Nuns Gone, Convent Fate a Mystery: Last August three Sisters of Bethany nuns were ordered to vacate their Santa Barbara convent on short notice. Reason given: The L.A. Catholic archdiocese said it needed to sell the property to help pay multi-million-dollar settlements to victims of priest abuse.
But today the modest home on North Nopal Street next to Our Lady of Guadalupe Church is still vacant, not on the market, and the parish priest refuses to say what will happen to it. Pastor Rafael Marin Leon told me that there may be an “internal transfer,” but declined to elaborate.
“If something is to be done, it will be an internal transfer,” Fr. Rafael said. “Something is in the air, but we don’t know yet.” It is in the hands of the archdiocese, he said.
But anger still seethes about the way the Sisters of Bethany were treated, punished in effect for the sins of the priests, according to the way many feel about it. Now months after the nuns were ordered out, with no relocation help, the convent sits empty. “The nuns were chased out, for what?” one parishioner asked me.
Some parishioners believe that Fr. Rafael is working on a deal to buy the property and possibly demolish it to make way for expansion of the church.
Just how much the parish, in a low-income Lower Eastside neighborhood, could pay for the property is a matter that has observers scratching their heads. Some rumors have it that the parish has a sizeable building fund.
Meanwhile, Santa Barbara police are still investigating what happened to thousands of dollars donated to help the nuns, unaccounted-for money that came into the hands of a small group of volunteers last year, according to local businessman Ernie Salomon, who has aided the women since their eviction.
When no other Santa Barbara parish or church reached out to help the women in their homeless plight, they were offered refuge late last year at St. Mary’s Episcopal Retreat House next to the Old Mission. Now they are gone.
Sister Margarita was recently reassigned by the order to its Los Angeles convent. Sister Angela, 70, and ill, went on medical leave, said to be seriously affected by the stress, and recently went to live with her sister in the L.A. area. “God will show me what He wants for me,” she told me. Sister Consuelo is scheduled to fly to her home country of Columbia tonight to teach school near Bogot¡.
It ends a chapter that began in the 1950s, when nuns of the Sisters of Bethany order, based in Latin America, settled in the small home to do community work.
A community protest erupted last fall after Santa Barbarans learned of the eviction, angering the mother general of the order and archdiocese officials. While local people looked for a new home here for the nuns to continue their work, Sisters of Bethany leaders ordered the women silenced and to leave town.
In another twist of the story, parishioners have learned that the convent was built overlapping onto church property, seriously complicating any possible sale of the convent to a private party. Just when this was learned isn’t known. Fr. Rafael declined to discuss the issue. What some wonder is whether the original intent was never to sell it on the open market but instead to facilitate the church expansion.
One parishioner, Evangelina Diaz, long known for her community work among Santa Barbara’s poor, is infuriated at the nuns’ treatment. “They were obedient to the very end; the beautiful convent is now a haunted house. It is just another empty building on the Eastside.”
In a farewell message to the town, Sister Angela said, “We want to thank the community of Santa Barbara for the overwhelming love and support we have received through the ordeal and painful episodes. It has been an honor to serve the Lord and His people in Santa Barbara for the past 57 years.
“We will treasure so many wonderful memories. Our deepest gratitude goes out to all of you and in particular to Sister Abigail and the staff of at St. Mary’s Episcopalian Retreat House for opening its door to their convent to use in our time of need and making us feel so welcome for the past five months.”
Evangelina Diaz described Sister Abigail as “a beautiful woman of God who, when no one (else) would, stepped out and opened the door of the inn and took in our nuns.” When asked why, “You said, because they are my sisters.”