Church’s Followers Beget an Unholy Mess

Father Jack Kearney addresses worshipers during the homily at St. Francis by the Sea, where services have resumed. Photo by Mitch Ridder

An Orange County probate court was asked this week to settle conflicting claims over control of Laguna Beach’s most unusual church, St. Francis by the Sea, listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Ownership of the diminutive structure 17-feet wide by 16-feet long is at the heart of a dispute between disillusioned congregants and the daughter of the church’s former bishop, who stepped in to assume responsibility for her father’s affairs as his competency declined. Bishop Simon Eugene Talarczyk, who served St. Francis for 38 years but alienated several potential successors along the way, has not held a mass for more than a year.

While the matter remains unsettled with another court hearing set for March 23, both the congregation and Talarczyk’s daughter, Honorata Ann Lee, have asked different independent Catholic bishops to resume celebrating the sacrament.

At Lee’s invitation, Pastor Brian Delvaux, bishop of the Good Shepherd Church in Lakewood, along with associate pastor Father Jack Kearney, preached mass at St. Francis on the two previous Sundays. A deacon will celebrate the start of Lent with an Ash Wednesday service on Feb. 29, Delvaux said.

Also earlier this month, during the first noticed meeting of St. Francis congregants assembled in years, the congregation voted to elect a new bishop, Orange’s Pastor Peter E. Hickman, as well as lay board members William Kelley, Paul Merritt and Jessica deStefano, granddaughter of the church founder.

Merritt, who was elected president, said 32 people cast votes, mostly by proxy.

“I guess Bishop Simon thought he would live forever,” said Hickman, who in 1985 started St. Matthew Ecumenical Catholic Church, part of the 40-member Ecumenical Catholic Communion. “Apparently Bishop Simon was accountable to no one; that’s a dangerous situation,” said Hickman, whose affiliates also support the ordination of women and welcome same-sex couples.

While adhering to Roman Catholic liturgy, St. Francis was established as an American Catholic church, a denomination that rejects papal authority, permits its priests to marry and allows divorcees to take the sacrament. Its bylaws typically cede decision-making authority to bishops.

Hickman, a graduate of the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, supports self-determination by local congregations, which typically hold title to property and select their own priest. “Because they had no empowerment by the bishop, they are in this crisis,” he said. “They loved Simon and never questioned him.”

In recent months, requests by Merritt and deStefano for church records and access to the sanctuary in recent months were initially denied by Lee, who identified the church as personal property in an inventory when seeking court approval for conservatorship over her father’s affairs.

In a hearing last week before Judge Jan Christofferson, Lee’s lawyer agreed to drop that claim. “We made great progress,” said Merritt. The judge set a later hearing to determine jurisdiction over the assets.

In a suit filed Tuesday, Feb. 21, the court was also asked to determine the validity of the congregational election since Lee and Delvaux allegedly have thus far refused to turn over control of the church property. “Because of case law, I think the court will confirm our election,” said Newport Beach attorney Michael Lawler, citing similar circumstances in a 1999 Los Angeles County suit, Barry vs. Saint Pius X.

For his part, Delvaux, who along with Lee is named in the suit, says he doesn’t covet the St. Francis pulpit and will serve as auxiliary bishop until the court settles the matter. “There are things questionable on both sides over the legal passing of the baton,” he said, adding, “I’m not going to be in a tug-of-war over the church.”

He sees his role as supporting Lee’s pledge to keep the doors open. “I think her heart is in the right place,” Delvaux said.

Even so, with mass at St. Francis attracting but a handful of faithful worshipers, Delvaux wonders if a preservation group rather than a congregation might be a more appropriate steward for the church built by Bishop Percy Clarkson.

“Because it’s a landmark, it should have a separate structure,” he said.

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