Congregation Divided Over Design -- but Not the Divine

Times Staff Writer

A schism is splitting the faithful at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church -- a rift not over doctrine, but architecture.

A small but vocal group at the majestic North Hollywood church is trying to block changes that they say would transform its cathedral-like interior into a modern worship space. They fear that St. Charles’ pastor, the Rev. Robert Gallagher, is bent on changing the old-fashioned church into something more akin to the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles.

Gallagher has said that St. Charles does not need renovation. It needs repairs, upgrades to its acoustics, completion of its dome and other improvements. No radical changes are imminent, he said, pointing out that no funds have yet been raised.


Unconvinced, the 40 active members of the St. Charles Borromeo Preservation Guild recently marched and prayed outside the church. Last year, the guild collected 1,000 signatures on an anti-renovation petition.

In its mission statement, the group calls for keeping the interior of the church much as it is, with pews facing the main altar at the front of the church, private confessionals, and the current side altars, statues, Stations of the Cross and baptismal font.

In addition, the guild asks that the Blessed Sacrament be removed from a chapel and “restored to its place of honor in the tabernacle behind the altar.”

The pastor took the protesters to task in a recent church bulletin, noting that most of them are not parishioners. It is insulting, he wrote, to suggest that the church’s traditional trappings are what attracts parishioners: “Those faithful Catholics would be worshipping along with us in whatever Church building was provided.”

The protesters, he added, “should be ashamed of intentionally misconstruing what they have heard and misleading the most vulnerable among us” about plans to alter the church interior.

The clash in North Hollywood is not an isolated phenomenon. Across North America in recent years, groups have rallied against modernization of traditional-style churches.

In 1999, preservationists blocked alterations to the Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. In 2000, anti-renovation forces hired a canon lawyer to oppose major alterations to St. John Cathedral in Milwaukee.

The disputes often reflect differences over liturgical practice as well as aesthetics. Supporters of many current trends in church architecture, such as placing the altar in the midst of the congregation rather than in front of rows of pews, say they embody the ideas of the Second Vatican Council. Held between 1962 and 1965, the council introduced a series of reforms to Roman Catholic practice, many of which were designed to increase participation by the laity.

But modern church architecture was not mandated by the council, said Steve Diggins, the 45-year-old film editor who heads the preservation guild.

On Sundays, Diggins drives to St. Charles from his home in Burbank. “One of the reasons people come to St. Charles Borromeo is they are so unhappy with renovations at their own local church,” he said.

“We support Vatican II,” said Diggins. “This is not a debate over doctrine.... We are not connected with the Latin Mass people,” he said, referring to dissenting Catholics who continue to hear Mass in Latin and reject the Second Vatican Council in other ways.

Diggins, who minored in theology at Loyola Marymount College, said that he thinks the “zeitgeist of the ‘60s” is a factor in plans to change St. Charles. And he notes that since the renovation flap began, some parish regulars eager for incense and other traditional “smells and bells” associated with Catholic ritual have left St. Charles for nearby St. Ann Melkite Church, a Byzantine-style church of the Greek Catholic rite.

Diggins and fellow guild members say they treasure St. Charles because the church, as it is now, supports their faith. Its dark beauty, its hush, the way the eyes of the faithful are drawn to the large crucifix -- all help them turn their thoughts to Christ’s redemptive sacrifice, they say.

Jay Willis of North Hollywood said that making major changes in the church “really stabs at the core of our belief.”

St. Charles -- named for a 16th-century Catholic reformer who wrote extensively on ecclesiastical design -- was designed by J. Earl Trudeau, an architect from Alhambra, and is noted for its artful Stations of the Cross and the majestic carved canopy, or baldacchino, over the main altar.

In an interview, Gallagher said St. Charles “is not a modern building. It’s a Spanish baroque building. We have no intention of changing the look and the warmth of the building.”

That said, Gallagher acknowledged that some features of the interior would likely change in the near future. Any significant alterations must be approved by Cardinal Roger M. Mahony and his liturgy committee, he said.

If he failed to propose some reconfiguration, Gallagher said, the archdiocesan committee would probably ask: “What have you done to rearrange the worship area in line with the Second Vatican Council?”

Jim Drollinger, one of half a dozen members of the art and architecture committee appointed by Gallagher to study possible changes, said he is “very much for” certain modifications to the interior. But, he said, he thinks the preservationists have misconstrued the extent of proposed changes.

“We’re literally talking about coming up with a slightly different arrangement of the sanctuary area that’s reflective of current liturgical practice,” he said. “In no way will we be changing the style of decor ... that we’re so in love with here.”

Despite such assurances, the anti-renovation forces fear that radical change is imminent.

“Their feelings are very real to them, but we don’t just make changes in our church based on people’s feelings,” said Gallagher.

As for the guild, it is encouraging supporters to write to Rome to express their opposition to major alterations: “We’re praying,” said Diggins, “and we’ll continue to fight.”