|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.
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," OCInsite.com, 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.