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A Place for All

By Laura Schlereth

Historical and contemporary elements make the Cathedral of Christ the Light more than a place to worship. For the East Bay community, it feels like home.

Some might find it difficult to feel at peace in a 226,000-square-foot structure. But in creating the Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland, Calif., the design team from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) successfully conveyed the message that all are welcome, says Father Paul Minnihan, Cathedral Provost.

Formerly the Cathedral of St. Frances de Sales, the old structure was rendered unusable after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The new church, completed in 2008, was designed as a porous campus plan that invites not only Catholics but people of all faiths, as well as the civic and cultural arts communities. “The cathedral is open to the city and nature,” Minnihan says. “Some come for worship, others for educational opportunities, still others for outreach services. Some people come to the cathedral just simply to be.”

One of the project’s designers, Lonny Israel, Associate Director of Environmental Graphic Design at SOM, says design excellence is about more than just aesthetic value; it should communicate a message to the users and visitors of the space. “For the Cathedral of Christ the Light, our intent was to communicate a sense of welcome and approachability for the sacred space through open space, quality of light and use of simple materials,” he says.

A louver system was designed to stream in natural light and refract it between the louvers. “The everchanging effects of natural light throughout the day create a glowing quality to the wooden form and ennoble the modest materials,” Israel says.

Those modest materials of wood, glass and concrete create a home-like feel for both parishioners and visitors, Minnihan says. “I continue to hear that people want to be here,” he says. “There’s a certain comfort with those elements fundamentally for Catholics and for persons of all faiths.”

Sustainable materials, such as sustainably harvested Douglas fir and fly ash, and stag concrete, were chosen for their longevity and to minimize the building’s impact on the natural environment during and after construction. “Our collective goal was to design a 21st century cathedral that resonates with the church’s specific temporal, physical and cultural place in history,” he says. “It needed to honor the traditions and history of the Catholic Church without forcing a period of that tradition.”

The cathedral is not designed in the typical Gothic style of a cruciform shape. Rather, the plan of the cathedral invokes the form of a vesica pisces, or the area created when two circles with the same radius overlap. This geometric shape resembles the outline of a fish and was once considered sacred by mathematicians as an ancient symbol of Christ. The shape was an early symbol of Christianity and also serves as a contemporary symbol of the community, which sits upon Lake Merritt.

The power of design is genuinely felt within the structure. “The reaction by the public and by parishioners has been extremely moving,” Israel says. “It seems to have uniformly struck a positive chord among those who have visited, worshiped or work at the cathedral. It has been a great privilege to have had the opportunity to work on such a unique and meaningful project.” For more information, visit

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