Church’s Faithful Look to the Future

Father Jack Kearney celebrates mass at St. Francis by the Sea.
Father Jack Kearney celebrates mass at St. Francis by the Sea.

The resignation of the longtime spiritual leader of Laguna Beach’s most unusual church represents a historic break, which now shifts responsibility for rebuilding the shriveled St. Francis by the Sea congregation to a tiny flock of the faithful and a trio of priests.

Bishop Simon Eugene Talarczyk, 85, who served in St. Francis’s sanctuary for 38 years, formally resigned on April 23, according to his successor, Father Brian Delvaux, who also serves as the spiritual and administrative leader of Lakewood’s Good Shepherd Church.

This past Sunday, June 2, a newly ordained priest, Father Don Dougherty, of Irvine, celebrated his first mass at St. Francis. “He has a heart for the place and the ministry,” said Delvaux, who ultimately would like to ordain a successor bishop in Laguna Beach.

In the meantime, he said, “it will be great to have a third person in the rotation,” referring to himself and Lakewood’s associate pastor, Father Jack Kearney.

Talarczyk’s declining health and absences in recent years created a vacuum at the independent American Catholic church, named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. A power struggle ensued last year between some disaffected parishioners and the former bishop’s daughter, which led to conflicting legal claims for control of the petite cathedral and who should serve in its pulpit.

And while Talarczyk attended a retirement ceremony on his behalf at the church last year, he never formally relinquished control, according to Delvaux, who served as auxiliary bishop at the request of Talarczyk’s daughter, Honorata Ann Lee. She, too, confirmed the resignation.

Delvaux and Kearney resumed celebrating mass consistently at St. Francis, which mollified disgruntled parishioners literally locked out of the church while the transition was sorted out. And Delvaux fulfilled the terms of a legal settlement by appointing parishioners to an advisory board, known as a consistory, which did not exist during Talarczyk’s tenure.

“We’re trying to preserve it; it’s a gem,” said local resident Fausta Vitale, the consistory treasurer. The group meets monthly in member’s homes, but has yet to publicly circulate its minutes, which strikes some parishioners as a lack of transparency like Talarczyk’s practices. The group personally paid off $20,000 in legal bills to sort out succession matters at St. Francis, she said. “We’re still not financially able to do everything at once,” said Vitale, who eight years ago quit the Catholic Church but finds St. Francis a welcoming spiritual home.

While adhering to Roman Catholic liturgy, the American Catholic denomination rejects papal infallibility, permits its priests to marry and allows divorcees and gays to take the sacrament. Its bylaws typically cede decision-making authority to bishops, who typically ordain their own successors.

Delvaux said Lee tapped him for the job because he had been consecrated bishop by the Most Reverend E. Paul Raible, who previously had been ordained by Talarczyk as his bishop-elect. Talarczyk, though, alienated his potential successor and now Raible also suffers from dementia, according to Delvaux, who said his appointment thus preserves the American Catholic tradition of succession.

Talarczyk’s decline – including jilted wedding parties — exacted another cost. Attendance shriveled. Lee, the emeritus bishop’s daughter, said collections did not cover the church’s monthly utility costs. More recently, visiting tourists outnumber members.

Lee, of Vista, who works as an x-ray technician, was sued for her role as her father’s conservator. She listed the church as his personal property, a claim later dropped but contested in a lawsuit by parishioners, which she says cost her $60,000 in legal fees. The matter was resolved with a settlement declaring church assets belonged to a corporate entity and whose terms required the creation of a consistory and updated bylaws.

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

Clarkson’s granddaughter and local resident Jessica DeStefano, who has conducted tours of the 17-foot wide church, remains an active member of the congregation. She declined to comment about the church’s new leadership.

Paul Merritt, who joined DeStefano and others in the lawsuit to clarify the church’s ownership, feels the suit was justified. “What concerned me is that the church be open and that has happened; to that extent we have succeeded,” he said.

Merritt expressed less satisfaction with what he views as the church’s stagnation. He prodded Delvaux to consider offering new programs, catering to underserved potential parishioners such as Hispanics and addicts. He counts perhaps 18 among regular parishioners today, down from 45 in 2003. This past Sunday, though, pews were filled and Merritt seemed enthused by Dougherty’s message of inclusion.

“I wasn’t going to put my heart and soul into something that was going to be handed to someone else,” explained Delvaux, referring to his reticence to make changes until Talarczyk retired. Delvaux also serves as chaplain of a Long Beach Memorial Hospital.

Now, outreach is now on Delvaux’s mind, too. He sees his duty as two-fold: rebuilding a parish and preserving its focal point on Park Avenue. He’s made small changes; removing old news clippings from the interior and moving up service times, effective this Sunday, June 9, to 9:30 a.m., so as not to conflict with nearby St. Mary’s services.

“I have to really work to be passionate about the building,” said Delvaux, 64. He works up more enthusiasm about filling St. Francis’ 16 rows of two-seat pews. “I would like to fill it, not just that it’s a national landmark, but a place where people can be educated in their faith,” he said.

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