The Controversy at St. Charles Borromeo

By Larry A. Carstens

Perhaps you have seen the sidewalk protests in front of St. Charles Borromeo Church, near the corner of Moorpark and Lankershim. Usually on Sunday, from early in the morning to late afternoon, protesters have appeared on the sidewalk in front of the church where they worship and pray as parishioners. The protests began in 2002, when plans to remodel the church were announced, and the majority of parishioners made clear to the pastor and the archdiocese that they did not want their church remodeled. When it became clear that remodeling plans were moving forward anyway, a number of parishioners formed the St. Charles Borromeo Preservation Guild to fight for the preservation of their church’s interior. The controversy grew and caught the attention of the Los Angeles Times, the Tolucan Times, and a local Catholic publication, the Los Angeles Lay Catholic Mission.

Why might someone care about this if they are not Catholic? If the remodeling is carried out, a beautiful landmark building and architectural treasure of North Hollywood will be changed, perhaps for good. A church known nationally as the “Church of the Stars,” where many celebrities have been known to worship, a familiar part of the local landscape that was once described as “an excellent example of the Mission Revival style” and “a central element of the architectural history of Southern California” will be lost.

For a few years after the controversy began, things quieted down. The pastor, Msgr. Robert Gallagher, made no moves against the traditional interior of St. Charles, such as the altar rail, the pews, or the sanctuary. The parishioners who had been protesting dared to hope that their voices had been heard; and for a time, there were no protests on the sidewalk. Then, in March of 2010, Msgr. Gallagher announced plans to remove the altar rail and remodel the interior in the same manner as had been done in several other surrounding parish churches.

In reality, the interior will be gutted and the entire sanctuary will be removed, including the removal of side altars, altar rail, some statues, all the front pews and most importantly, the removal of the tabernacle from the center of the church. Nobody opposes improvements to the bathrooms, but as a recent flyer from the preservation guild pointed out, refurbishing the bathrooms does not require removing the altar rail. So after a hiatus of several years, the protests at St. Charles resumed once again. Many worshippers consider St. Charles the last Catholic Church in which the interior architecture looks and feels authentically Catholic. As one parishioner put it: “They can have all the other churches that have been remodeled; can’t they just leave us St. Charles? Can’t there just be one church that still looks like a traditional Catholic Church?”

A major concern to the parishioners at St. Charles Borromeo is the wasting of millions of donated dollars on an unnecessary remodel, especially in today’s economy where many are struggling to get by. Many are appalled at the enormous price tag of this proposed project, which is not required by Church teaching, or supported by the majority of their fellow parishioners. A large number of complaints were heard regarding the $500,000 price tag for a bronze statue of St. Charles Borromeo and the $100,000 price for a new crucifix, which will require the current crucifix above the altar to be discarded.

Several times the pattern has happened in other churches: a phenomenon documented in The Renovation Manipulation by Michael S. Rose. Plans are announced to remodel the church so as to change the traditional look and feel of the interior, parishioners protest, the pastor appears to listen, and then the remodeling is done anyway.

What will be the outcome of the controversy? It is still too early to tell. The recent naming of a new, traditional-minded prelate to succeed Cardinal Roger Mahony has given the preservationists some hope that the remodeling may be called off. On the other hand, it may also give the pastor a reason to try to carry out the “renovations” before the new archbishop takes over. St. Charles Borromeo Preservation Guild can be found on Facebook.

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