The singer wants to buy their property, but even a personal audience with her did not sway the sisters
It was probably the first audition that Katy Perry had to do in a long time – an improvised performance in a former convent to a handful of elderly Catholic nuns who, all things considered, preferred Perry Como. It didn’t go well.
“She pulls out her phone to get the words for Oh Happy Day,” Sister Rita Callanan, 77, recalled. “I was looking at my attorney, thinking, ‘What on earth?’”
When the chart-topping superstar finished the gospel song there was polite applause. And, later, rejection. At least two of the nuns turned down Perry’s offer to buy their former home, a spectacular hillside estate in Los Angeles which the I Kissed a Girl singer wants to turn into her own home.
It was a judgment based not on her phone-aided performance, nor a “moral” issue based on Perry’s occasional “inappropriate” material, said Sister Rita. “She’s a very nice person, but it’s not the better deal. This is about money – control of money.”
The nuns’ rebuff to Perry, 30, is at the heart of an intriguing battle over real estate which has burst into public view. It emerged that an eclectic cast of characters is sparring over a coveted property which boasts a fish-shaped swimming pool and glorious vistas of the San Gabriel mountains. Legal briefs and accusations of bullying and manipulation are flying in a duel pitting nuns against their archbishop and Perry against a developer who may turn the site into a hotel. A court hearing is due later this month.
The feud may go all the way to the Vatican. “I hope Pope Francis has been seeing this, because if anybody can help us it’s him,” said Sister Rita, seated in the former chapel on Friday. “I think he’ll stop this nonsense, I really do.”
All sides agree that the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart should sell the property. It was once a thriving order, but the last five surviving sisters moved out in 2011 and have struggled to pay the running costs, which include fountains. Money from a sale is to go towards the nuns’ upkeep.
Perry, whose hits include Ur So Gay and Roar, had eyed the place for years and made a $14.5m offer to the archdiocese. She could afford it: Forbes recently named her the highest-paid female celebrity of 2015, estimating her income at $135m.
LA’s archbishop, José Gomez, accepted and told the nuns last September that a “rock star” and “singer” would move into their former home at 3441 Waverly Drive, a mix of Italianate and Mediterranean styles nestled behind sand-coloured walls in Los Feliz, a leafy neighbourhood. It was built in 1927 for Earle Anthony, a broadcaster and entrepreneur, and designed by the architect Bernard Maybeck. Charles Manson’s followers butchered a couple in an adjoining house in 1969.
Weeks after the archbishop’s announcement, Dana Hollister, a local restaurateur and developer, made an offer of $15.5m to the nuns and nurtured a personal bond. Tipped off that Perry had visited the property, and must be the mystery rock star, Sister Rita and Sister Catherine Rose Holzman, 86, began researching her online. Sister Rita watched Perry’s Super Bowl performance when, clad in an outfit of vinyl flame, she rode on the back of a giant puppet tiger, belting out Roar. She wrinkled her nose at the memory. Classical music, Perry Como and Frank Sinatra are more to her taste.
To sway the nuns, the archbishop arranged their meeting with Perry. The singer dressed conservatively, brought her mum, showed a Jesus tattoo, sang and expressed her desire to start each day by visiting the estate’s meditation garden. “You know… to find herself,” said Sister Rita.
The charm offensive flopped. At least two of the nuns, Rita and Catherine, accepted Hollister’s offer. It was not about Perry, they insisted, but about Hollister making a higher bid, the nuns’ ability to control the funds, and the principle that the property was theirs, and only they could sell it.
It was also about grievance and mistrust. Sister Rita accused the archdiocese of “abusing” the nuns by dodging its financial obligations, forcing them to leave the convent and separating them. “I hope the sisters of the United States of America rise up against this.”
Hollister’s offer breaks down into $10m for the estate and $5.5m to buy out a long-term lease of a priests’ retreat house on the grounds. “I own it 100%,” said the developer. “It’s almost like a castle. It’s beautiful.”
The archdiocese, which is in escrow with Perry, said Hollister’s offer was flaky: a deed for $100,000 in cash and $9.9m payable under a non-recourse promissory note which left the fate of the priests’ house unclear and the whole deal hinging on turning the estate into a hotel, which neighbours will oppose.
Perry’s offer, in contrast, was $10m in cash for the nuns and $4.5m to buy property in their name where the priests’ retreat house will be relocated, said Monica Valencia, a spokesperson.
“The archbishop has made a personal promise to care for the sisters. We want to make sure no one takes advantage of them.”
Michael Hennigan, a lawyer for the archdiocese, said Hollister’s offer was bad news for the nuns. “How they were persuaded to do this, I don’t know. Either the sisters were taken advantage of, or there’s more going on than I understand.” The archdiocese owns the estate and is suing the developer, said Hennigan. “There is no chance that the Dana Hollister deal will stand. It’s infested with so many problems. It’s 99% dead.”
Michael Starler, an attorney for Perry, said she was assured the archbishop had authority to sell the property, and that consummation of any sale would need the Holy See’s approval.
“The archdiocese is proceeding through appropriate legal channels to remove the cloud on title unlawfully created by Dana Hollister and has expressed confidence that the matter will be resolved shortly.”
Hollister insisted that her offer was sound and that the deal was done. “We’re optimistic. It’ll work out in the end. The world goes round and round.”
Tension over the looming court battle contrasted on Friday with the lush tranquillity of an estate which for now is home only to a caretaker and two dogs, the fountains occasionally breaking the stillness.
Sister Catherine, back for a fleeting visit, said the public clash with the archbishop had drained her. “We like him. It’s been very hard. It makes me feel very bad.” On the plus side, she said, the controversy was providing a crash course in the internet, modern media and phenomena such as Katy Perry. “I’m learning so much.”