(Ben Margot ~ Associated Press)
Only an inconspicuous sign on a fence offers a clue that it will soon be one of the nation's most ambitious -- and expensive -- religious sites.
When it's completed in fall of 2008, the $190 million Cathedral of Christ the Light will be the centerpiece of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland, which lost its old cathedral to the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
More than 1,000 sheets of glass will cloak the Douglas fir skeleton, forming a luminous 12-story dome inspired by the fish shape known as the Vesica Piscis, an ancient symbol of Christianity.
In addition to the 1,300-seat cathedral, the 2 1/2-acre site will house offices, the bishop's residence, a conference center and a garden plaza.
The cost estimate was $131 million in 2003, when the design was chosen, but inflation and extra construction costs boosted the price to $190 million.
The project originated during a nationwide building boom among Catholic dioceses around 2000, said Duncan Stroik, an architecture professor at Notre Dame University who specializes in cathedral design.
However, that trend slowed as dioceses became mired in priest sex abuse settlements that have forced some into bankruptcy.
The Oakland diocese took out a loan to cover half its $56.4 million settlement with 56 sex abuse victims in 2005, but the cathedral is being financed by donations -- just more than $100 million pledged as of June -- specifically for the project, separate from the money used to settle those cases, officials said.
Bishop Allen Vigneron, whose diocese serves more than 500,000 parishioners, envisions Christ the Light generating "new energy for us as a church community."
Some say the money would have been better spent on other community-improvement projects, such as new schools or combating violence in a city that saw a 57 percent spike in homicides last year.
"Should we give to organizations that help people daily or to a facade that to me is embarrassing and a disgrace?" Virginia Everist, a parishioner from Moraga, wrote in a letter to the diocese newspaper.
Vigneron points out that the cathedral funds are separate from the $350 million the diocese spends annually on social services.
Still, the diocese came under fire in January when it announced that the fundraising campaign for a new Catholic high school in Livermore would be temporarily halted so officials could focus on raising money for the cathedral's completion. Parishioner Nancy Morgan of Livermore said parents have been clamoring for a new school for decades.
Vigneron insisted the diocese would move forward with the high school, but it needed to take on one project at a time.
"It's about going about things responsibly," he said.
The cost may seem high until it's compared with other projects, such as museums or sports stadiums, said Richard Kieckhefer, a Northwestern University religion professor who authored "Theology in Stone: Church Architecture from Byzantine to Berkeley." The De Young Museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park carried the same price tag when it opened in 2005, and a new ballpark for the Athletics in Fremont is projected to cost $500 million.
Light is the central focus of the design, intended to bathe visitors in filtered sunshine by day and glowing against an urban backdrop by night.
"This building is about making space out of lightness and air," said the architect, Craig Hartman of San Francisco.
Traditionalists, however, questioned its fidelity to Catholic doctrine. Postings on blogs and Internet discussion forums blast the project as a "monstrosity of modernity" and "iconoclasm gone wild."
It's not the first time a California cathedral has raised eyebrows.
The concrete exterior of the new Our Lady of Angels cathedral in Los Angeles has drawn comparisons to a prison, and St. Mary's in San Francisco earned the nickname "Our Lady of the Maytag" when it opened in 1970 for its resemblance to a washing machine agitator.
Stroik, who favors a traditionalist approach, questioned whether the artistic goals of modernist cathedrals, often designed by architects renowned for their secular work, overshadow the spiritual.
Vigneron said diocese officials favored the 21st-century aesthetic to mark the cathedral's place in time and culture, and show that "we are not an antique or a relic of yesteryear,"
The Rev. Leo Edgerly Jr., who serves on the cathedral advisory board, agreed.
"You can go to Europe and see Gothic cathedrals," he said. "You can come to Oakland and see this."