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Fate of North Hollywood church’s burial ground uncertain

May 8, 2012 | 12:05 pm

Memorial garden at St. David's Anglican Church

The ashes of 17 people are buried in the rose garden at St. David's Anglican Church in North Hollywood, but the burial ground's future is uncertain as the church continues a long-running property battle with the Episcopal Church, from which it disaffiliated years ago.

In a disagreement over the Episcopal Church's biblical interpretations and views on homosexuality, St. David's -- along with All Saints Church in Long Beach and St. James Church in Newport Beach -- seceded from the six-county Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles and the national church in 2004.

What has followed has been years of litigation over the rightful ownership of the breakaway churches' buildings and property. An Orange County Superior Court judge is expected on Wednesday to rule on a motion that could determine who owns the memorial garden and the churches in North Hollywood and Long Beach.

The memorial garden, built around 1996, was the idea of Father Jose Poch, the priest at St. David's, after his mother was buried on church grounds in Houston when she died in 1995. The church burial meant so much to Poch's family that he wanted to offer the same opportunity to St. David's.

Poch is concerned that, if the diocese wins the legal battle and sells the property, the memorial garden will be removed or paved. Should that happen, it would be difficult to respectfully deal with the remains because the ashes of each person have been placed directly into the ground, not in a container, Poch said.

The Los Angeles Diocese has not yet decided what will become of the property, including the memorial garden, if the court rules in its favor, said Robert Williams, a diocese spokesman.

"The Episcopal Church has centuries of experience with the respectful and appropriate treatment of human remains in accord with church traditions," Williams said.

The California Supreme Court in 2009 ruled in favor of the Los Angeles diocese in its battle against St. James in Newport Beach, stating that the property was held in trust for the diocese and national church.

Though deeds showed St. James owned its property, the congregation had agreed to be part of the national church and was bound by its rules, the court said. The Episcopal Church in 1979 adopted a rule that made clear local parishes owned their properties only as long as they remained within the larger body.

St. James has continued its fight in the trial court in Orange County.

St. Luke's of the Mountains Church in La Crescenta, which left the Episcopal Church in 2006, lost its battle against the Los Angeles diocese later in 2009. The congregation was forced to leave its landmark stone church.

At a hearing on Wednesday, an Orange County Superior Court judge is expected to rule on a motion for summary judgement filed by the Episcopal Church in its cases against St. David's and All Saints in Long Beach.

The Episcopal Church contends that a ruling should be issued now based on the 2009 Supreme Court ruling, said John Shiner, an attorney for the diocese. If the motions are granted, the cases will be over, unless the churches decide to appeal, he said.


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Photo: The ashes of Bill Coburn's wife, Marian, are buried at St. David's Anglican Church in North Hollywood. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times