NEWPORT BEACH – It’s been nearly a year since 200 men, women and children were kicked out of their church, St. James the Great Episcopal in Newport Beach.
At first, some members of the 71-year-old congregation reluctantly accepted the decision – even if they didn’t like it.
The 40,000-square-foot building and surrounding property on Via Lido are valuable, situated on a slice of desirable Balboa Peninsula. A developer wanted to put 22 expensive townhomes on it. And in July, about a month after the congregation was booted, the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles issued a letter that said the decision to evict the congregation and sell a structure church members had raised $6 million to build was based on the diocese’s need to balance “pastoral care with … responsible fiduciary decisions.”
But the saga recently has taken a turn that, for parishioners, is no longer close to understandable.
The development deal they thought was in the works fell apart in July after the developer lost a key investor. The property is mired in a web of lawsuits.
The congregation’s year in the spiritual wilderness – including being exiled from the St. James rose garden where the ashes of 12 former parishioners are buried – wasn’t, in their view, necessary.
“We lost our spiritual home for nothing,” said Rev. Cindy Voorhees, the pastor of St. James.
“A year later, that building, which our congregants paid for, is still empty. And we’re still locked out.”
Robert Williams, a diocese spokesman, declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.
But Voorhees said her congregation will remain incomplete without a physical building because their sacramental needs are not being met.
“There are three babies that haven’t been baptized yet,” she said. “We’re worried about conducting confirmations, weddings and funerals.”
Voorhees said she’s been told a church is about people, not a building. While she doesn’t disagree, she also suggests a building still is important.
“We do need a central location to gather, worship and have our sacred rites done.”
There also are questions about the cremated remains buried in the rose garden.
Last year, diocese spokesman Williams said the plan is to dig up the rose garden and transport the ashes of the deceased to locations chosen by the families at no cost. Williams said at the time that the diocese wants to be sure that the ashes are transferred “reverently” under the supervision of a priest or deacon.
So far, that hasn’t happened.
Trish Norman, whose family has been a member of the Newport Beach church more than 60 years, said she’s heard nothing from the diocese about where, or when, her mother’s ashes will be taken. Since June, when the congregation left St. James, Norman hasn’t been able to go to the property to pay respects to her mother.
“I’d just like to take her ashes from there and give her a burial at sea,” she said, “so I never have to go through this again.”
It’s unclear when that might happen. The diocese and various groups interested in the property are embroiled in a tangle of lawsuits.
The congregation sued the diocese, saying the church had no right to lock them out. The court ruled April 20 in the diocese’s favor, and the congregation is appealing the ruling.
In another lawsuit, filed last year, the group that gave the Via Lido land to St. James in 1945, Griffith Co., is objecting to the diocese’s plan to sell the property for development. Griffith says the property’s deed includes a clause that requires the land to remain exclusively as a church.
Bishop J. Jon Bruno countered with a legal complaint against Griffith Co., arguing that the restriction was lifted about 30 years ago. Last week, the court ruled in favor of the bishop and the diocese.
Also, on June 20, a panel representing the national Episcopal church will hear a complaint filed by the St. James the Great congregation asking to block the sale of the Via Lido property.
Walter Stahr, a member of the now-homeless St. James congregation, wants to know why the bishop locked them out, even after the sale to the developer fell through.
“Why spend all this money on legal fees when we could’ve spent that money to improve the church and feed the poor?” he said.
“We were never given that chance to be a church.”
That said, the congregation remains strong. Voorhees said that as her church has led a nomadic existence – holding services in a park and in a leased space at the Gray Matter Museum on East 17th Street in Costa Mesa – more people have joined than have left.
“In spite of not having a church building, we’ve been growing,” Voorhees said. “These people have found a church where their spiritual journey is taking place. … They don’t want to lose that.”
They plan to hold services again today, at Newport Beach City Hall, Community Room A.
Contact the writer: 714-796-7909 or firstname.lastname@example.org