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A Romantic Era Ends for Chapel in the Canyon

Religion: The Chatsworth Christian Church is buying the property. Thousands of couples were wed there, including celebrities.

August 31, 1996|JOHN DART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CANOGA PARK — The Chapel in the Canyon--a familiar but faded landmark on Topanga Canyon Boulevard where tens of thousands of couples have been married over four decades--has been sold to a growing Chatsworth church.

Although previously booked weddings will continue for six months, the chapel's grounds will take on a new character Sunday with the first worship service of Chatsworth Christian Church, a charismatic congregation that is buying the property for $3.2 million.

The Chapel in the Canyon--really four "chapels" and two garden settings for weddings--has had a colorful history, including its involvement with a string of Hollywood stars from Roy Rogers and Dale Evans to Jane Russell and Annette Funicello.

One of the complex's assembly halls is named after Rogers and Evans, the king and queen of western films, who joined the chapel's congregation around 1962, when they lived on a ranch in the hills west of Chatsworth and became active in the church.

"Roy came every Sunday, Dale directed the adult choir and their children were very involved in church activities," said Myra "Dude" White, sister of the founding pastor, the Rev. Lawrence E. White.

In a tragic accident, the couple's daughter Debbie was killed on a church trip to Tijuana, when the bus driven by Pastor White had a flat tire and crashed. The family moved to Apple Valley in 1965.

The Chapel in the Canyon came into being in 1957, after Pastor White, a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) minister, was denied a once-promised pastor's post at the Little Brown Church in Studio City, according to Myra White. He bought half of the old Lankershim Ranch house in Studio City and moved it to 2 1/2 acres he purchased on Topanga Canyon Boulevard.

The next year, he built a 100-seat chapel in front of the house with the help of Jane Russell and her two brothers, who were in construction work.

The White Memorial Chapel, named after the pastor's mother, was patterned after the Chapel of Flowers at Forest Lawn-Memorial Park in Glendale. Dale Evans took part in the groundbreaking.

Two new, larger buildings were eventually decorated with huge oil paintings by David St. Denis depicting scenes from the life of Christ and the artist's copy of Michelangelo's "Creation" in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel.

While not originally intended primarily as a place for nuptials, "the church's gardens and chapels became so popular for weddings that in its prime--from 1960 to about 1975--we had anywhere from 800 to 1,000 weddings a year," Myra White said. "My brother did about 90% of the weddings."

A number of celebrities were married there, "but I didn't pay much attention to those things," she said. The last big wedding she recalled was that of Funicello, the singer, actress and former Disney Mouseketeer.

Lawrence White remained as pastor until 1982, although toward the end he turned over many ministerial duties to his sister. After suffering severe injuries in a car accident in 1985, White sold the property to her. They now both live in Escondido.

The Chapel in the Canyon was bought in 1991 by Vernon "Doc" Simpson, principal of Montclair School in Van Nuys, who hoped to relocate the middle school portion of his private preparatory school on Sepulveda Boulevard.

"It just didn't work out. We were losing money on it," Simpson said. "The place is good, but it needs a lot of work."

Simpson and Myra White--who still held a mortgage on the property--said they were able to find a buyer they liked in the Rev. George Taggart, pastor of the 500-member Chatsworth Christian Church. Taggart's nondenominational congregation has been renting space for services at the Canoga Park Seventh-day Adventist Community Church for nearly eight years.

The purchase was a godsend, Taggart said, because "land suitable for a church is at a premium in the San Fernando Valley. Here are five acres already zoned for a church and parking for 200 to 300 cars."

The sale brings into the chapel's history a new church with roots in Catholicism.

A product of Catholic schools, the 46-year-old Taggart said he was working for a post-production company that does titles for films and television shows when in 1977 he became "born again" at a charismatic Catholic service in Northridge.

Taggart said he then started a lay ministry at St. John Eudes Catholic Church in Chatsworth--doing the music for the 12:15 p.m. Mass and leading a Bible study that grew into a charismatic renewal community called Word of Life.

By 1988, Taggart said, about 4,000 people were on the community's mailing list and the group had survived a number of financial crises despite his policy of never collecting money during Masses and relying on unsolicited donations.

But eventually, faced with a $5,000 budget shortage, the congregation folded. Several weeks later, Taggart began the Chatsworth Christian Church, a congregation in a more Protestant charismatic mold, with about 60 members.

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