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Pray sell: Divine intervention might be needed in nuns' property battle

"Mary, Mother of Divine Mercy, PRAY FOR US."

So says the poster at a religious retirement home where mega-star Katy Perry recently sang "Oh Happy Day" to several Immaculate Heart nuns, hoping to win their backing for her purchase of a former convent in Los Feliz.

But even if the Blessed Virgin is looking down on the raging real estate scrum involving Perry, the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart and Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez, I'm not sure any amount of praying can bring a peaceful end to the unholy dispute.

Accusations, counter-accusations and red-hot emails were flying last week as each side dug in.

As I first reported last Sunday, the archdiocese is confident that its agreed-upon sale of the property to Perry — for $14.5 million cash — is legal and proper, and that it will prevail in court.

But two nuns are sticking to their claim that the $15.5-million sale by the order’s nonprofit institute to restaurant owner Dana Hollister was proper and legal, saying they will not be pushed around by the men of the archdiocese, who have sued to invalidate the deal.

Both offers, by the way, are roughly $10 million for the convent. Perry's includes an additional $4.5 million for the relocation of a House of Prayer for Priests on the same property; Hollister offered $5.5 million on that count. As a historical note, this lovely piece of property happens to be on the same street where, in 1969, Manson Family members brutally murdered Rosemary and Leno LaBianca.

Diocesan attorney Michael Hennigan said that Hollister has taken "ruthless advantage" of the aging nuns, moving onto their multimillion-dollar property for a mere $100,000 payment. Hennigan referred to Hollister as a flake, with nowhere near enough money to buy the property, and said she has a checkered reputation in town for the way she does business.

"Their record isn't very good around town, either," Hollister shot back — in what may or may not have been a reference to the priest sex abuse scandal and the $660-million settlement Hennigan helped manage.

Meanwhile, Bernie Resser, an attorney for the sisters who sold to Hollister, said that while Gomez "may answer to a higher authority, he is not above the law."

Last month, Resser said, the diocese amended the bylaws of the nuns' former corporation in "an illegal boardroom coup," establishing Gomez and his minions as controlling officers, and filed the change with the state.

The archdiocese says the change was merely a clarification.

In the middle of all this back-and-forth, I heard from an exasperated Rosalina Baldonado, president of the Immaculate Heart Community, an entirely separate entity.

She wants the world to know that her group has nothing to do with the dispute. Back in 1970, Baldonado's more progressive wing tossed their habits and broke away from the Sisters, becoming an ecumenical organization known for its social activism and its highly regarded school for girls in Hollywood.

"I'm getting hundreds and hundreds of calls," Baldonado told me. "The BBC just called, and I think every TV and radio station in California has called. I'm trying to let them know it's two different groups."

Sorry about the unintended confusion and inconvenience.

I also heard last week that one of the five remaining Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary wanted to see me and explain that she was taking the side of the archdiocese, rather than supporting the pair who sold to Hollister. And so I drove to the Cheviot Hills retirement home where Sister Jean-Marie Dunne lives, and where Perry sang "Oh Happy Day."

Sister Jean-Marie, who is 88, filled my ear for a good 90 minutes — saying among other things that the sisters have taken vows of poverty, so regardless of what happens with the former convent, she's uncomfortable about selling property for millions of dollars while the poor go wanting.

"There are people in the world who don't have anything at all," said Sister Jean-Marie, who thinks at least some of the proceeds from a sale should fund a place where homeless people can stroll in, take a shower and leave with a clean set of clothes.

Sister Jean-Marie, a longtime teacher, still tutors schoolchildren, helps cater to sick residents at the retirement home and uses the word "cool" a lot. She likes hockey, roots for the San Francisco 49ers because former star quarterback Joe Montana went to Notre Dame and does not like the Oakland Raiders. They have a skull-and-crossbones logo, after all.

Her fellow Sister Rita Callanan was unimpressed with Perry, especially after seeing her music videos and watching her fly around the stage during the Super Bowl halftime show. But Sister Jean-Marie found Perry to be quite pleasant.

"She's very beautiful and nice, and her mother was lovely too," said Sister Jean-Marie, who liked hearing that Perry wants her mother and grandmother to live with her at the former convent.

Sister Jean-Marie told me she has issues with the way nuns have been treated by the greater church through history, and that initially she was "gung-ho" in believing the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart should be allowed to sell their own property rather than be told by the men of the chancery what was best for them — as if they were "five little old ladies in tennis shoes who didn't know the score."

But she thinks Perry's cash offer is more of a sure bet.

Sister Jean-Marie also said she believes the archdiocese has the legal right to sell.

She didn't care much for Cardinal Roger Mahony, she told me, calling him "an arrogant man" who left the diocese struggling financially — thanks in part to the costly scandal — but she trusts Gomez. And she believes he will cover the sisters' living expenses with proceeds from the sale.

That's all fair enough, but I happened to see an email by Sister Jean-Marie to a diocesan official, suggesting she still has serious misgivings about the church's control of the sale. In the June 26 email, she criticized "the cunning behavior of the Chancery" and said the deal was "NOT fair" to the sisters, suggesting a compromise in which they have direct control over $3 million of the proceeds.

That email made me wonder if, when Sister Jean-Marie signed her declaration of support for the diocesan position, she had been coerced.

"Nobody can coerce me to do anything," she said, explaining that despite her misgivings and split loyalties to fellow sisters and the archdiocese, she sees herself as a team member with a duty to support the church, whether she always agrees with its directives or not.

The courts are going to have their hands full if this entire cast of characters is called to the witness stand, each side insisting that California law, if not God, is on their side.

May the Blessed Virgin, mother of divine mercy, pray for them all.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

@LATstevelopez

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