As churchgoers for the first time in more than a year overfilled St. Francis by the Sea Cathedral, the disagreement over control of the tiny Laguna Beach chapel also appeared to reach its tipping point.
An equally crowded pulpit welcomed the capacity crowd filling the 16 two-person pews on Sunday. The quartet of priests included Bishop Simon Talarczk, whose declining health and extended absences in the last year set off an unusual power struggle within the church.
Talarczk, who had not led mass at the church in months, apologized to worshipers who had been locked out of the chapel during his illness. He told the congregation his daughter Nora Lee, who changed the door locks and antagonized some congregants with her actions, was acting on his instructions. “I see now that closing the doors was not the correct course of action,” said Talarczk, who served as bishop for 38 years of the American Catholic church, but failed to cultivate a successor.
During the mass, Talarczk said his daughter would be working with the congregation’s newly elected officers as well as an attorney to get the church back on track. He also conceded his retirement, endorsing Father Brian Delvaux, bishop of Lakewood’s Good Shepherd, as his successor.
“It’s basically over,” Lee said in a phone message. “We’re moving forward.”
Laguna’s Paul Merritt, the congregation’s newly elected president, is mostly in agreement. He helped organize an election among the congregation, which elected three officers and a new spiritual leader, Orange’s Bishop Peter Hickman. Hickman’s two colleagues attended Sunday’s mass as well, but were not invited to the alter.
In December, Merritt filed a court challenge to Lee’s declaration of the church as her father’s personal property. Lee’s attorney withdrew the claim at a recent hearing. “I thought we were going to have an endless legal fight,” he said. “It cleared up more rapidly than I expected.”
Nevertheless, the congregation’s lawyer, Michael Lawler, recently sued Lee and Delvaux, asking the court to settle the ownership dispute. Lawler also drafted a proposed settlement agreement, which in part addresses who has authority to anoint a successor bishop.
Lee has scheduled a meeting after services on March 11. She said the agenda depends on how much the lawyers mediate in the meantime.
“What’s important is that Saint Francis’ doors are open,” she said.