In the Desert, a Mission Blooms

Across the state line from Pahrump, a Las Vegas developer and a Henderson architect are creating a place for the spirit

If you’ve ever taken the scenic route to Death Valley National Park, via the Old Spanish Trail, you’ve probably zipped right by the site, a creosote-dotted stretch of Mojave Desert just outside the tiny hamlet of Tecopa, California. But on a 17.5-acre swath of land, a new construction project is melding faith, business pragmatism and sustainability. It’s also, quite literally, cornering a niche market.

When it’s completed—possibly by the end of this year—St. Therese Mission will include a Catholic chapel, visitor center, restaurant, living quarters for the resident priest and caretaker, gardens, outdoor event spaces, family burial plots and columbaria housing thousands of nondenominational niches for cremated remains.

St. Therese hopes to be many things: a final resting spot, a religious sanctuary, an event center for everything from baptisms and weddings to quinceañeras. It would be a contemplative spot in a landscape that rewards contemplation. The mission is the brainchild of the devoutly Catholic Dizon family, which has roots in the Philippines and a branch in Las Vegas. It was planned and designed by longtime Southern Nevada architect Robert Fielden, a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects and founder of Henderson-based Robert A. Fielden Inc. (RAFI).

In 1996, the late Rafael Dizon began acquiring land in Inyo County, California, just across the state line from Pahrump. “We started doing a master-planned community there in 2006 when the market was really hot,” explains Randy Dizon, Rafael’s son and the president of the family’s Magnificat Ventures Corporation, which is developing the mission. “When everything crashed, we regrouped and decided to do the mission as a stand-alone project.”

St. Therese Mission is patterned after the family’s similar project in the Philippines, says Dizon, who now lives in Henderson and runs the mission project with his brother, Rondic Dizon. In 2007, the family built a church in metro Manila, funded by sales of niches, then donated the church to the Catholic diocese.

Dizon’s research showed that the Mojave Desert site would be perfect for the mission: far enough away from city lights for religious solitude, close enough to Las Vegas to be a draw for the city’s large Catholic Filipino and Hispanic population. Dizon also discovered another market factor: “Even though our columbarium is nondenominational, we are largely a Catholic campus. There are no Catholic cemeteries in Las Vegas.”

Known affectionately as “Dr. Bob” for his doctorate in architecture, Fielden began his Las Vegas career in 1964, helped found the UNLV architecture program during the 1970s, and has been recognized by both the Western Mountain Region and Nevada chapters of the American Institute of Architects with Silver Medal awards, the highest honor for an architect. Long a proponent of sustainable design, Fielden recommended that the Dizons follow the U.S. Green Building Council’s guidelines and strive for LEED Platinum certification, the highest level of sustainable building.

Inspired by the history of the adjacent Old Spanish Trail, Fielden prepared for the project by visiting the historic Mission San Xavier del Bac outside of Tucson, Arizona. “We used it for an evolution of an idea, a place in the desert for pilgrimages, where people could come for prayer and renewal.”

He envisioned a design theme of an abstracted Spanish mission, a compound of several buildings scattered around a plaza, connected by colonnaded walkways and tree-lined paths. Designs for the mission buildings include thick, angled walls, evocative of old adobes, as well as flat and angled rooflines, interspersed with cupolas that serve as light wells. The centerpiece of the courtyard is a statue of St. Therese, the French Carmelite nun who is the patron saint of missions, florists, aviators and illness.

To achieve the LEED Platinum certification, Fielden detailed the project with roof-mounted solar panels, drought-tolerant plants, recycled-content building materials and waterless urinals. The design also includes charging stations for electric vehicles and showers for those who feel like taking a long bike ride to get there.

The Dizons broke ground in 2011. The chapel (which will be donated to the Diocese of Fresno) has already been completed, as has one of the columbaria. Already, the $20 million campus has hosted events, including a Christmas tree lighting that drew 300 visitors and weekly masses, courtesy of a priest the Dizons sponsored from the Philippines. (“There’s a shortage of priests in the area,” Dizon says.)

There was even a baptism. “It was my son,” Dizon says, “and we were still under construction. I had to get the Bishop’s OK to do it on a construction site.”

Dizon hopes the mission will also serve as an economic energizer for the sparsely populated area. Already, there’s a separate project proposed next to the mission’s property: BrightSource Energy has plans for a 500-megawatt solar complex on some 3,000 acres.

“Both projects are complementary,” Dizon says. “We’re already calling this ‘Solarcon Valley.’”