LOS ANGELES » God moves in mysterious ways — particularly when it comes to Los Angeles real estate.
And few transactions have proved more mystifying of late than conflicting attempts by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles and a group of nuns under its supervision to sell an 8-acre hillside estate here.
The property might go to pop singer Katy Perry. Or it could fall to restaurateur and developer Dana Hollister, depending on whether the sacred matchup or a more profane alignment of lawyers and would-be buyers prevails.
Perry — a gospel singer turned pop star whose early secular hits included "Ur So Gay" and "I Kissed a Girl" — is offering an all-cash deal favored by the archdiocese, which says it controls the property. Hollister — who helped open trendy Los Angeles restaurants like Cliff’s Edge and Villains Tavern — is offering a potentially richer deal favored by the nuns but complicated by its reliance on a large promissory note.
Some on both sides have been shocked by the highly public nature of the fight, which has spilled into court and onto television screens. It pits the local archbishop, Josi Gomez, against a pair of nuns, Sister Rita Callanan, 77, and Sister Catherine Rose Holzman, 86 — both appeared on NBC’s "Today" show this week — who are among five remaining members of a Los Angeles order, the Sisters of the Most Holy and Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
"I would have thought everyone would sit down and it would be settled in five minutes," said J. Michael Hennigan, a lawyer for the archdiocese.
Instead, Hennigan and his various opponents are getting ready for a hearing on July 30 in Los Angeles County Superior Court. Judge Robert O’Brien has been asked to issue an injunction blocking the nuns’ proposed sale of the villa, where their motherhouse and novitiate had been based since 1970, to Hollister, which would clear the way for a sale, instead, to Perry.
The nuns, who say they prefer Hollister’s offer in part because it would keep the property open to the public, insist that their objection to Perry’s bid has nothing to do with her mildly risqué approach to entertainment.
"There is no moral objection," Callanan said.
The property in question is a sprawling Italianate complex, in a hillside neighborhood that separates the rapidly gentrifying Silver Lake district from the wilds of Griffith Park, where a mountain lion or two still roam. Stretching along a full city block, the motherhouse and a companion prayer home for Catholic priests hide behind a sand-colored 8-foot wall. The nuns moved out in 2011 as their numbers and operating funds dwindled, and have been living in scattered locations around Los Angeles; some priests still visit the retreat house, however.
Tall evergreens flank the street; the wind rustles through olive trees and the sort of Mediterranean foliage once favored by the Franciscans who settled these parts. The buildings were designed by the architect Bernard Maybeck, who built the complex in 1927 for Earle C. Anthony, a broadcaster and automobile distributor who died in 1961.
The neighborhood would be idyllic if it were not haunted by a bit of gothic history: In August 1969, one night after the murder of Sharon Tate and others by followers of Charles Manson, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca were also butchered by the Manson family — and the misspelled phrase "Healter Skelter" was written in blood on a refrigerator — in a home that adjoins the nuns’ property.
At the time, the estate was owned by Daniel Donohue, a businessman and philanthropist who was a Knight of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, among other distinctions, and was known as "Sir Daniel" among friends. Donohue’s wife, Bernardine, had recently died (and is now one of a small number of people interred in the archdiocese’s downtown Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angeles, having been designated by the Vatican as a papal countess).
Donohue sold his estate to the Immaculate Heart sisters for $600,000 and helped them to pay for it. "What made him leave was the memory of his wife, Bernardine," Callanan said of Donohue, who died in 2014.
Perry, 30, got her eye on the property as a potential home about two or three years ago, according to people briefed on her interest, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of confidentiality constraints.
At the request of the archbishop, Perry met in May with the few remaining nuns. The singer, a daughter of Evangelical Christian preachers, showed them one of her tattoos, the word "Jesus" written on her wrist, and serenaded them with the gospel song "Oh Happy Day," according to The Los Angeles Times, which broke the news of the dispute. Ultimately, three of the nuns said they would support the sale to Perry, but Callanan and Holzman, as officers of the order, instead entered a deal with Hollister.
Hennigan said his own puzzlement over the nuns’ attempted sale to Hollister without approval of the archbishop stems in part from what he sees as the clear superiority of the financial terms offered by Perry.
Perry’s deal, according to a statement from the archdiocese, offers $10 million in cash, and another $4.5 million to purchase an alternative retreat house to replace the current priests’ facility. The priests can stay for two years while relocating, and their new spot, which has already been selected, would be owned by the nuns through an institute that has held their property since 1970.
"All the money from this goes to the institute and to care for these ladies," said Hennigan, who insists that the sisters, while they live, will be the beneficiary of any sale.
Hollister, by contrast, has paid $10 million for the property, and holds a now-disputed grant deed. She would pay as much as $5.5 million more that would go to the archdiocese — not the nuns — to buy out its long-term lease of the priests’ retreat house, if it were willing. To date, she has paid $100,000 in cash, while covering the balance of the $10 million with a note. Her representatives said she has sufficient cash to cover the entire cost.
In its court filings, the archdiocese contends that her purchase is contingent on winning zoning changes that would permit a restaurant and hotel on the site. "That’s not going to happen," Hennigan said of the approvals.
Both Hollister and the two nuns, however, fiercely disputed those assertions.
"There’s no reason for them to allege that," Hollister said of the contingency claim. "It’s part of the ridiculousness that propels this whole story forward."
Hollister, who has a long history of projects in the Silver Lake area, said she still has no firm plan for the Waverly property.
Callanan, who has been with the order since 1962, said she and Holzman prefer Hollister’s deal because they believe it will allow the nuns and their business manager, not the diocese, to control the proceeds, and also because they feel Hollister will open the property to the public.
In any case, according to court filings by the archdiocese that are disputed by Hollister and the nuns, the sisters did not have authority to sell the property, because the dealings of the institute that holds the property are actually overseen by an officer, the Rev. Thomas Anslow, who was first appointed to that post by the archbishop in 2005.
Also, said Hennigan in a phone interview on Tuesday, any deal involving more than $7.5 million requires final approval from the Vatican, which has yet to be granted.
This is not the first rebellion by the Los Angeles contingent of Immaculate Heart sisters. In the late 1960s, a group of nuns in the order fell into conflict with Cardinal James Francis McIntyre over their plan to modernize their dress and live more independently of church authority. The rebels, including Sister Corita Kent, known for her activism and popular abstract art, left the order. Some joined a splinter group, though Kent’s sibling Ruth remained, and signed some of the older paperwork that is now filling up a file in the Los Angeles court.
Michael Starler, a lawyer for Perry, declined to discuss Perry’s interest in the property but said, "We are confident that the archdiocese is the one that makes the decision."
Holzman, who has been with the order for 32 years, said that she and Callanan would still like to settle that issue directly with the archbishop.
"We feel terrible about what’s going on," she said. "We’d like to have a nice, friendly talk and iron this out."