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Church Protesters Standing on Tradition

Religion: Group opposes modernization of St. Charles parish in North Hollywood, but pastor says there is no set agenda for changes.

April 01, 2002|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Outside the North Hollywood church, a handful of the faithful wear buttons that proclaim: "Save St. Charles."

Before and after Sunday Mass, they invite anyone going in or out of St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church to sign their petitions. The demonstrators have 1,000 signatures, endorsing 11 things they want for St. Charles.

Their wish list begins with retention of the altar at the front of the church and ends with "Restoration of the Blessed Sacrament to its place of honor in the Tabernacle behind the altar."

For both the protesters and the pastor who has urged his flock to ignore them, the weekly demonstrations hold great import. Pastor Robert Gallagher has shown his pique in church bulletins. Meanwhile, dozens of protesters have fallen to their knees outside the church to recite the rosary and ask the Virgin Mary to intercede to prevent modernization they regard as ecclesiastical vandalism.

Wearing buttons and saying the rosary hardly sounds like the stuff of revolution. The protesters want to keep the church's stained-glass windows and private confessionals, not lose them.

But the protest has roiled the parish. Last month, Gallagher announced in the church bulletin that "there is no set agenda as to any changes that we will make in our church" but added that "some changes will be made."

The protesters believe that Gallagher advocates a stripped-down church architecture that would eliminate pews and kneelers, the dramatic wooden crucifix behind the altar and the elaborate carved canopy, or baldacchino, that hangs above the cross.

"We don't really have any specific plans about what we're doing in the church right now," Gallagher said. Rather, the congregation is involved in "a process of education," he said, referring to a series of talks on art, architecture and liturgy being held at the church.The St. Charles Borromeo Preservation Guild was founded several months ago by opponents of a radical remodel of the Spanish-style church, dedicated in 1959 but more evocative of Catholic churches of 100--or 1,000--years ago.

Guild President Joe Gonzalez, 41, is a lifelong Catholic who teaches liberal studies at Cal State Fullerton. An expert on church ritual and architecture, his dissertation in history at UCLA compared a Swedish Protestant church with a French Catholic church built during the Renaissance.

Gonzalez has written long, carefully worded letters to Gallagher and archdiocesan officials arguing against changes to the church that would make it less formal and more like the Catholic churches of the late 1960s and '70s.

Gonzalez has repeatedly pointed out that St. Charles, with its artful Stations of the Cross, its vaulted ceiling and its hushed focus on the altar and crucifix, has become a refuge for devout Roman Catholics who think too many Catholic churches now look like schools or other secular buildings.

"A lot of people, including myself, started going to St. Charles in part because of a desire to get away from modernization," Gonzalez said.

Churches closer to his home in Burbank have been renovated, apparently to reflect the liberal spirit of the Second Vatican Council, which between 1962 and 1965 ended the all-Latin Mass and instituted other reforms.

Often, the pulpits were removed in such churches, Gonzalez said, "and the priests took the microphones and walked around in the audience. It reminds me of a talk show." But Vatican II did not require architectural modernization, Gonzalez said. Parishioners at St. Charles learned several months ago that a major overhaul might be in the offing when Gallagher announced that Richard Vosko would speak to the congregation.

A priest with a doctorate in education, Vosko is a well-known consultant on "sacred spaces" to churches and other religious institutions. His clients include the Archdiocese of Los Angeles; he is an advisor on the new cathedral being built in downtown Los Angeles.

A capsule version of Vosko's views on liturgical design appear on his Web site, www.rvosko.com: "The time-honored ingredients of a worthy place for worship include stories of faith, pilgrimage pathways, transforming thresholds, intimate settings for personal prayer, artwork that prompts works of justice and seating plans that engage the community in the public rituals."

That philosophy has its detractors. Leading the anti-Vosko camp in the conservative Catholic media is Michael Rose, a Cincinnati-based author who writes scathingly about Vosko-style church redesigns in Detroit, San Antonio, New Orleans and elsewhere. At least one modernization, in Milwaukee, was suspended last year at the direction of the Vatican after opponents retained a canon lawyer to plead their case.

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