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Maverick Church and Iconic Leader Face Uncertain Future

For four decades, Bishop Simon Talarczyk has presided over Laguna Beach’s most unusual church, an unaffiliated American Catholic congregation that worships in a historic chapel considered one of the world’s smallest cathedrals.

Annie Ratta, of Trabuco Canyon, accompanied by her mother and fiancée, attended mass at St. Francis by the Sea last December, seated among a small but devoted flock. Not only was the liturgy impeccable, but Ratta was drawn to Bishop Simon, who she described as “wonderful and kind.”

That experience, coupled with Ratta’s desire to be married in Laguna where her grandparents had honeymooned in 1943, sealed the deal. The following month, the couple wrote Bishop Simon an $800 check to perform their wedding ceremony at St. Francis and set the date for Oct. 10.

But since then, the beloved spiritual leader has irregularly held mass and has disappointed several parishioners, including the Rattas, who entrusted him with ceremonial duties.

Now, some fellow clergymen are also expressing concern about Talarczyk, which begs a question about the church’s future and that of his congregation. Bishop Simon’s unusual position as leader of an independent church leaves him outside the oversight and support of a broader denomination, which typically would ensure a succession plan so parishioners are not disenfranchised. Even so, fellow clergy have proved reluctant to step in over the last year even as faithful congregants continue Sunday pilgrimages to St. Francis only to find the tiny church padlocked without explanation.

Bishop Simon did not return repeated calls to his Fountain Valley home.

It was a similar experience for Annie Ratta, who tried for months to contact Bishop Simon to iron out details about her wedding. Finally, she reached him by phone and made an appointment to see him at the church just seven days before the planned ceremony.

She and Michael Ratta arrived at the church to find another couple, Nicole Knight and Pat Shine, of Costa Mesa. They were similarly confounded by the locked doors and learned they shared a similar dilemma.

“I believe that the marriage ceremony is one of the greatest moments of two people’s lives; it is at that very moment that you vow to always be with your love, even in the most dire of times,” said Ratta, who at that point lacked confidence in Bishop Simon’s reliability.

The couple looked for help at the neighboring St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, whose property partly encircles the tiny chapel. They hoped to use their meditation garden as a stopgap in case wedding guests were locked out of St. Francis on their wedding day. After they explained their predicament to St. Mary’s Rev. Elizabeth Rechter, she offered to marry them in the church.

“I did probably what anyone would do in those circumstances,” said Rechter, who has also performed a last-minute baptism on another occasion for other jilted St. Francis congregants. St. Mary’s has invited displaced St. Francis parishioners to their Sunday coffee hour when they, too, found the church sealed.

As it turns out, Bishop Simon did in fact show up at church on Oct. 10. Ratta said some of her guests went first to St. Francis and found him there. Apparently, he had been dropped off by friends. When they returned that afternoon to retrieve him, they found him gone and the doors locked. Since police considered him a “senior at risk” due to possible memory loss, a reverse 911 call to local homes was issued and authorities in Fountain Valley were notified, said police Sgt. Louise Callus. He was found at home.

Bishop Robert Clement of the Los Angeles-based American Catholic Church spoke fondly of Bishop Simon and expressed concern over his recent misadventures. But St. Francis by the Sea is unaffiliated, and he is not in a position to intervene. In February, Father Mark Earl, an American Catholic Church pastor in San Diego, also expressed concern. “We’d like not to step on his toes but would like to help him.”

Bishop Percy Wise Clarkson built the church in 1933 from tiles, boards, gates and doors still intact after the Long Beach earthquake. The sanctuary that once held the title of smallest cathedral in the Guinness Book of World Records was named a national historic landmark in 1988.

American Catholic churches are independent Catholic faith communities that share a common theology and liturgical tradition, but differ in some Roman Catholic practices. For example, their clergy are allowed to marry and parishioners are allowed to divorce.

This is what first drew Knight and Shine to the little church. Knight said that though she is divorced, she and her fiancé, who is Catholic, had hoped for a church wedding. A Laguna resident suggested St. Francis. “We showed it to our families and everyone thought it was like a fairytale,” she said.

But after their failed attempts to meet with Bishop Simon and their coincidental meeting with the Rattas, they decided to make a last minute switch and will be married this Saturday, Nov. 13, at Hotel 741 on Coast Highway, which was able to accommodate them in a pinch.

“But we’re glad that we shifted gears in time,” said Shine, who nevertheless cautions others to avoid the uncertainty that befell him. At the least, someone else should be designated to answer the church’s phone, he said.

Ratta, though upset about losing her deposit, expressed concern that Bishop Simon’s behavior may be the result of illness or an ailment that causes memory loss. At the same time, she would hate for another couple to experience her frustrations. “I feel that there should be somebody else to manage the church when Bishop Simon goes missing,” she said.

Given the independent nature of the church, it is unclear who that “someone” might be.

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