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More Than 60 Get Catholic Honor

Religion: Volunteers and wealthy donors, including some who are not members of the church, are inducted into papal knighthood in ceremony in Sherman Oaks.

January 12, 1998|JOHN DART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, recognizing volunteers as well as wealthy donors, on Sunday inducted more than 60 men and women into papal knighthood--the highest honor the pope can bestow on lay people.

Comedian Bob Hope, entertainment executive Roy Disney and media magnate Rupert Murdoch were three non-Catholics approved for the honorary title of Knight Commander of St. Gregory the Great. Of those three, only Murdoch showed up for the rites at St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church in Sherman Oaks.

The naming of Murdoch to the knighthood has met with some criticism, as the award was announced as one for people of "unblemished character" who have contributed to society and/or Catholic institutions. Murdoch's News Corp. is known for sensationalistic tabloid newspapers and steamy programs on the Fox television network.

Murdoch received the medal along with his wife, Anna, one of two dozen Catholic women designated Dames of St. Gregory, the equivalent of knighthood for women.

About 1,000 people attended the ceremony, during which Mahony told the honorees: "You are examples of good peer pressure, positive influences on society and culture."

Not all recipients were wealthy contributors. Artists and sisters Edith and Isabel Piczek, whose studio is in Echo Park, were cited for artistic church work. Dentist Andrew Chung-Woo Nam was honored as a Korean community leader in Los Angeles. Nonagenarian Bernardas Brazdzionis of Los Angeles, the poet laureate of Lithuania, was saluted for his patriotic dedication to his homeland.

The 167-year-old Pontifical Order of St. Gregory the Great, named for a 6th-century pope, was opened to women about four years ago after Mahony requested the change from the pope. Mahony inducted 29 men and 10 women into the order in 1994, the first women in any diocese of the world to be so designated.

On Sunday, honoree Ricardo Montalban declared, "This is probably my greatest honor." The actor has been using a walker since a spinal cord operation about four years ago. Montalban said of the unanticipated award, "It's a wonderful gift, medicine from God."

Hope and Walt Disney Co. executive Roy Disney did not attend, nor did their wives, both designated Dames of St. Gregory. The Hopes are in Palm Springs and the Disneys in Ireland, said Sister Mary Jean Meier, who directs special services for the Los Angeles archdiocese. Mahony will present them with their medals personally at a later date, she said.

Los Angeles City Councilman John Ferraro was honored for his service to the city.

The honorees were not told that Mahony had nominated them.

"I was speechless. I assumed it was a notice of a meeting," Gloria Griffin of Northridge said of the archdiocese's letter. She is a past president of the Right to Life League and is active on the board of Loyola Marymount University.

Hotel executive Barron Hilton, another knight commander, and his wife, Marilyn, were described as generous benefactors of Catholic causes. Meier also named Pasadena construction executive John Shea and his wife, Dorothy, who "have probably given close to $9 million" to Catholic inner-city schools. "They're very quiet about it and only accept honors reluctantly."

Philanthropist Cyril Nigg, who made his money in potato chips, was president of the Newman Catholic Center at UCLA in 1926 and is a major contributor to a new Newman Center there, Meier said. "Even at 93, he is actively involved in charitable causes," she said.

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