Beyond the gated, hilltop entrance of 3431 Waverly Drive -- a lush eight-acre estate in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles -- sits a former convent, where today Sister Catherine Rose Holzman, 86, has come to meet with Billboard. With her thin, white hair pressed back into a cornette, she glances around the parlor, bare except for a rare Aeolian organ previously used for grand church functions. For 40 years, this was home to the California Institute of the Sisters of the Most Holy and Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Now, none of the order’s remaining five nuns live here. Holzman only stops by weekly, usually to go over paperwork with the property manager. Peering through a window, she points to an adjacent building where her bedroom once was.
Four years ago, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles kicked the sisters out of the convent. “We had to do what we were told,” says Holzman, who took her vows 68 years ago, at the age of 18. “I think it’s because they were trying to sell our property. They had been trying for years even when we lived there. But none of us ever wanted to leave.”
High-end real-estate feuds are as commonplace in Los Angeles as cloudless skies. But in the past months, this one has become national news. Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez is fighting with five elderly IHM sisters over the sale of the convent -- a French-style chateau with Mediterranean flourishes, more than 30,000 square feet of living space and an adjoining prayer house. Gomez wants to sell the villa to 30-year-old global superstar Katy Perry, who has offered $14.5 million for the property. But the nuns, who control the deed, want to sell to local restaurateur Dana Hollister, 54.
But the feud isn’t just about a preference over buyer -- it’s a matter of trust. The nuns say that during the last two decades, their treatment by the archdiocese has devolved into a troubling pattern of neglect and broken promises, including the unsettling reality that the Waverly Drive property was used to harbor accused pedophiliac priests. Since the archdiocese brokered Perry’s offer to pay $14.5 million ($10 million in cash) without the nuns’ involvement, the sisters fear they won’t see a penny from the sale. Meanwhile, Hollister’s offer for $15.5 million (with only $100,000 in cash) was made directly to their order.
The squabble escalated on June 11, when Perry visited Waverly Drive with a group that included the archbishop’s construction coordinator. But two security guards hired by Hollister blocked their path. According to an eyewitness, Perry’s group refused to leave, so the Los Angeles Police Department was notified. Perry was gone when two officers showed up, asking the remaining group to vacate. A day later, Archbishop Gomez filed a temporary restraining order against Hollister, the first in a complicated series of legal filings that will likely take years to resolve. (Perry declined to comment for this story, but her management supplied Billboard with the statement: “It is not appropriate for Katy to respond while this is being adjudicated in its proper forum, which is a court of law.”)
Beyond the legal battle, the transaction has turned into a conflict with religious overtones. In this schism between a local Roman Catholic hierarchy and a nearly extinct religious order, Perry, the daughter of evangelical Christian ministers, has been cast by the nuns (unfairly or not) as a secular agent in a war on the sacred.
For the nuns, this isn’t an issue of civil law, but divine law. “Katy Perry represents everything we don’t believe in,” says Holzman. “It would be a sin to sell to her.”
In 1927, architect Bernard Maybeck designed the Waverly Drive complex -- which has been a shooting location for TV shows like My Name Is Earl and the rebooted 90210 -- for Earle C. Anthony, a successful automobile designer who lived on-site and founded a radio station in the garage. In the early 1950s, Catholic philanthropist Daniel Donohue purchased the property and in 1971 resold it to the Immaculate Heart of Mary sisters for $600,000, an amount pooled together from inheritances and savings interest and paid during the course of five years.
“A property with this much acreage is so rare,” says Josh Altman, real-estate-agent star of Bravo’s Million Dollar Listing. “If this was in Beverly Hills, it would be worth north of $50 million. One day this will easily be a $35 million-plus estate.”
Holzman had never heard of Perry until April, when Archbishop Gomez informed the five IHM sisters the pop star was buying their former home. This announcement came seven months after the archdiocese told the nuns it was asking $7 million for the estate, news that distressed the sisters. For one, $7 million seemed insultingly low -- they had been told years before the estate was worth at least three times that amount. (As it happens, any church--property transaction of more than $7.5 million in an archdiocese with more than 500,000 people requires final approval from the Vatican.)
But far more significantly, the nuns were upset the church was planning a deal behind their backs. Two days after that September 2014 meeting, in a letter to the archbishop, Sister Jean-Marie Dunne, 89, wrote: “I want you to know I believe no respect for the sisters’ intelligence was shown and that there was a dreadful lack of honesty.”
On Jan. 31, the sisters’ legal counsel issued a cease-and-desist to the archdiocese and the Coldwell Banker sales director overseeing the sale, which was ignored. Then Holzman researched Perry online and found a video interview in which the former gospel singer joked that she had found success as a secular artist because “I sold my soul to the devil.” This was alarming. “Even mentioning that she would sell her soul to Satan is against our principles and beliefs,” Holzman says now. In an email to then-Rev. Monsignor Joseph V. Brennan, she wrote, “In selling to Katy Perry, we feel we are being forced to violate our canonical vows to the Catholic Church.”
On May 26, at the archbishop’s urging, the five nuns met with Perry at nearby convalescent home Nazareth House, where two IHM sisters lived. As Holzman recalls, the pop star arrived late. Holzman mentioned the “devil” video she’d seen online. Perry said her comment was just for entertainment and showed them her left-wrist tattoo: the word “Jesus,” inked when she was 18.
At the request of Dunne, who sang along, Perry belted out the gospel song “Oh Happy Day,” reading the lyrics off her iPhone. She planned to turn the estate into a private residence for her family and employees, she told the women. She wanted to sip green tea and meditate in the gardens. “She was nice,” says Holzman. “She told us why she wanted the property and then sang a song and left.”
So who actually owns the Waverly Drive convent? That question dates back more than two decades. The Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary were always fiscally independent of the archdiocese, collecting money through private donations, investments, fees from renting their home for events and -film shoots. But the order’s numbers dwindled as elders died and fewer young women joined. In 1992, there were only 35 Immaculate Heart of Mary sisters left, with a median age of 69. Citing their infirmity as a grave concern, then-Archbishop Roger Mahony wrote to the Vatican with a proposal: The archdiocese would assume financial support for the order, provided the convent could not be sold or transferred without his office’s written permission. The Vatican approved this request, an act that would ultimately cause legal confusion over who controlled the estate’s sale.
Holzman says the move was ultimately a gambit of the archdiocese to gain power of the property. Documents show the IHM sisters paid for maintenance for decades, with no help from the archdiocese. “They never took care of us,” she insists. “The truth is that the church hasn’t given us a dime ever for this house.”
Unbeknownst to the sisters, the archdiocese was also using the premises at its discretion. Archbishop Mahony, later at the center of the Los Angeles-area church sex-abuse scandal, quietly began sheltering priests accused of molestation on the grounds. One was the Rev. Richard Allen Henry, who was first taken into police custody at the Waverly Drive property in 1991 and later sentenced to eight years in state prison for counts related to abusing four boys.
“I did see Henry arrested and then realized what was going on. At the time, I didn’t know. None of us did,” says Holzman. “He stayed at the convent for many months before that. There wasn’t much we could do about it. The archdiocese told us he could stay there, and we do what we are told.”
Henry wasn’t the only priest offender harbored at the residence. In September 2004, LAPD detectives came to the site and arrested the Rev. Fernando Lopez, who would be convicted of four felony counts of molestation charges. Brother David Joseph Nickerson was arrested in 2008 and later would be convicted of third-degree sexual assault. The then-64-year-old not only lived at the facility, but had worked at the house of prayer for years.
In 2007, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles reportedly reached a $660 million settlement with more than 500 alleged clergy-abuse victims and still owes hundreds of millions in damages and legal fees. Holzman believes the archdiocese wants the cash from the convent’s sale for this reason. “That’s why they want to sell to Katy Perry. They want the money for you know what,” she says, unwilling to mention the sex-abuse scandal by name. “We won’t see a dime of it.”
“The care and well-being of all five sisters has always been our primary concern,” contends the archdiocese in a statement to Billboard. “[We] will continue to protect the sisters and ensure that future transactions will provide immediate funding for their care.”
Holzman finds this difficult to believe. “They haven’t helped us with money ever. Why would they start now?”
Dana Hollister sips a soda inside Echo Park’s iconic Brite Spot diner, one of several Los Angeles restaurants she owns. Having first opened a successful interior-design business in 1987, she has since founded the sort of Eastside staples that inspired the Los Angeles Times to call her a “scene maker” and compare her real-estate acumen to having “X-ray eyes.”
Hollister intends to convert the convent into a boutique hotel. This isn’t the first nunnery Hollister has plotted to reinvent that way. In the ’90s, she lobbied to turn the Paramour -- a 22,000-square-foot Silver Lake convent most recently inhabited by Franciscan nuns -- into a 45-room spa hotel. But neighbors fought her plans, so when she secured $2.25 million in financing in 1998, she turned the mansion into her home, a stately 4.5-acre residence that hosted Beck’s birthday party and Anne Heche’s 2001 wedding.
Hollister had her eye on the Waverly convent for years. She heard it was on the market, emailed the property manager and proposed a deal directly to the sisters. When Archbishop Gomez broke the news about Perry, the sisters quickly accepted Hollister’s $15.5 million offer without even meeting her and turned the deed over immediately.
“What I’m doing is really pure,” insists Hollister. Diagnosed 14 years ago with late-stage cervical cancer that’s currently in remission, she says her health is a major motivation and pledges to donate a percentage of the hotel’s proceeds to charity. “I don’t give a shit about the money. I met these sisters and realized, ‘If I don’t help, who is going to?’ ”
The archdiocese claims in a statement, “The sisters have been taken advantage of by the Hollister transaction.” That’s the line Perry has taken as well, suing the entrepreneur for interfering with her contractual rights to the sale. In documents filed in September, the performer’s team categorized Hollister as someone who “took advantage of vulnerable, elderly nuns, who she malevolently convinced to oppose the Roman Catholic Church.”
In July, Superior Court Judge James C. Chalfant invalidated Hollister’s purchase, describing it as “a bad deal,” though letting her keep possession for now. In November, the court will consider the legality of the archbishop’s attempt to assert control of the sisters’ corporation, which his office tried to do quietly in June.
Hollister, who says she has never spoken to Perry, thinks this has all gotten out of control. “It’s interesting she has all this girl power and she’s running over a woman and five nuns.” She continues, “We are going to Rome. We are not quitting now. We are just getting warmed up.”
Holzman, meanwhile, vows to continue the fight. “I owe it to every sister up in Heaven looking down on me.”