Flanked by officiants of the Ecumenical Catholic Church and local parishioners, activists seeking to reopen the shuttered St. Francis by the Sea Church met Friday to elect an executive board and appoint an interim bishop to again open the historic church’s doors to public services.
Paul Merritt was elected president; William Kelly, vice president; and Jessica DeStefano, secretary-treasurer.
Named interim bishop was Bishop Peter Hickman, who serves as presiding bishop of the Ecumenical Catholic Communion and pastor at St. Matthew Ecumenical Catholic Church in Orange. The unanimous vote was cast by 33 congregants, 32 of them by proxy.
“Now we are in a solid position to regain the church for the congregants,” Merritt said.
The tiny facility at 430 Park Ave., Laguna Beach, built from rubble gathered from the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, is occupied by a parish of the American Catholic Church in California, a liberal wing of Catholicism that permits priests to marry and inducts women as pastors and bishops.
The cathedral itself is nestled among buildings at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church and was designed by a former Episcopal priest, Percy Wise Clarkson, combining elements of Byzantine, Gothic and Craftsman styles, according to local historian Anne Frank, who petitioned to have the structure placed on the National Register of Historic Places in the mid-1980s. It is one of two sites on the National Register in Laguna Beach; the other is Rockledge, the sprawling ocean-view complex built in the 1920s.
It gained national notoriety in 1984, when the Guinness Book of World Records proclaimed it the “world’s smallest cathedral.”
St. Francis by the Sea is considered unique, due to its eclectic décor and use of religious symbols and icons from Christianity, Catholicism, Eastern religions and Theosophy, hearkening to its origins as an alternative religious organization, according to Frank’s petition.
It is named for St. Francis of Assisi. The current congregation adheres more formally to Catholicism but eschews the doctrine of papal infallibility and does not adhere to Vatican orders, according to church officiants.
The 1,000-square-foot structure has few pews but a devoted following who became alarmed when Sunday services became sporadic about a year ago and then were terminated several months ago when longtime Bishop Simon Talarczyk apparently became unable to perform them.
Talarczyk had led the church for 38 years. No new bishop stepped in to take his place.
Longtime parishioners Merritt and DeStefano became further alarmed when they realized that Talarczyk’s daughter, Honorata Ann Lee, had filed a petition earlier in 2011 with the probate court seeking a conservatorship over her ailing father and his assets — one of which she claimed was the church property itself.
“The church belongs to the parishioners, not the bishop,” Merritt said.
Merritt filed an objection to the claim that the church property belonged to Talarczyk.
Lee also wanted to operate the church and manage the property herself, but this was denied twice by the court, according to legal papers filed by Merritt’s attorney, Michael Lawler.
Lee allegedly locked out the congregation by changing the locks and has refused to allow congregants to conduct services at the church, according to Lawler.
At the meeting, Lawler told the group that they might have to write new bylaws for the church because the bylaws were missing.
“I don’t know what happened to them,” Lawler said. “But you could adopt a new set that would work for this church.”
However, Lee has reportedly had a change of heart and is no longer claiming that her father owns the church, Lawler wrote in an email following the meeting.
“Bishop Talarczyk never did own the church,” Lawler wrote. “It belongs to the American Catholic Church in California. Bishop Hickman is now the Bishop for ACCC operating as St. Francis by the Sea Church and, under California Corporations Code, he controls the church for the benefit of the congregation.”
Hickman said he had both a religious and personal interest in the Laguna Beach church.
“I want to ensure the American Catholic Church remains in Laguna Beach,” said Hickman, who worshiped at the church in 1981-82. “As for historical significance, this was the first Old Catholic Church in Orange County and one of the few surviving [original churches] in the United States.”
Church services are expected to resume at the old cathedral soon, according to Merritt. The congregation now meets for services at 9 a.m. Sunday at 303 Broadway, Suite 107, Laguna Beach.
There are about 40 parishes under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, formerly known as the Old Catholic Church, with churches throughout California. But there is only one “world’s smallest cathedral.”
Historian Frank said she is hopeful the tiny church will be returned to the congregation that is devoted to it.
“It’s being well-maintained, but if it is in private hands, who knows what could happen?” she said.
If You Go
What: Jessica DeStefano to speak at Exchange Club meeting about St. Francis by the Sea
When: 12:15 to 1:30 p.m. Feb. 23
Where: Asada, 480 S. Coast Hwy.
Cost: $20 for non-members, which includes lunch
Information: Call Katy Moss at (949) 0703 or Jim Rue at (949) 494-6684 or visit lagunabeachexchangeclub.org