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Self-Described Visionary’s Hill of Hope Dream Ends

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nearly two decades ago, Placentia resident Frances M. Klug, motivated by what she described as a vision from God, acquired a 440-acre tract of land in the rugged Chino Hills upon which she planned to construct a religious-medical complex in His name.

The land sprawled across the confluence of Orange, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties and was christened St. Joseph’s Hill of Hope as part of Klug’s plan to build a basilica, chapels, hospital, monastery, convent and retreat house.

Klug and her husband, Robert, moved onto the property and she began sharing admonitions that she said she had received from God, Jesus, Mary, Joseph and other saints with followers who came by the hundreds from all over the country. She also began raising money through a nonprofit corporation called St. Joseph’s Hill of Hope Inc.

Klug’s lofty hopes for the Hill of Hope never materialized, however.

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She was unable to raise the $1.5 billion needed for construction or gain the necessary approval from local government agencies. The land has remained largely vacant. Her followers, once estimated at more than 1,200, have dwindled to less than 400, according to her husband.

A wildfire earlier this summer scorched most of the property, leaving piles of ash and blackened trees where once there were green chaparral and stately oaks, Robert Klug and fire officials said. None of the few buildings on the property were damaged, however.

Now, the 69-year-old woman has the property up for sale. According to San Bernardino County planning officials, the Hill of Hope property was put on the market last month. Asking price: $80 million.

If she gets a buyer, Frances Klug’s nonprofit corporation at least will come out ahead financially. In a 1972 interview with The Times, she said she bought the property for $1.1 million. John Mcmains, a San Bernardino County senior planner, said that although the Hill of Hope is zoned for large commercial or institutional use, a developer could seek approval to subdivide the property into residential lots.

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The land, most of which lies in San Bernardino County, is covered by the Chino Hills Specific Plan, which calls for eventual construction of 25,000 homes. Half of those homes have already been built.

Sale of the Hill of Hope would mark the end of a colorful and unusual chapter in Chino Hills history. An air of mystery has surrounded the operation since it began, fueled in large part by the presence of roving security guards and barbed wire fences to keep out all uninvited visitors. The entrance, which lies on a dirt road in the city of Brea, is fortified by a huge green-and-white gate topped by sharp points. A shack with two guards sits behind the gate.

The mystery has given rise to rumors--none of them true, according to Hill of Hope coordinators--among residents of the nearby community of Sleepy Hollow, located just over the Orange County line in San Bernardino County.

“One person said it’s sort of a religious commune. Someone else said it is like a hospice for dying cancer patients,” said David Miller, 32, a university professor who lives in Sleepy Hollow. “Every story I’ve ever heard is that they’re very secretive and don’t let anybody on the property.”

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A reporter who tried to visit the property in recent weeks was turned back at the front gate by a security guard and told to telephone Hill of Hope executive director Elmer Bebee, who declined comment.

“We haven’t been giving any interviews in some time,” Bebee said.

Frances Klug also would not comment. Her husband, a 65-year-old insurance agent, initially declined comment when approached at his Placentia office, but then spoke of the rumors and the need for guards at the property.

“We have been harassed by the local vandals,” Robert Klug said. “We have had the police out here dozens of times. Several months ago, we caught half a dozen punk kids and they were arrested for trespassing.”

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In a series of interviews during the 1970s, Frances Klug, a Roman Catholic homemaker at the time, explained that God, Jesus and the saints began speaking through her about 1967, and that since then she had served as the vehicle for the admonition and advice of God, Jesus and the saints. Klug, originally from Chicago, said, “I was aware of a closeness with God since I was a child.”

When her “locutions,” as they are called, began to draw overflow crowds to her Placentia home in early 1972, the meetings were switched to a local clubhouse on Friday nights and to the 440-acre Carbon Canyon site for the Sunday and Wednesday morning gatherings. She said the hilly, oak-dotted land was purchased with a down payment of $100,000, raised by “donations from everywhere.”

Klug and her associates, who formed a nonprofit corporation, said in 1972 that they hoped within the next five years to fulfill heavenly instructions to construct an array of facilities on the land, including chapels and convent.

Officials of the Catholic Church, however, advised Catholics not to give financial support to the Hill of Hope organization, saying that the church had found that claims of personal revelations from God were false.

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Klug’s followers--all Catholics--were encouraged to continue attending their own churches. But they continued giving money, and Robert Klug said they performed volunteer work, such as providing security guard patrols on the Hill of Hope.

Andrew Kiely, a Long Beach surgeon who once headed the Hill of Hope corporation, said part of the attraction for him and the other followers was that Frances Klug adhered to such traditional teachings of the Catholic church as wearing formal dresses and suits to worship. Kiely said the followers all wore their Sunday best when attending her “locutions.”

“I was happy with it,” said Kiely, who today considers himself an inactive Hill of Hope member. “It is more traditional teaching. They use the old customs.”

In the interview last week, he shrugged off the fact that the Hill of Hope was never sanctioned by the Catholic Church.

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“They don’t sanction anybody until 200 years after the fact,” he said.

Although Frances Klug hoped to have her religious-medical complex in place by 1977, that deadline passed with only a house and a few buildings being put up, Kiely said. Robert Klug recalled that lack of money proved to be an insurmountable hurdle.

“The money was slow in coming,” he said.

Another barrier was reluctance by San Bernardino County to approve the project. In April, 1976, the county’s Planning Commission voted to reject the Hill of Hope’s plans until it submitted proper plans and did other necessary work, such as conducting an environmental impact report. According to county planner Mcmains, the Hill of Hope people refused.

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“They said, ‘We’re on a mission from God. We’re exempt from that,’ ” Mcmains said. “They didn’t have a realistic approach to it.”

Brea Fire Chief Albert (Bud) Moody remembered that the Hill of Hope plans did not take into account the fact that there were no roads and no water to support such a large project. The only access, Moody said, was--and is--Carbon Canyon Road, a winding, two-lane highway that has been congested for years.

“You can imagine if you had a large group of worshipers show up there,” Moody said.

According to Kiely, he and other Hill of Hope members quit meeting there “years ago. I very rarely go there. It is dormant.”

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Kiely said that only the Klugs and Bebee and his wife live on the Hill of Hope.

The Hill of Hope has maintained a low profile since the development plans went awry. The last newspaper article about it appeared in 1976. The corporation has not been named in any Orange County civil court actions since the 1976 dismissal of a suit that demanded it pay a late bill for nearly $8,000 for goods provided by a local firm.

In 1986, Robert Klug filed notice with county officials that he was opening the Jonathan Insurance Agency in Placentia. He operated the business as a partnership with a Placentia woman until she withdrew last February, county records show.

In 1988, Frances Klug filed notice with the county that she was opening the Frances Roberts Interior Design company as a decorating consultant. She listed the address of the firm as that of her husband’s office in Placentia.

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A real estate agent handling the Hill of Hope property listing declined comment other than to confirm the asking price. Robert Klug declined to say what the couple’s plans were, nor would he elaborate on what the Hill of Hope is doing.

“We have a nonprofit charitable corporation,” he said, “and we mind our own business.”


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