Dominican nuns and monks seek creative solution for Hollywood’s Convent of Angels
- US News
- March 18, 2023
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For 90 years, the Convent of Angels was home to a cloistered community of Dominican nuns who lived, prayed, and baked their famous pumpkin bread on the sprawling four-acre property tucked away on a hillside in the heart of Hollywood.
But in recent years the number of nuns living on the property has fallen from a peak of 45 to fewer than six, part of a trend that is playing out in religious institutions across the country as religious orders and congregations shrink. When the last few sisters were relocated in the fall of 2022, neighbors and convent supporters worried about the future of the property, which many saw as a spiritual oasis.
Well, some say it’s a modern miracle, it seems the Monastery of Angels might survive after all. The Dominican friars of the Western Province announced that they have joined forces with the Dominican nuns to solicit proposals to restore the monastery, leaving the chapel and pumpkin bread shop intact.
“Our sisters loved the Hollywood Hills community, and we look forward to working with the brothers, interested parties, and the neighborhood to ensure our beloved monastery can continue to be a blessing to all,” said Sister Maria Christine Behlow, the former prioress of the monastery said in a statement.
The call for proposals will be published in early April.
“We want to be open to every creative and interesting idea out there and exercise our diligence to evaluate every possible angle to save the monastery,” said Chris Hanzeli, director of strategic initiatives for the Dominicans of the Western Province. “We are united with the community to protect the treasure of the monastery for generations to come.”
The brothers and nuns cannot predict what proposals will come their way, Hanzeli said, but they are committed to preserving the chapel as a sacred place for the community, preserving the pumpkin bread and candy store, and broader ownership for the neighborhood to protect so “it may continue to be a blessing to all.”
To oversee this process, the Dominicans are working with Dominic Dutra, a Fremont real estate agent who has worked for the past 15 years to help religious communities across California find creative uses for their properties.
“Faith-based organizations have declined in number and now have a lot of excess or underutilized land,” Dutra said. Rather than selling their land to the highest bidder, many of these organizations want to ensure their land continues to serve the larger community.
“For people of faith, the way we look at it is that we want to give God the opportunity to step in and show us that miracles can still happen,” said Dutra, who is a Christian. “That’s really the priority here — to bring some hope and a positive perspective back into the world.”
A statue of Jesus erected in 1955 is illuminated on the grounds of the Convent of Angels in Hollywood.
(Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)
Founded in 1924, the Convent of Angels was supported in its early days by some of LA’s wealthiest families, including the Dohenys, the Dockweilers, the Van de Kamps and the Hancocks.
In 1934 the Order moved into a sprawling Hollywood estate that had belonged to copper mine owner Joseph Giroux and bought it for just $10. Fourteen years later, Catholic women in Los Angeles raised funds to build the sisters a new convent, chapel, and office complex on the same site, designed by famed architect Wallace Neff.
Since then, the monastery has served as a spiritual retreat for people of all faiths.
“Whenever we bring people onto this property, we see them slow down and have peace and feel welcome,” said Kim Cooper, a cultural historian who has led tour groups to the monastery. “LA is a huge pool and the water is cold and deep. There are a few reefs that you can land on and the Monastery of Angels is one of them.”
Along with her husband Richard Schave, Cooper is one of the founders of The Monastery of the Angels Foundation. The group, which is not affiliated with the monastery or the Dominicans, was formed in January 2022 to ensure the monastery remains a sacred place in Los Angeles, including raising sufficient funds to purchase it if necessary. Now the members hope to be able to submit a proposal for the property themselves.
“Hollywood was founded as a city of gardens and churches,” said Schave. “Now is our chance to go back to Hollywood roots.”
Dutra said there will likely be a 90 to 120 day period after the RFP is published for individuals and organizations to submit their qualifications and ideas. Ideally, the brothers and sisters can determine the direction they want to go in the next six months. However, if you need more time, take it.
“We want to make sure we’re doing this right,” he said.
The property is owned by the Convent of Angels, but Dutra said it will also be consulting with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the Vatican, members of the neighborhood and others as part of the decision-making process.
But he had a warning: not everyone will get what they want.
“Of course there will be some back and forth – we need to meet the long-term interests of the sisters because they are aging and need elder care,” he said, “but we want to be as transparent and respectful of all his interests as possible.”
Creating a new long-term plan for the monastery will likely be a multi-year process. A similar project Dutra worked on with the Sisters of the Holy Family in the Bay Area took seven years from start to finish, but the result was worth the wait. The sisters’ 15-acre estate has been converted into a 5.5-acre open space park, now part of the National Conservation Area, while 47 new residential units were created for the sisters.
“The church is at a tipping point with this downsizing, and it’s easy for some people to get caught up in it and think, ‘Oh, this is the end,'” Dutra said. “But actually, if you think about the resurrection story, that wasn’t the end.”
Dutra believes that as the real estate needs of religious institutions change, there is an opportunity for religious institutions to reconnect with the outside world and show that they are also sensitive to those needs.
“We hope that amidst cynicism and division, we can show that there really is more to life than winning and losing and making money,” he said.