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Bishop's daughter fights for church

St. Francis in middle of tug of war between two parishioner groups for control of 'world's smallest cathedral.'

February 21, 2012|By Cindy Frazier

Honorata Lee isn't about to give up on St. Francis by the Sea, the American Catholic church in Laguna Beach where she grew up and her father presided as bishop for 38 years.

She has, however, given up the notion that the Park Avenue structure is the private property of her father, Bishop Simon Talarczyk.

"The church is owned by the American Catholic Church, and my father is corporate sole of the nonprofit," Lee said.

Lee, previously under the impression that the property was part of Talarczyk's private estate, was seeking a conservatorship over the church as part of his other assets due to her father's inability to handle his affairs.

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That raised hackles in Laguna Beach, where the property is treasured as one of two structures in the city on the National Register of Historic Places.

Some parishioners also worried that the valuable Laguna Beach property could be sold.

A court has now agreed to allow Lee to drop the claim on the church property, she said.

But the church's future is far from settled: The breakaway parishioners, led by Lagunan Paul Merritt, are seeking to acquire jurisdiction over it and recently moved to appoint a new board of directors and interim bishop to operate it.

Lee, however, has obtained the services of another American Catholic bishop, Brian Del Vaux, who she said will serve as permanent bishop and hold services from now on. An auxiliary bishop will also be appointed so the post will not go unfilled.

The church site is noted as the "world's smallest cathedral," but despite the notoriety, over the years its 48-seat chapel had dwindled to very few parishioners, according to Lee.

"Sometimes only two or three would show up," she said.

A year ago, those who did attend complained that many times the doors remained locked on Sundays; a few months ago, services stopped completely.

Parishioners learned that Talarczyk, suffering fromAlzheimer'sand dementia and no longer able to make decisions for himself, had turned affairs over to his daughter, Lee.

Lee, who lives with her father and is his main caregiver, says that he is "a sweet old man" but did not know what to do with the church property when he was no longer able to be the leader of the congregation.

When she realized her father could no longer handle the duties of running the church, she moved to become his conservator, but no replacement bishop was named until this month.

Services at the church, 430 Park Ave., resumed Feb. 12, Lee said.

cindy.frazier@latimes.com

Twitter: @CindyFrazier1

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