. The mausoleum has 882 crypts and 1,850 cremation niches which will slowly be populated during the planned 300 year lifespan of the cathedral.

Although non-religious groups balked at the price attached to the Cathedral and religious groups were unsure of the modern architectural style, the Cathedral of the Christ the Light is a shining example of modern and welcoming cathedrals and has become a cultural center of the revitalized Oakland.

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December 17, 2013

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