The largest Catholic parish in the nation is now in California’s Central Valley. The recently opened St. Charles Borromeo congregation serves tens of thousands of Catholics each week. Church leaders say the size of the parish is caused in part by a priest shortage. From Valley Public Radio, Esther Quintanilla reports from Visalia.


ESTHER QUINTANILLA: Hours before Mass, a line of parishioners waits to get inside. Charles Blue says being early is normal for his family.

CHARLES BLUE: Always early to church – that’s just my belief. I always want to be early to church. Yeah, I don’t want to be way in the back.

QUINTANILLA: His wife, Carrie Blue, can’t wait to go inside.

CARRIE BLUE: I’m kind of wanting that feeling of walking in and saying, this is home. This is where we were meant to be.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing, inaudible).

QUINTANILLA: On the first Sunday St. Charles Borromeo opened, thousands filed in. A beam of sunlight shown through the skylight above the altar. A mural depicting saints floating in the cosmos looked down at the pews where the Blues took their seat.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing, inaudible).

QUINTANILLA: In the days leading up to the inaugural service, Father Alex Chavez was thrilled to show off the building.

ALEX CHAVEZ: You see the dome, and what you see up in the clouds – that’s taken from the Hubble telescope.

QUINTANILLA: Chavez says each piece of art in the sanctuary is meaningful.

CHAVEZ: The centerpiece, “The Trinity,” carved out of wood sent to us from Spain.

QUINTANILLA: The Diocese of Fresno stretches across 200 miles of the largely agricultural San Joaquin Valley. The painting behind the pulpit depicts rows of tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables grown in the region.

CHAVEZ: You see the mural, you see the valley field crop, the valley oak tree that we’re known for, the California poppy, you see the little patches, the valley, the Sierras. That’s us. That’s our story.

QUINTANILLA: St. Charles Borromeo cost $21 million to build and seats more than 3,000 people.

JOSEPH BRENNAN: Our numbers are growing, the numbers of Catholics in this area.

QUINTANILLA: That’s Bishop Joseph Brennan, the head of the diocese, which has more than a million registered members.

BRENNAN: The other side of that coin is the diminishing numbers of priests.

QUINTANILLA: He says St. Charles was envisioned to combat that issue.

BRENNAN: This was an attempt on that practical level to create a place where I hope we could have a number of services without really diminishing the health and well-being of our priests….

BRENNAN: Well, this is literally centrally located for the Diocese of Fresno and pretty much centrally located for the state of California, but specifically – and maybe in a sense, selfishly – for the Diocese of Fresno. It’s a perfect location to draw people from every corner of the diocese.

QUINTANILLA: St. Charles Borromeo expects to serve 14,000 families each week with just three full-time priests. Despite that ratio, Brennan says the pastors there will be able to care for their flock.

For NPR News, I’m Esther Quintanilla in Visalia.


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