Offers of help overwhelm Santa Barbara nuns

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Three nuns who recently learned that their Santa Barbara convent would be sold to help cover the costs of Los Angeles' multimillion-dollar priest sexual abuse settlement say they have been overwhelmed with offers of help -- and media attention.

"The support has been just unbelievable," said Sister Angela Escalera, the local superior of the Sisters of Bethany house. "It's come from all parts of Santa Barbara and outside too. And from all denominations. It's just astounding."

She and two other nuns at the small, eastside convent received word in late August that the dwelling, which is owned by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, would be sold to help pay for the church's $660-million priest sex abuse settlement. At least $250 million of that amount will be paid directly by the archdiocese.

Escalera, 69, a retired notary public and social worker, has lived at the convent since 1964. She is still an active community volunteer, working mainly with the area's many poor and undocumented residents.

Another of the nuns, Sister Consuelo Cardenas, 55, has lived in the building about 25 years and works as a religious education coordinator at a nearby parish.

The third, Sister Margarita Antonia Gonzalez, 49, is a relative newcomer to the community, having lived there about four years.

They have until Dec. 31 to move out, according to a letter sent by the archdiocese.

Since news of the likely sale broke last week, the phone at the convent has been "ringing and ringing and ringing," Escalera said Monday.

Among other appearances in the past week, the nuns have twice been interviewed by Spanish-language television network Telemundo and on Friday by the hosts of the "John & Ken Show" on talk radio's KFI-AM (640).

"We feel real bad for her, getting tossed out of her home like that," John Kobylt, the show's co-host, said Monday of Escalera. He noted dryly that nuns were not the often rambunctious talk show's typical guests.

In fact, Kobylt said, chuckling, "she may be one of the very few we've ever had on. . . . It's lunar-eclipse kind of rare."

Escalera said a longtime friend in Los Angeles called Friday to tell her that he had been so startled to hear her on the radio program that he nearly drove off the road. "But I told him [John and Ken] were just fine," the nun said. "They wanted to help."

Many others seem to want to as well.

Several community members, headed by Anthony Dal Bello, a Santa Barbara businessman who has known the local Sisters of Bethany since childhood, are forming a committee to try to help them and hope to set up a fund for donations.

"We'd like to find some way for them to stay where they are," said Dal Bello, who recalls assisting with Mass at the convent as a boy and later serving as president of the local Catholic social service agency. "If the archdiocese has to sell it, we'll have to try to find the finances to buy it. And otherwise, we'll have to come up with something else."

At the convent Monday, a television report that the building had already been sold set off a flurry of concern from the nuns and their supporters.

But Tod M. Tamberg, spokesman for the archdiocese, said later that the report was false.

The Santa Barbara County assessor's office lists the value of the property at about $98,000, although it is unclear what it might bring in a sale.

Even the relatively small, older homes nearby sell for at least $700,000, according to local real estate websites.

Tamberg also said that as many as 50 non-parish properties, including the archdiocese's administrative headquarters, would be sold to cover the legal bill and said the choice of which to sell had been difficult for all concerned.

Apart from the central offices, the convent is the first property to be publicly identified as being for sale.

"What we are trying to do is to preserve our essential ministries and at the same time trying to come up with a heck of a lot of money to pay our share of this settlement," Tamberg said.

An element of mystery continued to surround the timing of the letter from the archdiocese, dated June 28, that was sent to the nuns' regional superior in Los Angeles to notify them that they must move by year's end.

Escalera said her superior, Sister Reyna Leticia Gomez, had told her she did not receive the letter until Aug. 27, the day she called Escalera to break the news.

Gomez could not be reached for comment Monday. Tamberg said the letter was sent June 28.

In any event, Escalera said offers of help were coming in, including several for temporary housing, should they have to move.

A priest friend from Los Angeles has offered a place at his order's retreat in Santa Ynez.

A woman visiting from Pasadena stopped by the convent to say that she would like to help with the nuns' support committee. The owner of a nearby Mexican food store said he would help raise money.

And Thousand Oaks resident Clara Reese said her largely Catholic service club, Il Cenacolo Italiano, or "the Italian Circle," is launching its own fundraising drive for the Santa Barbara nuns. "What a terrible thing for our church to do to these poor ladies," said Reese, a retired businesswoman.

Those interested may contact Anthony Dal Bello at bello510@verizon.net or write to the nuns at the convent, 215 N. Nopal St., Santa Barbara, CA 93103.

rebecca.trounson@latimes.com

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