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Around the Foothills

The 18 who remained to welcome Wilcox were in a vexatious state of mind . . .

October 19, 1989|DOUG SMITH

The small, white church that stands humbly between a bank and a house on Finley Avenue, around the corner from Hillhurst Avenue, is a Los Angeles monument of far greater merit than is visible from the sidewalk.

Its best treasures, some material, others of the spiritual sort, are modestly concealed inside.

Among the material things are one of the world's two copies of Andrea della Robbia's 16th-Century "Annunciation" altarpiece of terra cotta urns, statues and friezes--the original being in the Franciscan Monastery in Laverna, Italy--and a solid gold chalice given by Mary Pickford when she married Douglas Fairbanks in the parish's previous church in 1920.

But behind the Spanish Colonial Revival facade also lies a story that only Hollywood could conceive. It's a convoluted saga.

It began with Father Isaac Neal Dodd, who built the church in 1930 as a high-church Anglican offshoot of the Episcopal Church to serve movie stars.

Father Dodd, who had 385 film credits himself, either playing a priest or advising on churchly matters, built the church with his own funds. His friend, Broadway department store founder Arthur Letts, sold the congregation the Della Robbia altarpiece for $1.

Today, the church's leading man is a former University of Texas linebacker named Gregory Wilcox. After football, Wilcox went to the seminary. He's now a 6-foot, 3-inch rector in black Anglican robes with a Merlin Olsen smile behind a Merlin Olsen beard.

He was sent to St. Mary's four years ago on a treacherous assignment--to rescue the former parish of Hollywood movie stars from a doctrinal dispute that had reduced its congregation to a tiny, litigious group.

The troubles were rooted in a mutinous period following the decision of the Episcopal Church to ordain women and relax the traditional liturgy in the mid-1970s, when Wilcox was a student at a seminary in Austin, Tex.

"When I started seminary, there were 3.5 million Episcopalians," he said. "Now there are 1.5 million."

Those such as Wilcox, who followed the high- church style of sacrament, devotion and prayer as the way to salvation, became high-church Anglicans.

Across the country, there were battles over church property. Most, either by the fiat of bishops or the rule of courts, stayed with the Episcopal Church, Wilcox said.

But St. Mary's had an ace up its sleeve. Father Dodd, having built his church with his own funds, also held the deed, which he transferred to the church vestry in the 1950s.

As Wilcox tells the story, the St. Mary's parish voted to become Anglican. The Episcopal bishop sued. The case was eventually decided in favor of the parish by the courts.

Then attrition set in, first as Episcopalians drifted away, and, later, when the rector before Wilcox decided to become a Roman Catholic and took his followers away.

The 18 who remained to welcome Wilcox were in a vexatious state of mind, he recalled.

For his first visit, during the Patronal festival celebrating the coronation of the Blessed Virgin, the congregation hired people to sing in the choir and march in procession.

"I had a magnificent choir, a magnificent procession, and there were only two people in the church," Wilcox said.

"I was not very happy at the prospect of coming here," Wilcox said. "I didn't relish that my first parish was going to be a place where I was going to go and bury 18 people and then go away."

He first refused but finally relented.

"I did it simply because the bishop asked me to do it," Wilcox said. "I didn't want to be too naughty a priest."

His first task was to calm the congregation.

"Everybody seemed to think the solution to every problem was to sue somebody," he said.

He countered with Christian charity.

"The bulk of people who come to church come because they want to say their prayers," Wilcox said. "They don't come to get in a fight with someone. My primary goal here is to turn this into a neighborhood parish."

The message had its effect. Membership has nudged up over 100. Parishioners have started a Sunday school and cook hot lunches for the needy two days a week.

Wilcox gives all the credit to the church ladies.

"I've done virtually nothing but sit in my office with the air conditioner and everybody else does something," he said.

Things aren't entirely normal yet, but they're starting to get there, Wilcox said.

"People are starting to think about saying their prayers and doing the things they're supposed to do."

The 1987 earthquake gave the congregation a crisis it could rally around with that new spirit.

"When I walked in the area near the altar, I could see the sun shining through the roof," Wilcox said.

"I had the unpleasant prospect of losing the whole congregation the following Sunday," he said, because he was worried the roof would fall on worshipers' heads.

It will cost $75,000 to make the building safe.

By the time of last year's Patronal feast, St. Mary's had its focus squarely back where it had begun.

The parish put in place a shrine and stained-glass window of St. Genesius, the patron saint of actors.

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