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Supporters band together to save Hollywood convent famous for pumpkin bread

Monastery of the Angels has seen declines in its donations, gift shop revenue and investment income. A five-member panel of finance experts is helping it create a rescue plan.

April 09, 2009|Bob Pool

They're being forced to live on crumbs, so nuns at a Hollywood convent famous for its pumpkin bread are warning that they may have to slice up the place for development.

The threat of a shutdown of the 75-year-old Monastery of the Angels below the Hollywood sign has prompted neighbors and supporters to mount a campaign to save the four-acre religious retreat.

The volunteers say they may turn to the nuns' moist and fragrant pumpkin bread to help make up a cash shortfall that has slashed the monastery's operating budget by more than 70%.

Twenty cloistered nuns live at the monastery, at Carmen Avenue and Gower Street. They devote most of their day to prayer but allocate three hours each morning to work.

That's when they bake their signature pumpkin bread, which is sold by the loaf alongside homemade candy in the monastery's tiny gift shop. Proceeds are applied to the retreat's $1.2-million yearly operating budget.

But the slumping economy has reduced gift shop revenue by 35%, slowed donations and put some anticipated bequests in jeopardy. At the same time, the Wall Street meltdown has cut revenue from investment interest by 70%, nuns say.

That has prompted them to post notices announcing that "our monastery is in serious financial trouble, running the risk that these four acres" will be "turned into a condominium or a mall or worse."

There is no proposal currently on the table to raze the monastery -- but the nun's alarming warning is prompting some neighbors to action.

"They are humble, devoted women whose peaceful little organization is threatened. It's a sad situation," said Kathy McGarrity, a West Los Angeles resident who has visited the monastery for 20 years.

Hollywood Hills resident Norma Foster has formed a five-member committee of financial and religious fundraising experts to create a rescue plan for the nuns who she considers to be good neighbors and an important part of the Hollywood fabric.

Foster is a film and television producer who is credited with saving the Hollywood Bowl Easter Sunrise Service from being taken over seven years ago in a controversial move by an Orange County televangelist. This year she scrambled with others to overcome economic pressure so this weekend's Easter event can be staged Sunday morning.

The monastery's fiscal problems are unrelated to economic problems facing the Archdiocese of Los Angeles because of molestation case settlements, said Foster, who is Presbyterian.

"There's a lot of support for the nuns in this neighborhood. They're an amazing part of the community. They are really the heart of Hollywood," she said.

Part of the strategy is to capitalize on the nuns' pumpkin bread prowess. So far, the group has raised money for new mixers, and Foster plans to confer with groups such as Los Angeles' nonprofit Homeboy Industries to provide additional bakers so the $9 loaves can be sold at more outlets.

She also hopes to resurrect a now dormant women's guild and organize a new men's support group. For decades after its founding in 1924, ongoing fundraising garden parties and bridge teas by prominent Los Angeles residents helped finance its operation.

Some of the biggest names in Los Angeles society -- Doheny, Von der Ahe, Cuyler, Brunswig, Murphy, Dockweiler, Van de Kamp, Del Amo, Hancock -- took part in the fashion shows and dessert parties. By the 1940s top Hollywood performers such as Don Ameche and Bing Crosby were frequent participants in the fundraisers.

It was this support that allowed nuns in 1934 to buy a sprawling estate that had belonged to pioneering copper mine owner Joseph Giroux.

"Everything in the place was copper, right down to the doorknobs and bathtub," recalled Sister Mary Raymond, who has been cloistered in the monastery for 61 years and now serves as its prioress, or mother superior. The copper fittings and furnishings were sold when the old mansion was demolished to make way for permanent monastery buildings

These days, those living a simple monastic life are cutting back even more. "I've tightened everyone's belt," said Sister Mary Raphael, a senior member who joined the order at age 18. Like others in the monastery, she and Sister Mary Raymond are in their 80s now.

As with fundraising, recruiting younger members for the order is difficult -- although it's never been easy, they acknowledged.

The city was abuzz in 1946 when a top professional Ice Follies skater, 22-year-old Stella Consigli, gave up the rink to take her vows at the monastery.

But after three or four years, Sister Mary Gertrude, as Consigli was called, left the convent.

"It's not an easy life. It's a special vocation. What you do one day is what you do everyday for the rest of your life," Sister Mary Raphael said.

But that may be what gives the 18,000 loaves of pumpkin bread the nuns bake yearly the consistency that loyal customers have come to expect.

City Councilman Tom LaBonge is a fan. He buys loaves by the dozen to give to people being honored by the city on special occasions.

"I believe in the separation of church and state, but not church and community," he said.

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bob.pool@latimes.com

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