Acrimony Adds to Church’s Turmoil

Parishioners keep the faith outside St. Francis on Christmas Eve. Photo courtesy Jessica deStefano

Parishioners of Laguna Beach’s St. Francis by the Sea Cathedral bundled up Christmas Eve for a  candlelight vigil outside the historic chapel, barred from entering to worship in recent weeks due to an ownership dispute over what is considered one of the world’s smallest cathedrals.

The wrangling appears to stem from overlooked administrative responsibilities by the beloved but now enfeebled spiritual leader of the church, an unaffiliated American Catholic congregation.

Bishop Simon E. Talarczyk, 85, of Fountain Valley, who led the congregation for at least four decades, has not held Sunday Mass consistently at St. Francis for more than a year due to the onset of dementia. A retired school-teacher who taught Latin, he made no provision for a successor. And current parishioners cannot recall a time when the bishop provided an accounting of church finances, according to longtime congregants Paul Merritt and Jessica deStefano, whose grandfather built the church with brick rubble from the 1933 Long Beach earthquake.

“He didn’t follow through with his priestly duties,” agreed deStefano, who at Talarczyk’s bidding nevertheless opened the chapel throughout the last year on Sundays for parishioner meditation and for commercial tours.

Bishop Simon’s unusual position as leader of an independent church leaves him outside the oversight and support of a broader denomination, which

The interior of St. Francis by the Sea, now closed until a court resolves competing ownership claims.Photos courtesy Lorraine Jones

typically would ensure a succession plan so parishioners are not disenfranchised. American Catholic churches are independent Catholic faith communities that share a common theology and liturgy, but differ in some practices. For example, their clergy are allowed to marry and parishioners are allowed to divorce.

St. Francis parishioners, including some disappointed by Talarczyk’s failure to fulfill ceremonial duties in the last year, only openly rebelled recently. In August, Talarczyk’s daughter, Honorata Ann Lee, 42, of Vista, received court approval to serve as her father’s conservator. The court order granting conservatorship stipulates that assets cannot be sold without court approval.

She subsequently changed the chapel’s manual lock for an electronic one and late in November quit allowing entry at all to either parishioners or Lorraine E. Jones, whose Flavors of Laguna tours since last March have steered 400 or more paying visitors inside the rustic cathedral described as “a hidden gem.”

“I can’t have strangers run it,” said Lee, who is not a parishioner herself, but didn’t want to assume or delegate responsibility as chapel gatekeeper. In an interview, she described her own pre-occupation with stepping into the middle of her father’s neglected affairs, making his home environment safe and costly legal procedures to assert a conservator’s authority in a corporation.

“She told me due to legal reasons, her attorney’s advice was to discontinue it,” said Jones, who was accompanied in the chapel by deStefano and later entered on her own with the access code. “It was a big piece of the tour,” she said. “I loved going inside.”

Lee’s lawyer, Costa Mesa’s Nicole Vettraino, failed to return phone calls for comment.

In a Dec. 6 legal filing detailing Talarczyk’s assets, Lee’s attorney listed the church property without an appraised value as part of his estate, which also included his home, several bank accounts, property in Apple Valley and a Palm Springs timeshare.

“It is my dad’s personal property,” said Lee, who says she is named as secretary of the corporation that controls the church. She said the church was signed over to her father in 1973.

Incorporated as the American Catholic Church in California, St. Francis was built when less than 1,000 lived in Laguna by Bishop Percy Wise Clarkson. 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 thanks to the efforts of local historian Anne Frank.

Lee’s assertion affronted Merritt and deStefano, who last month filed legal petitions challenging the conservatorship’s claim to church assets. Moreover, their petition contends that due to the lack of church accounting, income from weddings, baptisms and tithing possibly was comingled with personal accounts for years.

Superior Court Judge Randall Sherman denied both the parishioners’ petition and Lee’s claim to the church on Dec. 13. Another hearing on the ownership dispute was set for March 19.

“How can a non-profit become personal property?” asked Merritt, a real estate broker, who fears that Lee intends to liquidate the church property if the conservatorship is awarded control. “He made it crystal clear to me he wanted parishioners to manage it,” Merritt said. In recent years, Bishop Simon had asked him to create a trust to hold the property to provide continuity in the event of his illness or retirement, but he never finalized the document, Merritt described in his petition.

Lee said, “My aim is to have the church reopened. But I have to take it over based on instructions in the corporation. And I’m just not putting any energy into this now. I’m getting hounded,” she said.

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