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HOLLYWOOD, CA: What's next for St. Mary of the Angels?

HOLLYWOOD, CA: What's next for St. Mary of the Angels?
Famed Hollywood church returned to Ordinariate-bound congregation

By Mary Ann Mueller
VOL Special Correspondent
Feb. 24, 2016

St. Mary of the Angels is in the news again. The congregation was founded 98 years ago as an Episcopal ministry to the fledgling motion picture business (originally silent films). An Episcopal priest, Fr. Neal Dodd, affectionately known as the Padre of Hollywood, reached out to the stars and starlets of the era those other established churches wouldn't minster to. Many familiar faces of the big screen worshipped at St. Mary's, including Douglas Fairbanks, Charlton Heston, Anthony Quinn, Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields, Mary Pickford and others.

From its earliest beginnings, St. Mary-Angels was an Anglo-Catholic parish in the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, and through the years became known as a leading center for Anglo-Catholics. Born out of the Oxford Movement, St. Mary's has always faithfully proclaimed the apostolic faith in Tinsel town, while expressing that faith in the best traditions of Anglicanism.

Break with TEC

Following the 1974 ordination of the Philadelphia 11 and the subsequent General Convention's vote in 1976 to regularize the illicit ordination of those women priests, St. Mary-Angels was in the first wave of congregations to leave The Episcopal Church. Following the 1977 Congress of St. Louis and a number of frustrated Episcopalians, the congregation joined the Anglican Continuum. The Congress' Affirmation of St. Louis affirmed that The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada had departed from Christ's One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church by departing from Scripture and Anglican tradition. Eventually St. Mary-Angels landed in The Traditional Anglican Communion (TAC) founded by Archbishop Louis Falk. TAC's American branch is the Anglican Church in America (ACA).

Australian Archbishop John Hepworth became the Traditional Anglican Communion's second primate in 2002 and it was during his decade-long tenure that TAC earnestly sought corporate communion with the Church of Rome. The Traditional Anglican Communion knocked the longest and loudest on the Vatican's doors seeking a way for Anglicans to reunite with the Catholic Church and help heal the rift that the English Reformation created.

In October, 2007, members of the Traditional Anglican Communion's House of Bishops held a plenary session in Portsmouth, England, in which they formally signed a petition asking the Vatican to please consider their "full, corporate and sacramental union" with the Catholic Church. At that time, the TAC bishops signed the petition, as well as a copy of the Catechism to the Catholic Church, and its accompanying Compendiumdeclaring their faithful adherence to the doctrines and dogmas of the Church of Rome as expressed and taught in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The Vatican Responds

TAC's petition chugged through the various departments of the Vatican. Two years later, Pope Benedict XIV formally answered their heartfelt prayer for reunion and unity in a document entitled Anglicanorum Coetibus.

Since that moment, Oct. 29, 2009, when Pope Benedict XVI released his apostolic constitution, most members of St. Mary-Angels looked forward with great anticipation to the creation of the longed for Anglican ordinariates and becoming a part of an eventual American ordinariate. But then things got complicated. Not everyone was convinced that they wanted to be a part of the Ordinariate, or swim the Tiber to Rome. At St. Mary's an internal fight broke out. Several parish wide votes were taken, and each time the overwhelming results were to join the ordinariate when it was formally established.

About that time, in anticipation of the erection of the American Ordinariate, the House of Bishops of The Anglican Church in America authorized the creation of the Patrimony of the Primate. This entity was designed to be a temporary structure for those parishes, clergy and people who desired entry into the Ordinariate. St. Mary-Angels found a home in Archbishop Hepworth's Patrimony of the Primate while patiently waiting for the American Ordinariate to be erected.

The Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter was erected in the United States on Jan. 1, 2012, with former Episcopal Bishop Jeffrey Steenson (VIII Rio Grande) tapped as its first ordinary. At that time some TAC bishops had a change of heart and decided they did not want to enter into Eucharistic unity with the Bishop of Rome, but preferred to remain fully Anglican without any ties to the Vatican.

"The College of Bishops, the highest legislative body within the Communion, affirmed by resolution its faithfulness to the TAC. The TAC will remain fully Anglican," the TAC College of Bishops wrote in a March 2012 statement. "While it receives, with thanks, the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibusfrom the Holy See, the TAC College of Bishops has voted as a Communion to decline the invitation."

TAC also a passed a resolution in which "it is resolved that he [Archbishop John Hepworth] cease to hold the office of Primate immediately."

Archbishop Hepworth was dethroned on the spot, and Archbishop Samuel Prakash, the senior active Metropolitan from New Delhi, India, was made the acting primate of the communion. ACA also noted that since the Chair of St. Peter Ordinariate has been erected the Patrimony of the Primate has ceased to exist in the United States.

Trouble at St. Mary's

Things came to a head in Hollywood.

Even though the St. Mary's membership overwhelmingly voted to enter the newly-established Ordinariate, Bishop Stephen Strawn, currently ACA's Bishop of the Missouri Valley, swooped in on April 2, 2012, and inhibited St. Mary's rector, Fr. Christopher Kelley, thus forbidding him from acting as a member of the clergy in any capacity whatsoever within the Anglican Church in America, the Diocese of the West, and at St. Mary of the Angels.

During the Octave of Easter St. Mary's, inhibited rector, Fr. Christopher Kelley, who styled himself as St. Mary's "Chairman of the Board, President, & Rector", wrote on April 10, 2012, that "[t]he Patrimony of the Primate continues so long as there exist Anglicans who may formally contemplate transition to the Ordinariate. (It did not expire January 1, 2012)."

He explained that St. Mary-Angels was a "free-standing legal corporation under California law." He also noted that "during the entire history of the Anglican Continuum, parishes have been free to come and go as they please, and many have changed jurisdictions, not just St. Mary's."

Bishop Strawn put Canon to the Ordinary, Anthony Morello, in as St. Mary's new rector, and a battle for control of the property was launched by a handful of parishioners who did not want to follow Fr. Kelley's lead into the Church of Rome through the Ordinariate.

Judge Linfield rules

Fr. Kelley and his family were ordered to leave the church and the rectory to make way for Canon Morello to take over. The priest had 48 hours to depart, but he refused and dug in his heals. A siege ensued. Locks were changed, but the priest broke back into the church and set up housekeeping in the undercroft. Eventually, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Michael Linfield ruled that he did not have the judicial authority to determine church employment matters and the court "must defer to the position of the highest ecclesiastical authority that has decided the point." This meant that Fr. Kelley had to leave St. Mary's by All Hallow's Eve, 2012, thus ending a seven-month standoff.

For more than three years, St. Mary's property was tied up in brutal court litigation, just as many other Episcopal and Anglican parishes which voted to realign their ecclesial affiliations. Multiple times St. Mary's members voted overwhelmingly to go into the emerging Anglican Ordinariate, and a small group of dissenters and the ACA leadership stood in their way.

When Judge Linfield ruled on Oct. 7, 2012, the church went into the hands of ACA's Diocese of the West. The 60-plus members followed Fr. Kelley as he kept his eye on the ultimate goal -- membership in the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter. Judge Linfield's ruling was reversed by an appellate court which stated that St. Mary's property issues could be determined by neutral principles of law rather than by the hierarchical argument, setting up parameters for their day in court.

Like nomads, the disenfranchised St. Mary's parishioners set up wherever they could to celebrate Sunday Mass. Sometimes it was in the great outdoors in nearby Griffith Park, but when the weather was uncooperative, they went inside -- usually at a gracious parishioner's home. They also kept a weekly prayer vigil on the church grounds, imploring God for a favorable resolution to their problem.

The trek has been hard. One by one, some members fell away, weary of the difficulty ... deeply hurt by the on-going court litigation ... tired of the seemingly unending struggle. Now that they are back in familiar worship space. St. Mary's leadership expects the attendance to again increase.

Judge Stroble rules

In late September, 2015, St. Mary-Angels finally had its day in court. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mary Stroble heard three days of testimony before rendering her verdict in a 22-page ruling. The crux of the case was a critical vote taken on Aug. 12, 2012, to amend the Articles and Incorporation and bylaws of the church to allow St. Mary's to disaffiliate itself with the Anglican Church in America (ACA) and free themselves up to go into the Ordinariate.

The judge ruled that St. Mary's vote to amend its legal documents was "approved by a 2/3 majority and thus is effective." The Nov. 20, 2015 ruling again placed St. Mary's in the hands of the Ordinariate-bound parishioners.

However the transfer of property did not happen immediately. The small remnant group wanted a stay to allow them to file an appeal.

"We had hoped for a stay," Marilyn Bush told the Los Feliz Ledger, "until we got to the appellate court." Ms. Bush is the departing group's senior warden. She received formal notice of the eviction on Jan. 12.

On Feb. 16, St. Mary's keys were returned to Fr. Kelley, and an eviction notice was posted at church by the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, ordering the remaining group to vacate the premises.

Earlier this week, St. Mary's website splash page showed a panoramic view of blue skies and fluffy white clouds. There was just a picture. but no words. Now even the splash page will not come up. It seems that St. Mary's website has been disabled or deleted. However, St. Mary's is still listed on the Diocese of the West's website, listing Canon Frederick W. Rivers as rector, and Bishop Owen R. Williams as pastor.

"After nearly 45 months of exile we're back home again!" St. Mary's returning members posted on Facebook. "We welcome you to come and join us, Sunday February 21, 2016 at 10:30 am."

Fr. Kelley and his long suffering flock are very glad to be back in St. Mary's at 4510 Finley Ave. Their first Mass back in their church was celebrated on the Second Sunday of Lent with 34 members attending. Steve Hawkins, the Junior Warden, noted that one of the most anticipated things about being back in St. Mary's is that they can again use incense as a part of the worship service. While the deposed congregation was in exile, the use of incense was just not that feasible. On Sunday billowing clouds of incense brought their heart-felt prayers of thanksgiving to God.

Is Archbishop Hepworth back?

Currently, St. Mary's is safely in the Patrimony of the Primate and back under the protection of Archbishop Hepworth. Now the church's signboard states that St. Mary's has been a "Patrimony Parish since 2010." Fr. Kelley is listed as rector and J.B. Yeager is listed as deacon. Archbishop Hepworth's name is also mentioned. St. Mary's is described as an "Anglo-Catholic parish" which was "founded 1918."

It is still the intention of St. Mary's re-established leadership to enter into the Ordinariate. Following the initial erection of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, Monsignor Steenson visited the parish to help facilitate the process. but found that the legal entanglements with ACA halted any further progress until the court issues could be resolved.

It is rumored that Archbishop Hepworth attended the enthronement of Bishop Steven Lopes, the Ordinariate's new bishop. However the Ordinariate has never been forthcoming with a list of ecumenical visitors who attended the event earlier this month in Houston.

It is also believed that Archbishop Hepworth is headed to California to personally help shepherd St. Mary's into the Ordinariate. But St. Mary's is mum on providing details or a time frame for the archbishop's visitation nor is the Ordinariate willing to answer any questions.

Mary Ann Mueller is a journalist living in Texas. She is a regular contributor to VirtueOnline

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