Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Mexican National Catholic Church

The Mexican National Catholic Church --
an indigenous "National Church" of the New World

If Laguna Beach’s St. Francis by the Sea represents the last vestige of Bishop Vilatte’s dream of an American Catholic Patriarchate, then a small house-church in the East Los Angeles barrio for many years seemed to be the final remnant of a much larger Mexican independent-Catholic movement.

While the French prelate struggled to build even a tiny following in the States, other non-Papal Catholic Bishops south of the border established for a time a sizable independent Catholic Church, with scores of active parishes and thousands of followers, as well as the blessings of the Mexican government. The story of how the so-called Mexican National Catholic Church arose from the nation’s often-chaotic political and religious scene, became a viable rival to the Roman Church, and then nearly faded from history, only to be revived in the 21st-century American Southwest, is one of the most intriguing tales from the world of the independent bishops.

From the day Cortez and his conquistadores set foot on the continent, the people of “New Spain” had always had an ambivalent relationship with the Roman Catholic Church. Although the passionate Iberian spiritual style had easily taken root in the New World, with European, Indian, African and mestizo peoples alike worshipping the bloody, suffering Hispanic Christ under the benevolent gaze of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Church itself had long been viewed by many as a symbol of Old World colonialism, and dominated by the Spanish Criollo establishment.

When Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, this sentiment intensified. Over the next century, dissident Catholics, nationalists, Freemasons, and Protestants alike attempted to set up Mexican National Churches that were independent of Papal control, yet retained the liturgical and cultural usages of Hispanic Catholic Christianity. All of these efforts, including one by Vilatte himself around 1909, came to naught, and the Vatican retained a firm grip upon Mexican spiritual life.

The Mexican Revolution of 1910, however, brought a distinct reversal of fortunes for the Church of Rome. When dictator Porfirio Díaz was overthrown in 1911, the revolutionary government, which saw the Roman Catholic Church as a foreign-run institution that had helped keep Mexico largely poor, ignorant and passive, assumed the power to license and authorize all religious activity in the nation. Six years later, the Constitution of 1917 banned the taking of religious vows, or the teaching of Christian doctrines in schools. Over the next decade the government seized all religious properties across Mexico, and thousands of churches, cathedrals, monasteries and nunneries closed their doors.

Government troops execute a Roman Catholic priest during the Mexican Cristero War

Clerics as well were persecuted. Between 1924 and 1938 over 1,400 priests were expelled from Mexico, and hundreds more were imprisoned or executed. The 2,500-odd priests who remained at liberty disguised themselves and celebrated Mass in secret, while thousands of loyal Catholic peasants took up arms on their behalf against the government during the Cristero revolt of 1926-29.

Pro-Roman Catholic Mexican Cristero partisans.
Note the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe on the flag.

Faced with both a popular rebellion and a resilient Roman Church, President Plutarco Elias Calles sought to establish a Mexican National Church that would meld Hispanic devotional fervor with nationalistic sentiment. The proposed Church would be free from Vatican and other foreign influences, would celebrate its liturgy in Spanish, and would kowtow to the secular government’s wishes in all affairs temporal and spiritual.

One apostate priest, the elderly Jose Joaquin Perez y Budar, volunteered to take the helm of the nascent National Church. On October 17, 1926, “Supreme Primate” Carmel Henry Carfora, of the independent North American Old Roman Catholic Church, raised Perez to the episcopacy, along with fellow Mexican rebel clerics Antonio Benicio Lopez Sierra and Macario Lopez Valdes, in Chicago, Illinois.

With the support of both Calles and the Mexican government, newly-minted Bishop Perez established the Iglesia Ortodoxa Catolica Apostolica Mexicana. Known in English as the Mexican National Catholic Church, the new body featured Perez as Primate and Patriarch, while Lopez Sierra became his Coadjutor and Lopez Valdes assumed the bishopric of Zaragoza. Perez also consecrated four additional bishops to oversee the Church in Hidalgo, Veracruz, Puebla and elsewhere. Later, Carfora would consecrate four more MNCC prelates.

With the Roman Church forced underground, countless thousands of Mexican Catholics turned to the National Church to receive the sacraments and accept spiritual guidance. But there was no real unity among the schismatic bishops, and they found themselves at each other’s throats over Church doctrine and practices, as well as still fighting the Vatican for dominance in the hearts and minds of their flocks. The septuagenarian Patriarch was too old and frail to enforce discipline in his episcopal ranks, and he eventually gave up, reconciling himself to the Holy See before his death in 1931.

Perez’ successor was young Eduardo Davila-Garcia, who had been ordained a priest at the age of eighteen. A nationalist and a Freemason, Garcia was allegedly consecrated a bishop in May 1931, and held the self-titled position of Eduardo Primo, primer papa de Mexico until 1938, when he mysteriously disappeared. He was replaced by Joseph Petrus Ortiz, who in turn yielded his prelature to Armin Monte de Honor in 1958.

As the years passed, and the passions of the Revolution and the Cristero Rebellion gradually faded, relations between the Roman Church and the Mexican State thawed considerably. After the Vatican paid reparations for its losing role in the Revolution, the government invited the exiled Roman clergy to return to their old positions, and reoccupy all the vacant cathedrals and churches.

The Mexican National Catholic Church, with a mere 120 priests and parishes spread across fourteen Mexican states, found it difficult to compete with the re-legalized, resurgent Church of Rome. From 1940 onwards it steadily lost membership and influence, and also found itself on the receiving end of scorn as a living symbol of the Revolution’s anticlerical excesses. The final blow came in 1972 when the last major center of National Church activity – the Mexico City diocese – was absorbed into the Orthodox Church in America, with its Patriarch Jose Cortes y Olmas donning Eastern Christian vestments and assuming the title of Exarch.

Ironically enough, the Mexican National Catholic Church lived on not in Mexico itself, but in the land that had annexed so much of its old territory, and housed millions of its economic and political exiles. Although the Church had boasted a presence in the United States since 1929, when Carfora consecrated a Hieronymus Maria to head up a San Antonio, Texas-based diocese, the MNCC’s most solid stronghold in Yanqui territory was in Los Angeles.

Back in 1926, on a visit to relatives in Southern California, MNCC Bishop Macario Lopez y Valdes met Bishop Roberto T. Gonzalez, a former Church of the Nazarene pastor and the leader of El Hogar de la Verdad, a Spiritualist church that ministered to East Los Angeles’ Mexican-American community. Despite their ostensible theological differences, the two prelates became friends, and Lopez y Valdez consecrated Gonzalez to the episcopate, and appointed him to be the Bishop of the MNCC in East Los Angeles. After Gonzalez passed on in 1928, Lopez y Valdez consecrated his successor, Alberto Luis Rodriguez y Durand, as the Bishop Ordinary of Los Angeles, and Regionary Bishop of Alta California. As a result, El Hogar de la Verdad became The Old Catholic Orthodox Church of St. Augustine of the Mystical Body of Christ, and the center of MNCC activity in the American State.

Archbishop Emile Rodriguez y Fairfield --
 the Los Angeles-based, longtime Patriarch of  the MNCC

Assisting Bishop Rodriguez y Durand with the parish was his younger brother, Emile Federico Rodriguez. A former Olympic athlete who had represented Mexico in the 1932 Games’ 1500-meter race, the younger Rodriguez was ordained to the priesthood in 1938 by his brother. He then migrated to Los Angeles, became an American citizen, found work as a physical-education instructor, and added “Fairfield” to his surname in 1953 as both a concession to his new home’s Anglo culture, and as a poetic tribute to his prowess on the track.

In 1955, Rodriguez y Fairfield received episcopal consecration from his ailing older brother, and took over as the head of the Church in California. For the next forty-odd years he shepherded an estimated 100 Mexican and Mexican-American parishioners out of his little house-church at 4011 East Brooklyn (now Cesar Chavez) Avenue in East Los Angeles. As the MNCC faded from view in Mexico itself, the Bishop and his mostly-Californian flock remained faithful to the vision of a Spanish-language, non-Eurocentric, nationalistic and independent Catholic Church.

When Bishop Jose Cortes y Olmos died in Mexico in 1983, Bishop Fairfield y Rodriguez became the last living Bishop of the MNCC, and was named its Archbishop and Primate. By this time the East Los Angeles prelate had become something of a celebrity in the world of independent Catholicism, and divided his time between the MNCC’s last parish, and the Old Roman Catholic Church/Canonical Old Roman Catholic Church, a mostly-Anglo independent body that he had assumed leadership of in 1982.

In the manner of so many other “Wandering Bishops”, Rodriguez y Fairfield also swapped apostolic pedigrees with his fellow prelates, receiving further consecrations from leaders of such bodies and passing his own lines of succession along to other would-be episcopates. The 77 year-old Bishop briefly made national headlines in 1990 when he and two other independent bishops raised married Roman Catholic priest George A. Stallings, Jr. to the episcopacy, and enabled the controversial cleric to found and head his own African-American Catholic Congregation as yet another ethnic/nationalist schism from the Holy See.

Perhaps Rodriguez y Fairfield’s most significant secondary consecration was from Bishop Francisco Pagtakhan of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (Philippine Independent Catholic Church), a schismatic body with an anti-colonial and nationalistic history similar to the MNCC’s. The Mexican patriarch also established intercommunion between the MNCC and the considerably larger Filipino church, and brought into his orbit dissident Lutheran and Roman Catholic clerics who had affiliated with the PICC.

Bishop John Parnell, who revived the MNCC in Texas

When the aging Bishop Rodriguez y Fairfield finally passed on, the helm of the Mexican National Catholic Church fell to a most unusual, dynamic and – most significantly – non-Mexican man. Texan Anglo John Parnell, who had received episcopal consecration from Philippine Independent Catholic Church bishops, planted a fresh MNCC parish in his home town of Fort Worth, and set about turning the Church from an obscure remnant of Mexican Catholic history, into an active and vibrant spiritual force in East Texas’ Mexican-American community.

Calling his parish “Saint Augustine’s Catholic Church,” Bishop Parnell created a Catholic community that more resembled the frontier Spanish missions of pre-Alamo Tejas, than it did a contemporary Roman Catholic parish. An episode of the Texas Country Reporter news program showed Parnell and his parishioners tending livestock, tilling soil, repairing boots, and rolling cigars (which the Bishop explained were used as currency in pre-USA Texas) on the Church properties like something out of an Old West living-history panorama. When reporter Bob Phillips said that their no-frills lifestyle reminded him of the Amish, Parnell joked, “We’re like the Amish, except we’ll drink and fight and cuss!”

The altar at St. Augustine's MNCC, Fort Worth, TX

Humor aside, Bishop Parnell is serious about creating a Church and community that preserves the old ways of Spanish and Mexican Texas. Along with the farming and craft activities, Parnell runs the St. Augustine Catholic School out of the parish, which teaches dozens of trades and life-skills to impoverished young Fort Worth residents. And of course he supervises worship at the small local church, which carries on the MNCC’s traditions with its quaint Hispanic iconography, its distinctly Mexican-flavored liturgy of Spanish language and folk-music, and its proud independence from Rome.

As of this writing, the formula seems to be working. Not only has Bishop Parnell become something of a local media figure in Fort Worth, and networked extensively with other Independent Catholic bishops and churches, but he has planted a new MNCC mission in Los Angeles – the city where his predecessor Bishop Rodriguez y Fairfield tended the last spark of the once-fiery spiritual movement for so many years.

It may seem ironic that a Mexican-nationalist denomination was long preserved, and is being revived, in the land of its Northern rival. But as the cultural, economic and political boundaries between Mexico and the Southwestern United States blur ever more, there will be more intersection of the two nations’ distinct spiritual traditions. In the current Mexican National Catholic Church one can see both the history and culture of the deeply-Catholic yet fiercely-patriotic Hispanic world, and the proudly independent and entrepreneurial spirit of North American frontier individualism. Although Bishop Parnell and others acknowledge the MNCC as “a piece of living history,” it also points towards a future where the two countries’ spiritual and social ways are ever more entwined and melded.

Notes/Sources (The MNCC's official Web site)
"Members of the San Luigi Orders: Archbishop Emile Rodriguez y Fairfield".
Pruter, Karl. The Old Catholic Sourcebook. New York: Garland, 1983.
Melton's Encyclopedia of American Religion - Eighth Edition. Detroit: Gale, 2009.
Ward, Gary et al, eds. Independent Bishops: An International Directory. Detroit: Apogee, 1990.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Universal Life Church

Universal Life Church founder Kirby J. Hensley
at the Church's headquarters in Modesto, California
Modesto, California is probably one of the last places anyone would expect to host a religious revolution.

The smog-shrouded, agrarian Central Valley city, famed mostly as the setting of former resident George Lucas’ movie American Graffiti, and for boasting America’s highest rate of auto thefts, doesn’t exactly lend itself to images of divine revelation or spiritual rebellion. There is no great Castle Church upon whose door a potential Martin Luther could nail a litany of protests. None of the low, brushy hills surrounding the town look as if they could yield ancient golden plates of secret teachings to a would-be Joseph Smith Jr.

Yet this unlikely setting for religious upheaval was the home of an equally implausible spiritual leader, church founder and self-confessed “con man” named Kirby J. Hensley. A balding, jug-eared Appalachian transplant, the unlettered and plain-spoken former Pentecostal preacher created the Universal Life Church – a sect which may have revolutionized the concept of ministry, and religious belief itself, more than any other group in modern Western history.

For the last half-century, the Universal Life Church has granted legal, legitimate ministerial credentials to all who ask, for free. No specific beliefs are required of its clergy – Church ministers profess creeds ranging from fundamentalist Christianity, to neo-Paganism, to outright atheism, to idiosyncratic and unclassifiable faiths. Too, the ULC has helped its ministers establish local parishes under its jurisdictions with zero doctrinal requirements and little oversight, and has granted countless thousands of honorary Doctorates of Divinity and other titles to donors.

At this writing, the ULC has ordained over twenty million people, making it by far the largest sect to emerge from California. It’s also one of the most controversial, largely because the ULC’s free-ordination policy allows anybody to claim a legal ministerial title without training or education, but with its status and perks – including setting up tax-exempt ministries, many of which bear little resemblance to traditional “churches.” This last activity has kept the ULC in the courts for decades, fighting for its status as a legitimate religious group and a tax-exempt organization – a situation that continues to this day.

When the Universal Life Church first appeared in 1962, founder Kirby J. Hensley was already fifty years old, and had logged a rich array of spiritual and secular experience. Born on July 23, 1911 in Low Gap, North Carolina, Hensley and his six siblings were raised in a two-room log cabin. From an early age Hensley was hard-headed and temperamental; he had little patience with school, and dropped out before learning to read and write. At fourteen he ran away from Low Gap, and drifted across Twenties America as a hobo, riding freight trains.

Kirby J. Hensley, circa 1970. 

During this period, Hensley somehow got ordained as a Baptist preacher and took up street-corner evangelizing. But his homiletic style was a bit too wild for the straitlaced denomination – years later, he joked that he preached his first sermon “under the influence of the Spirit – White Lightning”! Hensley found Pentecostalism and its informal, emotive style much more to his liking, and affiliated with the Pentecostal Church of God.

In 1930 Hensley settled in Bakersfield, California, where he married and had two daughters. He worked as a farmer and carpenter, invested in real estate, and built two churches for the Church of God. Around this time, he also hired a woman to read the entire Bible to him, and committed the Good Book to his preliterate memory. From then on, Hensley claimed, he could recite all of the New Testament and much of the Old verbatim. (In later years, he would listen continuously to tape-recorded renditions of the King James Bible.)

When Hensley’s marriage fell apart, he went on a soul-searching journey that ended with a near-fatal car crash, and a visit to a mysterious woman who told him to forget the past, and forge on to a new future. He returned to his childhood home in Low Gap, and met and married Lida Gouge, who would be his wife for the next 48 years. The newlyweds then relocated to Detroit, Michigan.

Although Hensley tried to settle down in his new life, the preaching bug still rode him. One night a Pentecostal pastor and his flock frog-marched Hensley out of a meeting when he preached that the Old Testament heroes and heroines were fallible mortals whose Biblical misadventures could teach much about human nature. Although the pastor later apologized and invited the maverick preacher to join his church, Hensley refused, perhaps sensing that his Gospel wasn’t quite ready for the orthodox-Christian prime time.

Hensley & his wife of 48 years, Lida Gouge

But Hensley wasn’t alone among American Pentecostals. Strange currents were sweeping through the American movement in the 1950s, chief among them the so-called “Latter Rain Revival.” One faction of the Revival emphasized an optimistic eschatological theology called “The Reconciliation and Restitution of All Things”, where universal salvation of humanity and the Kingdom of God would shortly be established on Earth. More radical elements within the movement also promoted allegorical interpretations of Scripture, where Heaven and Hell were seen as states of consciousness rather than actual places, and where “the Second Coming of Christ” was a metaphysical and individualized gnosis, rather than a literal and historic event. Some even explored Eastern spiritual teachings.

Still, none of the heterodox Pentecostals were more radical than Hensley. In 1959 he moved to Modesto, California, built a chapel in his garage, and hung the sign, “Church”, outside it. When curious passersby asked what kind of “church” it was, Hensley would ask them what kind of church they sought, and always answered their specifications with, “Well, you’ve come to the right place.”

Many thought differently when they actually attended his services. In his garage, Hensley preached a down-home, no-punches-pulled form of metaphysical Universalism, often opening his homilies by cursing God, and then proclaiming that the Deity would still love him despite his disrespect. “I wouldn’t serve a God who wouldn’t take a good cussin’ ever’ once in awhile!” he’d chuckle.

But that was just the beginning. In his best Southern Appalachian corn-pone patois, Hensley would ask his flock, “Do you know who God is?” After a short pause, he’d bellow, “I am God! There ain’t no God up there in the sky!” He’d then point to each of the dozen or congregants and yell, “You are God! And you are God!” And then: “Life is God! Your life is God!” Taking aim at the central point of the Christian faith, he thundered, “As for salvation…No one will ever be saved, but no one was ever lost!”

And what of the Resurrection? “Honey forget it – there ain’t gonna be any! There ain’t no dead people in the graveyard. An eternal spirit can’t die. Why, those spirits done come back as me and you!”

Reincarnation, Pantheism, denial of Salvation and Resurrection – it was clear that Hensley had strayed far off the Christian reservation. One ex-Evangelical minister, Lewis Ashmore, caught his act at a fellowship meeting in Visalia, California, and intrigued by Hensley’s radical teachings, teamed up with the heterodox preacher. A writer and lecturer on metaphysical subjects, Ashmore told Hensley that he too was burned out by both mainstream Christianity and the traditional ministry, and that the world needed a new approach to spreading the nonsectarian vision of life and freedom they shared.

Was it possible, they wondered, to found a church that would literally be “a priesthood of all believers,” that would ordain all its members as Ministers, no matter their age, sex, race, creed, education, or station in life? After all, a Baptist sect had ordained Hensley back when he was an illiterate, drunken, teenaged drifter. Surely if he was considered ministerial material by one of Protestantism’s primary denominations, anyone could qualify as a cleric. So Hensley and Ashmore decided to start a new church that would ordain anyone who requested, and allow its ministers to preach the Truth as each of them saw it.

Hensley had taken to calling his ministry the “Life Church,” and Ashmore suggested they add the title “Universal” to stress their radical-inclusion ethic – “everyone can relate to it.” With nothing but the name, the two headed to Sacramento to incorporate the church, only to be told they needed proper incorporation papers. Undaunted, the two photocopied a Baptist church’s California incorporation papers, whited out all references to the Baptists, filled in “Universal Life Church” in the newly-blank spaces, and submitted the results to the State on May 2, 1962. And thus, the Universal Life Church was in business, with Hensley as its Minister of Congregation, President and Chair – titles he held for the rest of his life.

The Church’s first order of business was publicity. Ashmore took out classified ads in FATE, a long-established American digest of metaphysical and occult doings, with the words, “Become a Minister. We will ordain you without question. Without price and for life.” People who answered the call received a document affirming that they were now Ministers of the Universal Life Church, as well as a Church newsletter with this statement on its back page: 

The Universal Life Church has no doctrine or creed of its own, but acts only as a mediator between many varied groups. It does not invoke or bind its fellowshipping ministers in any way. It does advocate the freedom of the individual to believe, express, and teach his own revelation. It is the vision of the Universal Life Church to work toward the unification of the Brotherhood of Man and to bring people everywhere into a spirit of understanding and fellowship. 

Later this doctrine was boiled down to the simplest and vaguest statement of purpose imaginable: 

The Universal Life Church believes only in that which is right…and every person has the right to decide what is right for himself.

Often the Church wouldn’t even bother with this minimalist creed, and merely stated its beliefs could be summed up in three short words: “Do What’s Right.”

When zoning laws nixed his garage chapel, Hensley moved ULC services to a former Baptist church at 601 Third Street in Modesto. There, he preached his idiosyncratic gospel for the next thirty-seven years, along with guest ministers, or anyone who wanted to speak during informal sharing periods. Services would often be accompanied by music, not all of it sacred – Hensley once claimed that two favorite “hymns” at the church were “The Old Grey Mare, She Ain’t What She Used to Be,” and “Yellow Rose of Texas.” 

ULC Ordination certificates, cards, and other ephemera

The Church’s growth was slow but steady during this period. The FATE ad brought in between 150 and 200 new members each month, most of them practitioners of unorthodox spiritual paths who lacked the time, money and/or theological purity to be admitted to traditional divinity schools. By 1969, the ULC had ordained over 15,000 ministers for free, with no questions asked about their beliefs, or lack thereof (one early “celebrity” Hensley ordained was Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the outspoken atheist whose activism got prayer banned from American public schools in 1963.)

Hensley spent most of the Sixties building the ULC ministry infrastructure, and flirting with national politics. Twice he ran for President of the United States under the banner of the Universal Party, a political group that claimed contact with extraterrestrial beings, and advocated world brotherhood and interplanetary peace. Along with these ideas, Hensley’s platform advocated the abolition of the income tax and the Electoral College, and a system of reward incentives for law-abiding that matched the punishments for law-breaking. Although his biography claimed that Hensley obtained three million votes in these campaigns, official records show he finished with a mere 19 votes nationwide in the 1964 Presidential race, and a paltry 142 in the 1968 contest. In 1970 he struck out on his own with the People’s Peace and Prosperity Party, but despite his ambitions to remake America with his ideas, it never got off the ground.

1964 button promoting Hensley as a US Presidential Candidate.
He got nineteen (19) votes nationwide that year.
During this period, Hensley kept his day job as a carpenter, and paid for ULC printing, postage and travel costs out of his own pocket. To raise money and create an organizational structure, he came up with the Church Charter system, where for a filing fee and annual dues, ULC ministers could organize their own local, self-named congregations under the mother church’s corporate authority.

This innovation took the Church into new and potentially troublesome territory. As it was, the mail-order ministry empowered anyone with a postage-stamp to get ordained, and not only claim the title “Minister,” but also discharge the historical duties of the clergy: perform baptisms, weddings and funerals; visit prison inmates; and even get discounts on travel and other costs. If a ULC Minister could find two co-signers, maintain minimal records, and kick over the requisite fees to Modesto, he or she could also establish a local ULC Church, and (in theory) get a tax exemption on any expenditure that could be passed off as church expenses. Soon, hundreds of local ULC branches, representing faiths ranging from Evangelical Christianity to psychedelic-drug cultism, began to appear on the American spiritual landscape, most little more than “house churches” comprised of ULC ministers and a handful of followers.

Hensley also created the Universal Life Church Honorary Doctorate. For a $20 donation, the ULC would grant any of its ministers the title of Doctor of Divinity, allowing the holder to title him/herself “Reverend Doctor,” and use the honorific in any way they saw fit.

By 1969, the mass media started to notice the Universal Life Church’s thousands of mail-order ministers, its little empire of living-room churches, its 20-buck Doctorates, and (most of all) the fiery eccentric who led the sect. When the San Francisco Examiner published a story about the ULC and Hensley, a national news wire picked it up, and the story got reprinted in papers all over the country, including The New York Times. The Wall Street Journal also took notice, and profiled Hensley and the ULC in a front-page human-interest piece. The publicity proved a gold mine for the Church: it now ordained as many as 3,000 ministers every month, and up to $20,000 a day poured into ULC coffers.

Predictably, the sudden influx of members and money brought legal trouble to the mail-order ministry. On San Francisco’s talk-radio KGO, Hensley debated the State Assistant Attorney General on the legality and propriety of ULC ministries, doctorates and affiliate churches. Days later, the Santa Clara County District Attorney charged the ULC with illegally issuing honorary degrees without educational accreditation. Smelling a set-up, Hensley fought back in court, and the matter was eventually resolved in the Church’s favor.

ULC co-founder Lewis Ashmore's biography of Hensley 

To keep the revenue stream flowing during the California troubles, the ULC reincorporated in Arizona, and continued to mail out its $20 honorary doctorates from the Grand Canyon State. When Arizona officials got word of the move, they swore out a warrant for Hensley’s arrest, and then busted him when he visited Phoenix. After a few hours’ in jail, however, the State dropped charges against the Modesto maverick, and the Arizona operation continued unabated.

There was also trouble from the Internal Revenue Service. That most feared of Federal fiduciary agencies hit the ULC for $10,000 in back taxes, and also raided the Modesto headquarters in search of incriminating paperwork. When Hensley traveled to Washington D.C. to complain, tax officials there told him that the ULC was “not a legitimate church,” and therefore not qualified for the religious tax exemption. The cantankerous preacher vowed  vengeance, and began a five-year court battle that concluded in 1974 when a US District Court judge ruled for the Church, and forced the IRS to not only refund the $10k, but also pay court costs.

Hensley was embraced -- sometimes literally --
by many Sixties hippies and counterculturalists

Hensley’s quarrels with the government, as well as his radical ideas and his freedom-seeking message, made the 57 year-old preacher an unlikely hero to the Sixties youth counterculture. On March 20, 1969, the suit-clad, bespectacled, balding Hensley spoke at a Sonoma State College “Rites of Spring” student festival, telling the attendees that, “All we ask of our ministers is that they be themselves. Become what you want and go out and tell the world what you are. The Universal Life Church believes in the reality of people, in individuals, not just numbers….And Heaven…Heaven is when you have what you want, and Hell is when you don’t have it!” 

The undergrads ate it all up, especially when he lifted his hands to the sky and pronounced everyone on the entire Sonoma State campus a Universal Life Church minister. For his efforts, the students strew flowers in Hensley’s path, crowned him with a garland, and pronounced him, “The Modesto Messiah.”

Months later, Hensley performed even bigger mass ordinations at San Francisco State College, as well as at the venerable Stanford University. Behind the novelty of the instant ordinations were practical considerations; the Vietnam War was at its peak, and many young men attempted to get the coveted 4-D ministerial draft exemption with their ULC credentials. Although Hensley had personally intervened for one young ULC minister who’d been called up, and claimed that hundreds of his clergy had gotten out of military service, he cautioned potential conscription-evaders: show the draft board hard evidence that you have a serious, full-time ministry if you want to avoid sloshing through rice paddies for Uncle Sam.

Hensley and the ULC further bolstered their countercultural credentials when they sponsored one of the hippie era’s greatest rock festivals. Up in Moscow, Idaho, “The Church of the Rock”, a ULC group formed by local rock-concert organizers, asked state officials to rent Farragut State Park for a weekend “Church Picnic”. The state initially granted them use of the large lakeside park, but balked when they realized that the “Picnic” would much more resemble the Woodstock Festival than an Evangelical weenie-roast. Perhaps fearing bad PR and Hensley’s litigious reputation, the Governor cited First Amendment protections for religious groups, and gave the gathering a green light, meanwhile putting Idaho State Police and National Guard on call to quell any Altamont-esque atrocities.

ULC Picnic Flyer, with (possibly unauthorized) art by R. Crumb

Held over July 4th weekend in 1971, The Universal Life Church Picnic was the Idaho Panhandle’s first and biggest rock festival. During its three-day duration, over 40,000 attendees listened and danced to two dozen different bands, camped in tents and teepees, drank oceans of cheap beer and sweet wine, distributed and ingested all manner of illegal chemicals, skinny-dipped in Lake Pend Oreille, copulated in the open air, and in general brought Sixties Dionysian hedonism to a backwoods region that had never seen The Woodstock Nation in action. Hensley’s biographer would claim that Santana, Grand Funk Railroad, and Iron Butterfly played the Picnic, although the only “name” act proven to have mounted the homemade stage there was eccentric street-singer and ULC minister Larry “Wild Man” Fischer, who brought down the house with an a cappella rendition of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge over Troubled Water.”

Hensley (center, seated) doles out ministerial credentials to
attendees at the ULC Picnic

At the center of the festivities was the Modesto Messiah himself. Ensconced in a travel-trailer, Hensley handed out free Idaho potatoes to hungry hippies, ordained thousands of new ministers, and even performed nuptials for two young Canadian women in what might have been the first lesbian wedding in modern history. When it was all over, the Picnic boasted zero deaths, virtually no incidents of crime or violence, good feelings from the locals, and cleaner grounds then when the Boy Scouts had used the park for an earlier jamboree. Hensley’s positive views of human freedom, the youth culture, and the Church’s mission to bless human life and gatherings of all kinds, were vindicated.

Part of the ULC Picnic crowd

By the 1970s, the ULC had grown far beyond hippiedom and the American metaphysical/spiritual underground. With ministers now numbering in the millions, the Church counted among its ranks not only ordinary folk following their self-defined calls to ministry, but also such celebrities as Johnny Carson, Betty Ford, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Mae West, and scores of other A-Listers. When Playboy founder/publisher Hugh Hefner interviewed Hensley for a proposed film, the sexagenarian preacher ordained not only Hef, but everyone else on the set.

Hensley also added new titles for the mail-order diplomas. For a seven-dollar donation, a ULC Minister could purchase documents that dubbed the holder a Priest, Bishop, Rabbi, Guru, Prophet, or scores of other religious titles from every imaginable tradition (although even Kirby Hensley didn’t quite have the nerve to grant the title Pope). For another $20, the ULC would grant honorary Doctorates of Divinity, Metaphysics, Religious Humanities, Religious Science, Motivation, Universal Life, or Immortality. And the Church even offered correspondence education, running a paralegal “Common Law Course” as well as a Masters’ Degree in Religion program that was approved by the International Accrediting Organization – which happened to be, conveniently enough, the ULC’s in-house accrediting agency.

Perhaps Hensley’s greatest exposure to a mass audience came on September 26, 1976. That evening, Morley Safer interviewed the Modesto Messiah on the 60 Minutes national news-magazine show. During the segment, Hensley cheerfully called himself “a con man…When I give a fellow an Honorary Doctor of Divinity, it’s just a little piece of paper. And it ain’t worth anything….” He also excoriated organized religion: “I think that they’re all wrong, and that they’re all wet…I think they cause more grief and hell upon this earth than anybody else….” And he discussed the ULC’s tax-exemption controversies with similar aplomb and irreverence, a far more colorful and sympathetic figure than the strait-laced IRS official who countered his claims on camera. Years later, Safer recalled Hensley as “a lovable scoundrel that I think everyone really likes…He was a wonderful character.”

Hensley also got to throw raffish philosophical curveballs on The Donahue Show, where millions of TV viewers saw the iconoclastic minister declare to the host, “Jesus Christ was the worst man who ever lived on this planet, and Richard Nixon was the best.” When the studio audience and the host gasped in shock, Hensley quickly explained: the world wasted 2,000 years waiting for the Messiah, killed him when he appeared, and have since wasted another two millennia anticipating his return; whereas Richard Nixon so perfectly symbolized the human rot and corruption that cried out for a mass revolution in consciousness.

Just days after these broadcasts, the ULC made national headlines again – this time, in the political arena. Residents of the town of Hardenburgh, New York, an impoverished Catskills village whose land was being bought up by untaxed nonprofit organizations, were being dunned to make up the lost revenue. Faced with paying up to two-thirds of their subsistence-level incomes on school, town and county taxes, the town’s farmers, loggers and shopkeepers turned to George McClain, a 41 year-old ULC Bishop from the nearby town of Liberty. In a ceremony at a cocktail lounge, McClain ordained most of the town’s property owners, who then quickly filed for religious tax-exemption with the county. One report said that by 1977, 236 of the town’s 239 property holders had gotten religion with the ULC, saving their homes and land from liens.

This, and other shenanigans by ULC ministers, once again prompted an attack by the IRS. In 1984, the Feds canceled the Church’s tax-exempt status for the years 1978 through 1981, saying that the ULC’s expenditures during that period didn’t qualify as truly “religious” transactions. Eventually the ULC settled with the revenuers for $1.5 million, and sold its portfolio of rental properties to cover the bill. But the IRS wasn’t quite finished yet: they also pulled tax-exempt privileges from about 3,000 ULC local congregations, saying they were “paper churches” that did no active pastoral work.

Along with the blatant tax-dodgers, some of the ULC’s most embarrassing ministers were the ones that walked on all fours. Over the years, various animal lovers and practical jokers have ordained their pet dogs, cats, and other beasts as ULC ministers, proudly displaying Church certificates that designated their Rover and Fluffy as clergy-critters. The ULC officially restricts its ministry to Homo sapiens, but any entity with a “human-sounding” first and last name and a legitimate address can probably obtain credentials, albeit illegitimately. (One ULC-ordained pet, a Miniature Schnauzer by the name of “The Reverend Tyker,” has an Internet-based ministry where he performs “pet weddings” of dubious legal validity.)

In 1991, Hensley turned 80, and produced his Magnum opus: The Holy Bible for the 21st Century.  The product of over sixty years’ of Bible study and theological rumination, the book was based on the preacher’s belief that “not one verse of Scripture…will take you beyond the 20th Century,” and that a new spiritual guidebook was needed for the rapidly-changing modern world.

The ULC's Bible. Like Christian Scripture, it was
assembled from a wide variety of sources.

To that end, Hensley and his ULC associates, like the Council of Nicea had sixteen centuries earlier, compiled a variety of lectures, anecdotes, meditations, epistles, and ephemera into the closest thing the ULC has to an “official” doctrine beyond Do What’s Right. Materials ranged from inspirational writings, to a Genesis exegesis titled “Did Eve Have Sex With an Animal?” to an excerpt from William Gayley Simpson’s White-supremacist tirade, Which Way Western Man? In the main, though, it featured Hensley’s rambling discourses about the Bible, Christianity, God, Jesus and religion in general, all marked with his usual heterodox and even blasphemous takes on the same. Kirby Hensley was not one to waltz gracefully into old age, or embrace a deathbed conversion.

The end for the Modesto Messiah came on March 19, 1999, at 87 years of age. Upon his death, his widow Lida took over leadership of the Church, and held it until her own passing in 2006. Currently, Hensley’s son Andre heads the ULC.

In a 2009 story about the ULC, Modesto Bee reporter Sue Nowicki brought readers up to date on the hometown phenomenon that had made Modesto synonymous with universal ordination. In the piece, Andre Hensley revealed that the ULC’s many court battles had drained its coffers; the man who headed a 20 million-member organization admitted that he lived on a Church salary of $36,000 a year, and couldn’t pay the ULC’s eight employees any more than the minimum wage. Still, the ULC boasted over 15,000 active congregations, many of which had more than 100 members. And it still ordained as many as 10,000 ministers every month.

Many of the new ministers joined the ULC via the Internet. In yet another innovation, the Church became the first organized religious group to ordain its clergy online, accepting applications for the ministry via its official Web site. As always, the credentials were free and for life.

The Modesto ULC's current main Web page

The online ordinations caused yet another round of legal headaches, as both the Church and the government struggled to incorporate new communications technology into the affairs of God and State. In Universal Life Church vs. the State of Utah, the ULC fought the Beehive State over the legality of nuptials performed by an Internet-ordained cleric. The case was ruled in the Church’s favor, as was a similar one in Pennsylvania – the latest in a long line of skirmishes with State governments over whether ULC ministers’ weddings would be recognized in their jurisdictions. (To this day, the ULC provides ministers a guide to the 50 States’ ever-changing legal intricacies concerning weddings.)

The Internet also spurred an organizational disaster that remains unsolved to this day in the Church. As unlikely and ironic as it might seem for such an anarchic, ultra-liberal sect, the ULC experienced two major schisms.

The first breakaway happened in August 2006, when a large, Seattle-based ULC congregation split from the Modesto Mother Church. Known as the Monastery, the congregation was headed by “Brother Martin” (aka George Freeman), who ran a Seattle mission to homosexual youth and other social outcasts that featured disco-dancing ceremonies, “sacramental” booze, baptisms in private hot tubs, and the kind of party-time atmosphere that would have delighted rock-festival veteran Hensley. Eventually the police shut down Brother Martin’s operation, and he claimed persecution, taking his case to both the courts and the media at any opportunity.

Main Web page of "The Monastery", the ULC's Seattle-based faction

When the Monastery left the Modesto ULC, it took along ownership of the domain – until then, the first point of Internet contact for the Church. The Seattle faction began to represent itself as THE true heir of Hensley’s legacy, much as every Christian schism in history has justified itself as the custodian of orthodoxy. To this day, Web searches inevitably list the ULC Monastery first on searches for “Universal Life Church” – a situation that’s caused both great confusion for seekers of free ordination, and losses of revenue and membership for the Mother Church. The two factions have continuously traded charges and countercharges online and in the courts, with no chance of an easy solution in sight.

Seattle ULC "Monastery" leader George "Brother Martin" Freeman

The one thing that unites the Modesto and Seattle ULCs is their scorn for a third faction: Michael Cauley’s Universal Life Church. In 2010 Cauley, a moderator with the ULC Ministers Network, was accused of sexually harassing Church members, and carrying on Internet-based vendettas against critics. A Florida-based Evangelical minister with a past every bit as checkered as Hensley’s, Cauley resigned his position that year, and claimed that in 1962 Hensley had deliberately adopted the name of the second-century Christian Church, “The Universal Life Church,” to promulgate his blasphemous doctrines and confuse the faithful. He then formed his own ULC with a ministerial corps restricted to professing Christians. The schismatic minister also claimed to possess something Hensley had never attained: a legitimate Apostolic Succession that allowed him to rightly claim the title of Catholic Bishop, and ordain other Catholic (but not Roman) Bishops and Priests. Like the Monastery, the Florida ULC is active as of this writing.

Bishop Michael Cauley, leader of the ULC's Florida-based Christian schism

Still, for all the schisms and legal troubles, one aspect of the ULC has persisted unchanged to the present day. On any Sunday morning in Modesto, one can still climb the steps of the little church at 601 Third Street, open the door, and join with a dozen-odd others in prayer and fellowship, the same as they have for a half-century.

During each service, the worshippers share Scripture readings, inspirational prose and poems, and songs, while their children play up on the pulpit-free platform. A table at the head of the pews serves as an altar; upon it is always a spray of flowers and a photograph of the Modesto Messiah – the man whose mission to freely ordain millions was as far-reaching as it was controversial, and whose influence on the American spiritual scene will be felt as long as mail-order ministers retain the same First-Amendment protection to practice their faiths as any “legitimate” church or cleric.

Sources/Notes (the Modesto/Hensley ULC) (the Seattle "Monastery" faction) (the Floridian Christian ULC faction)
Ashmore, Lewis The Modesto Messiah. Modesto, CA: Universal Press, 1977.
Nowicki, Sue. "Universal Life Goes On." Modesto Bee, 3/6/2009
Melton's Encyclopedia of American Religion - Eighth Edition. Edited by J. Gordon Melton. Detroit: Gale, 2009.
The Holy Bible for the 21st Century. Edited by Kirby J. Hensley. Modesto, CA: ULC Printing Dept, 1991.
Jacobs, Patrick. "'Idaho's Woodstock' at Farragut Not Remembered for the Music." Idaho Spokesman-Review, 3/22/2009.
Eichhorn, Dennis P. The Legend of Wild Man Fischer. Portland, OR: Top Shelf Productions, 2004.

Monday, November 3, 2014

The "Wandering Bishops" and the American Catholic Church

St. Francis by the Sea American Catholic Church,
Laguna Beach, California

In Laguna Beach, California, just a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean, stands St. Francis by the Sea, a quaint, Moorish/Spanish-style church assembled from materials salvaged in the 1933 Long Beach earthquake.  A chapel-sized building seating barely 60 worshippers, St. Francis nevertheless bills itself as a “cathedral,” since it is the home church of a Bishop – the Most Rev. Simon Eugene Talarczyk, patriarch of the American Catholic Church.

The American Catholic Church is one of the longest-lived of countless sects that broke off from the Roman Catholic Church, yet continued a “Catholic” form of church organization, worship, and theology.  Called variously “Old Catholicism,” “Autocephalous Catholicism,” or the “Independent Liturgical Movement,” this vast, yet largely obscure ecclesiastical underground is truly “Catholic” in the sense that its members follow a bewildering variety of theologies, liturgies, and styles.  The Independent Catholic movement encompasses everything from ultra-traditionalist sects who rigorously adhere to the Latin Mass and pre-Vatican II doctrines, to neo-Gnostic cults with lesbian bishops and homilies drawn from Buddhist or Wiccan sources.

One thing they all agree on, though, is the doctrine of apostolic succession.  This is the concept that Church authority is maintained through the consecration of bishops, in an unbroken chain of succession that can be traced back to the Apostles. According to this doctrine, although a bishop may be outside of the Roman Catholic Communion, or even “unorthodox” in teachings or practices, if he was consecrated in Holy Orders by a bishop with documented apostolic succession, he is a “valid” – if irregular – possessor of the episcopacy’s powers and privileges.  Some scholars believe the office of bishop predates those of priest and deacon, and that the earliest bishops served as semi-autonomous missionaries and “church planters” in Christianity’s first years.  Such prelates were called Episcopi vagantes – wandering bishops – and this term is still used today to describe such extra-canonical episcopates.

Although the Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Scandinavian Lutheran Churches have all claimed valid lines of apostolic succession, the Roman Catholic Church has traditionally asserted primacy here, since it derives its historical authority from St. Peter, and through its interpretation of Matthew 16:18-19, Christ Himself.  Yet the Roman apostolic flame, passed from generation to episcopal generation from Peter, has more than once been seized by Promethean priests and bishops who founded “Catholic” churches based on this traditional authority, with Roman liturgical and sacramental practices but without Papal leadership. 

Perhaps the best-known of these autocephalous groups is the so-called Old Catholic Church. These are a group of mostly European national churches that originated in a rebellion against Pope Pius IX’s First Vatican Council of 1870.  Vatican I, as it was later called, asserted two major dogmas: Papal infallibility in pronunciations on Christian doctrine; and the Immaculate Conception of Mary.  Both continue as official Church doctrines to this day.

Although most of the Church hierarchy and laity accepted the Council’s pronouncements, a small minority of priests, led by Ignaz von Doellinger, chaplain to King Ludwig of Bavaria, saw the dogmas as both unwanted innovations and heretical deviations from historical Catholic and Scriptural teachings.  They called their own council in Munich in 1871, and by the end of the year led 23 German and Austrian congregations out of the Papal communion. 

To validly confirm new members, ordain priests, and exist as a sovereign Church, the movement needed a bishop with proper apostolic succession.  With no rebel episcopates from Rome forthcoming, they turned to the See of Utrecht, a Dutch Catholic bishopric that had run into political trouble with the Vatican, and had been separated from Papal control for over a century.  The Bishop of Utrecht, who held a valid apostolic succession despite his see’s schismatic condition, not only raised the Munich group’s selected leader to the episcopate, but merged his own flock with the German-speaking rebels, perhaps feeling that there was no hope of ever reconciling with Rome. 

Procession of contemporary European Old Catholic bishops

The new group called itself the Old Catholic Church, after its self-perception of being orthodox traditionalists holding out against the innovations of Vatican I.  Eventually it would spread beyond Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, into much of Western and Central Europe.  The Church still exists today, numbering its followers in the tens of thousands, and resembling a sort of Continental version of the Anglican Church, with whom it shares communion.

Old Catholicism reached America in the form of one Joseph Rene Vilatte (1854-1929).  Vilatte was a French Catholic seminary dropout who, inspired and instructed by rebel priests Charles Chiniquy and Hyacinthe Loyson, set up an independent ministry among lapsed Catholic immigrants in Wisconsin.  Hearing of the Old Catholic movement, and seeking the Holy Orders he’d never gotten from Rome, Vilatte sought and received consecration as a deacon and priest from Bishop Herzog, the head of the Swiss Old Catholic Church in 1885. 

With no Old Catholic bishops in America, Vilatte worked under the supervision of the Protestant Episcopal Church, starting two missions with their sponsorship and leading a flock of about 500 Belgian and French-Canadian immigrants.  Since the European Old Catholic hierarchy was uneasy about his status as an Episcopalian underling, Vilatte began to think that America needed a missionary Old Catholic bishop to properly conduct its work, and that he was the man for the job.  As the Old Catholic Church grew closer to the Anglican Communion, however, they decided having an American jurisdiction would be poaching Episcopalian missionary territory, and the 1890 Old Catholic Congress in Cologne declined Vilatte’s request for a consecration.

But by now, the Franco-Canadian-American priest had his heart set on being a bishop, so he began to solicit apostolic orders from other sources.  When he contacted Russian Orthodox Archbishop Vladimir of the Aleutian Islands about the matter, word got back to Vilatte’s American superior, Episcopalian Bishop Charles C. Grafton.  Outraged by what he saw as the priest’s disobedience, Bishop Grafton suspended Vilatte’s ministry and financial support.

This didn’t stop Vilatte.  The would-be bishop went ahead and requested consecration from yet another Eastern Christian patriarch – Mar Julius I, Metropolitan of the Syro-Jacobite Church of Malabar, a South Asian church with about 5,000 followers that was in communion with the Jacobite Patriarch of Antioch. Even though Bishop Grafton had personally warned the Ceylonese patriarch not to perform the ceremony, on May 29, 1892 Mar Julius consecrated Vilatte to the Catholic episcopacy, passing onto the Frenchman a valid apostolic succession that stretched back to the first-century Church of Antioch.

Joseph Rene Vilatte, North America's first
"Old Catholic" bishop

 The newly minted bishop returned to his small diocese, then composed of three Wisconsin churches.  Without monetary support from the Episcopal Church, Vilatte and his Old Catholic Church in America struggled to survive, and more than once the independent bishop approached local Roman Catholic authorities and attempted to unite his small flock with theirs.  Nothing came of the negotiations, and in 1898 Vilatte abandoned the Wisconsin work.  His churches were eventually reabsorbed into the Episcopal Church; one of them, the Church of the Precious Blood in Brussels, WI, still functions today.

Vilatte spent the rest of his life consecrating other bishops and ordaining priests, hoping to form an independent “American Catholic Church” from the top down.  Nearly all his efforts failed; the men he consecrated invariably split with him and started their own jurisdictions, most of which never achieved significant followings. These bishops would in turn consecrate others to the episcopacy, who would go on to ordain even more bishops, creating a vast and complex family tree of non-Papal prelates.  Many of today’s “Independent Catholic” bishops trace their own apostolic lineage to the so-called Vilatte succession.

As for Vilatte’s American Catholic Church, it survives today mainly as the corporate body controlling Laguna Beach’s St. Francis by the Sea Cathedral. The building was the creation of Percy Wise Clarkson, a New Zealand Anglican priest who split with Canterbury after quarreling over finances with his Californian Episcopalian superior. After Clarkson resigned his post, he accepted a 25x60 plot of land adjacent to the Laguna Beach Episcopal parish in lieu of settlement, and on it erected a 1,008 square-foot church made of materials salvaged in the 1933 Long Beach earthquake. A trained architect, Clarkson named the edifice “St. Francis by the Sea,” and designated it a cathedral.

A cathedral needed a bishop, and Clarkson quickly followed suit. In 1933 he met Bishop Daniel Hinton, who had taken over the American Catholic Church from Frederick E.J. Lloyd, a former Episcopalian priest who had inherited Church leadership when Vilatte retired in 1920. Hinton both consecrated Clarkson to the episcopate, and handed over the ACC patriarchate to him.

Although a Kiwi by birth, and a representative of a European ecclesiastical movement, Bishop Clarkson put a distinctly Californian spin on his beach-resort ministry.  A member of the Theosophical Society, Clarkson supplemented his Christian teachings with musings on the “Masters’” messages and Hindu-inspired homilies, and decorated his “Cathedral” with diagrams of the Chakras and astrological symbols.  Despite – or perhaps because of – these idiosyncrasies, Bishop Clarkson and his church retained a modest following, and his Theosophical interests anticipated mainstream Christians’ explorations of Eastern mysticism by decades.

"Church of the New Age" -- distinctly unorthodox slogans adorn the Sanctuary at St. Francis by the Sea
In 1940, Clarkson turned over the American Catholic patriarchate to Lowell Paul Wadle.  Wadle, a Theosophist and a 32nd degree Freemason, took the Church even further into occult and metaphysical territory.  He created and celebrated a version of the Catholic Mass that was divided into 32 sections: the first 22 corresponded to the Hebrew alphabet’s letters; the last ten symbolized the Sephiroth of the Kabbalah’s Tree of Life; and the total number reflected the initiatory degrees of Scottish Rite Freemasonry.  Wadle also designed a Church symbol that incorporated a Rose Cross, Pythagorean numerological glyphs, Kabbalistic symbols, and the five-pointed star commonly associated with ritual magic.  And he authored a peculiar little book, In the Light of the Orient, which drew on the Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali to become a sort of crypto-Gnostic Catechism.

Bishop Wadle's In the Light of the Orient and Holy Liturgy.
Note the Rosicrucian/Kabbalistic cross-symbol on both books.

 No doubt Vilatte would have been horrified by such heretical doings, but the good Bishop had long since claimed his eternal reward.  Frustrated after his lifelong campaign to establish Old Catholicism in America produced a plethora of bishops but few active congregations, he submitted to the Roman Catholic Church, and ended his life at a Cistercian Abbey near Versailles in 1929.  Along with the little church in Laguna Beach, and the single (now-Episcopalian) parish in Wisconsin, his main legacy today consists of having been the fount for countless independent Catholic bishops’ claims to apostolic succession.  Vilatte has been canonized in several jurisdictions, and his July 1st birthday appears as a Saint’s day on some liturgical calendars.

When Bishop Wadle died in 1965, leadership of the American Catholic Church and St. Francis by the Sea passed through the hands of several different independent-Catholic bishops. Finally around 1980 high-school teacher Simon Eugene Talarczyk, who had been raised to the episcopacy by three different ACC bishops in 1971, took the reins of the small jurisdiction.

A 1977 news photo of Bishop Talarczyk inside St. Francis by the Sea

While Bishop Talarczyk was no more successful than his predecessors in expanding the American Catholic Church’s membership or visibility, he did manage to make St. Francis by the Sea one of Laguna Beach’s best-known buildings. After a program of repair and renovation, the Guinness Book of World’s Records designated the glorified chapel as the “World’s Smallest Cathedral” in its 1984 edition. Another honor came in 1990, when the US Government placed the building on the National Register of Historic Places, largely because of its unique mix of “Mediterranean Revival, Romanesque, Gothic, Byzantine, and Craftsman” architectural styles.

The beach resort’s quaint mini-cathedral also became a favorite venue for wedding ceremonies, and brought the Church much-needed revenue from rental fees. To be sure, few of the countless couples who tied the knot under its roof, or their guests, were aware of the Church’s peculiar history, or took special note of its arcane interior decorations. What mattered was that, along with the romantic setting, St. Francis provided a “Catholic” environment and ceremony without the strictures and qualifications the Roman Catholic Church required of anyone seeking nuptials.

The altar at St. Francis by the Sea

Perhaps because so many of the couples who wedded under St. Francis’ roof were themselves disaffected or lapsed Roman Catholics, Bishop Talarczyk led the American Catholic Church back from the occultism and quasi-Eastern exoticism of Clarkson and Wadle, into relative Christian orthodoxy. Although the 32-part “Wadle Mass” was still celebrated at St. Francis, and St. Francis' esoteric appointments remained unmolested, Talarczyk always emphasized that the Church was Christian first and foremost, and preached standard Catholic themes during his homilies. Still, the ACC remained independent of Roman control, allowed its unpaid worker-priests to marry, and opened Communion to all attendees.

By 2010, St. Francis and its parent Church body were facing serious troubles. That year the octogenarian Bishop Talarczyk was showing increasing signs of senile dementia, forgetting the words of the liturgy and sometimes not turning up at all for Sunday Mass. Eventually his daughter Honorata Ann Lee took over his care, and the church doors were shuttered, allegedly at the request of her father, while she sorted out their affairs. St. Francis’ small but loyal flock was deprived of Masses for over a year, although weddings continued at the building.

For several months, two factions vied for control of the little cathedral, its service schedule, and the $1 million-plus in real estate and other assets under the ACC’s name. Under the authority of her father, Honorata Ann Lee supported American Catholic Church bishop Brian Delvaux of Lakewood’s Church of the Good Shepherd, as the new prelate of St. Francis. Meanwhile, a group of longtime parishioners voted in a board of directors to take over church management, and elected Orange resident Bishop Peter E. Hickman of the Ecumenical Catholic Church as patriarch. At one point both groups were holding separate Sunday Masses, with the Delvaux faction at St. Francis and the Hickman one in a rented space.

Recent photo of Bishop-Emeritus Talarcyzk

 By March 2012, the rift had begun to heal. For the first time in over a year Bishop Talarczyk appeared in the church during a Sunday Mass, apologized for the confusion and hard feelings of the recent months, and personally endorsed Bishop Delvaux as his successor. Although many legal issues still hadn’t been settled, it seemed as if the ruptured congregation was finally coming together under common leadership, and that St. Francis would be not just a landmark building and a popular wedding chapel, but an active worshipping community and a living remnant of Bishop Vilatte’s work so many years earlier.

Perhaps in boldly naming his independent jurisdiction The American Catholic Church, the rebel priest had guaranteed that it would survive somehow, somewhere in his adopted country. Despite its often-unorthodox past and the more recent political squabbles, one suspects that the French prelate would be proud of St. Francis Cathedral, and the sunny, seaside California town where his mission to establish a non-Papal Catholic Church finally set down permanent roots.


Msgr. Rene Vilatte: Community Organizer of Religion, 1854-1929, by Serge A. Theriault. (Berkeley, CA: Apocryphile Press, 2006)
Melton's Encyclopedia of American Religions - Eighth Edition, edited by J. Gordon Melton. Detroit: Gale, 2009.
"Church's Followers Beget Unholy Mess,", 3/2/2012.
"Church Elects Replacement Bishop," Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot, 2/16/2012
"Tiny Laguna church finds too many bishops," Orange County Register, 8/21/2013 (updated version)
In the Light of the Orient, by Joseph Paul Wadle. The Author, 1951.
The Holy Liturgy, Authorized for Use in the American Catholic Church. Laguna Beach, CA: American Catholic Church, 1942.