The tug-o-war continues between the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and five religious sisters. Now, however, it looks like mainstream media snickering over "Katy Perry versus the nuns" is finally giving way to interest in the facts.
For Those Who Came In Late: The often-ribald pop star has had her eye for some time on the eight-acre hilltop convent belonging to the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which has dwindled to five elderly sisters. Perry struck a deal with the archdiocese, then found the sisters had already sold the place to a restaurateur. The archdiocese filed a lawsuit, saying the Vatican gave it control over the estate. The nuns countersued, saying the archdiocese had no right to sell their land to Perry or anyone else.
To be sure, a few outlets are still draining the last drops of "tee-hee." Take Perez Hilton (please!), with its headline "Holy Cow! This Katy Perry Convent Drama Is Heating Up! The Nuns Filed Papers To Fight For Ownership!"
"We always thought nuns were peaceful, but these ladies are prepared to fight!" Perez exclaims. "It'll be inneresting (sic) to see who comes out victorious is (sic) this buyer battle!"
At least the gossip blog got it right, that it was nuns against the archdiocese. Stories last month chortled over the (inaccurate) image of black-clad biddies fighting a flamboyant pop diva.
Better is the Los Angeles Times, whose columnist Steve Lopez broke the story in late June. In contrast to the forced humor of that story, though, the new article sticks to facts. Note how it interweaves news and background:
The Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary contend that they have the legal authority to sell the property and that their sale agreement with restaurateur Dana Hollister for $15.5 million is legal.
The Los Angeles Archdiocese, however, sued to stop the sale, arguing that the church has legal authority over the property and that the nuns' sale was unauthorized. The archdiocese’s agreement to sell the convent to Perry – for $14.5 million in cash – is legally sound, the archdiocese argued.
In documents filed in court Friday, attorneys representing the sisters contended that the archdiocese never sought to established legal control over the order's nonprofit institute until June, when it installed officers to oversee the institute. That move, however, was illegal and a “hostile takeover” by the bishop of the order of nuns, the attorneys wrote.
Another interesting tidbit: The sisters say they first heard that the archbishop wanetd to sell the property to a "Katherine Hudson." Only later did they learn that Ms. Hudson was Katy Perry. That may shine a new light on the statement by one of the sisters to NBC's Today Show: "I didn't know who she was."
A comparative nitpick: Perry's birth name is actually spelled Katheryn, not Katherine.
The New York Times ran a late news entry last night, centering on differences among the five Immaculate Heart Sisters themselves. Other articles have hinted at such, but NYT names the two who opposed the sale to Perry and the three who are said to oppose it. Details of the rift get puzzling, as the two opponents impugn two of their sisters -- even saying one was "woozy" on morphine when she gave her approval.
The newspaper does credit to itself for not making all this sound juicy, as, say, Perez Hilton would. The story is also remarkable puzzle work, considering that none of the nuns gave interviews. From the context, the Times evidently talked with an archdiocesan lawyer, J. Michael Hennigan, but only paraphrased his answers.
But the Times can't resist putting Perry's name in the lede: "Poverty, chastity, obedience — and they are still barring the door to Katy Perry." Oh well, I did the same in my headline for this review.
One question raised in this story is never answered: an alleged clash between civil and canon law. The article says that Judge Robert H. O’Brien "is now being asked to decide whether the archdiocese relied too heavily on canon law in taking control of the nuns’ temporal affairs, without meeting the demands of civil law." Then the paper brusquely quotes Hennigan's denial. Which demands of civil law, and which canon laws are in play, is never spelled out here.
But the big surprise of the Katy/nuns/archbishop coverage is the Washington Post, which produced a guest column by Megan Sweas, editor of the USC Center for Religion and Civil Culture. Sweas goes beyond the immediate matter of who owns the Los Angeles convent, and therefore has the right to sell it. Instead, she broadens her scope to other sacred buildings:
But beyond the celebrity factor, this story highlights an important question about the future of religion: What should happen to hallowed buildings left empty not only by the decline in the number of nuns but also by the rise of religious “nones,” those who don’t identify with religion?
She gives several examples and the various ways they were resolved. There's Holy Trinity Church, Boston, to be replaced with a "glass and steel structure." There's a religious order (she doesn't say which) that sold its motherhouse to Loyola University of Chicago, which "turned around and sold the property to a developer."
But some churches are "community arts centers" during the week. Others are transformed into shelters for migrants, a growing issue in Europe as well as the U.S., Sweas says. And a Catholic hospital in Los Angeles went to the Dream Center, "a Christian organization that fights poverty," Sweas reports.
None of those hopeful outcomes are likely for the former Immaculate Heart convent, the writer continues. Sweas says Dana Hollister is a "driver of gentrification" who has already gotten permission to turn an L.A. church into a 25-room hotel, with a restaurant and a bar.
"But if Perry wins," Sweas continues, "it's unlikely to become a shelter for the poor, either."
I have my doubts about the labeling of the article, which was part of WaPo's Acts of Faith section but not obviously marked opinion or commentary. But Sweas does back up her facts with a lot of links. And her 1,200-word piece does add depth and breadth to the story.
Besides, it's a vast improvement over the Post's Acts of Faith entry in late June -- which giggled about "trash talk" between the nuns and the archbishop.