A dispute over a convent on a Los Feliz hilltop pitting an archbishop and pop star against a group of aging nuns is headed to a higher power.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James Chalfant is set to preside over a hearing Thursday on the sale of one of the hottest properties in L.A. real estate: the nuns' former home, a sprawling, villa-style compound with views of the San Gabriel Mountains and downtown.
The sale is beset by controversy on both sides: The Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary are rival sellers, and a restaurateur is competing against pop singer Katy Perry to buy the property.
In the latest twist, the archdiocese accused a restaurateur of taking advantage of the nuns in order to drive a deal in her favor. In a court brief filed Friday, the archdiocese is seeking to throw out a $15.5-million deal reached in June between the nuns and Dana Hollister, who has operated several restaurants.
The archdiocese criticized the deal, questioning how Hollister obtained the deed after paying a $44,000 deposit with a note for the rest.
In an interview Monday, Hollister rejected the idea that she had swindled the sisters and insisted that they had the right to choose the buyer for their beloved home. She praised the nuns as sharp and independent, and she accused the archdiocese of attempting to smear her and the nuns in order to scuttle the deal.
"Those ladies know what they're doing," Hollister said. "They are by no means fragile."
Hollister described the archdiocese's insistence on selling to Perry as a ploy aimed at seizing valuable property and its cash proceeds. "All of these women who have worked in the religious world have absolutely no rights, and these ladies are fighting for them," Hollister said.
The dispute centers on who has the legal authority to sell the compound with its ornate architecture and expansive views. Hollister said the nuns' deal with her includes $10 million for the compound and another $5.5 million to buy out the archdiocese's lease on a retreat house on the property.
The archdiocese filed suit to block that deal, asserting that only the church — and not the sisters— can sign off on the sale. Archbishop José Gomez has bestowed his imprimatur on a deal to sell to Perry for $14.5 million in cash, according to court papers.
The archdiocese said the deal struck between the sisters and Hollister is weak and may be unenforceable.
"What Dana Hollister did in this transaction was take their principle asset, give them next to no money, with a flaky promise to pay in three years," said J. Michael Hennigan, the lawyer for the archdiocese.
Hollister said she has lined up financing and agreed to pay the full $15.5 million, so long as the archdiocese drops the lawsuit.
The archdiocese said in a statement Monday that the lawsuit was filed "to protect all the sisters" from Hollister's purchase and ensure that money from an "authorized sale" would be available to finance their long-term care. Attorneys representing the nuns could not be reached for comment.
The sisters say they learned in September that the archbishop planned to sell the convent to a woman named Katherine Hudson, who they later learned was Perry. The nuns opposed selling the property to Perry, whose fame was ignited by an ode to sexual experimentation, "I Kissed a Girl." The nuns' lawyers argued that Perry's image did not match those of Catholic nuns.
This month, attorneys representing the sisters argued that church leaders made a "hostile takeover" in June when they designated new officers to oversee the religious order's nonprofit institute. Those officers have no basis to claim authority over the institute and its assets, which include the lush villa, the sisters' attorneys argued.
After protests from the sisters, Gomez relented and told them to proceed with their own plans to sell the property but to present a proposal for him to approve, according to the documents.
The sisters, their attorneys said, followed Gomez's instructions, but he refused to meet with them to approve the sale to Hollister and instead moved ahead with his agreement to sell to Perry. The nuns are slated to appear before the judge on Thursday, when the archdiocese's lawyers will call for nullifying the sale to Hollister. A hearing on who has legal control over the property is scheduled for October.
Meanwhile, Hollister is spending time at the convent. She said, unlike Perry, she would like to open the property to the public.
She wondered, "At what point did the archdiocese decide this is theirs?"
Times staff writer Stephen Ceasar contributed to this report.