Hutton Gibson has been making a three-hour drive each week for the past year from his home in Summersville, W.Va., to rural Westmoreland County, a round trip of more than 300 miles, just to attend Sunday Mass.
Now, the 87-year-old Gibson plans to have his own church in Mt. Pleasant Township.
The church is St. Michael the Archangel Chapel, now located in a ranch-style brick home along Route 982 South between the villages of Lycippus and Weltytown.
Gibson is no ordinary parishioner.
Gibson is the father of actor-director Mel Gibson and a follower of an ultraconservative branch of Catholicism that rejects the liturgical reforms adopted in the early 1960s resulting from the Second Vatican Council — commonly referred to as Vatican II.
The worldwide movement was started by the late Marcel Lefebvre, a French bishop who broke with the Vatican and began appointing his own bishops and ordaining priests. There are no accurate figures on membership.
St. Michael’s pastor is a former diocesan priest, Leonard Bealko, who is not in good standing with the Catholic Diocese of Greensburg, according to Monsignor Lawrence Persico, vicar general of the diocese.
The man behind the new church is Mel Gibson, according to John Maher, of Greensburg, a member of St. Joseph the Protector Chapel on St. Clair Way in Hempfield Township, another Catholic group that holds weekly Masses in Latin.
For several years, Maher and a small group of like-minded people have been gathering for Mass at St. Joseph. When Hutton Gibson moved to West Virginia from Texas, he began coming to Westmoreland County to attend Mass.
The California-based World Faith Foundation purchased the 26-acre Mt. Pleasant Township property for $315,000 last September from Donald and Janet Wagner and is renovating the interior of the house, where Mass is celebrated.
“Hutton talked his son into financing this new church,” Maher said. “They’re going to build out there. They’re remodeling and hope to build. I talked to Hutton quite a bit. I visited with him in his motel room when he came here.”
Hutton Gibson said his son is “somewhat connected” with the World Faith Foundation, and that there are a number of other people associated with it. He won’t disclose their identities.
According to state records, the foundation was incorporated last May in California by James Hirsen, a lawyer, law professor, television news analyst and former keyboard player for the Temptations musical group. He’s also the author of “Hollywood Nation,” a book about the radical politics of Hollywood actors. Hirsen did not respond to an interview request.
When Hutton Gibson decided to start his own branch of the church in Westmoreland County, he recruited Bealko to join him, Maher said.
“It was through me that Mel Gibson sponsored Father Bealko,” Maher said. “Hutton started coming to Mass.” He and his wife “liked Father Bealko. They contacted their son.”
Mel Gibson secretly came to Greensburg to attend Mass at St. Joseph Chapel last April, Maher said. He said more than 100 people — some not even Catholic — turned out for the Mass when they learned Gibson would attend.
Afterward, Gibson decided to finance the construction of a chapel for St. Michael’s, Maher said.
He said shortly after that, the St. Joseph group and Bealko parted ways in what Maher described as a “power struggle.” Bealko could not be reached for comment.
Persico said neither St. Joseph nor St. Michael is recognized by the Diocese of Greensburg.
“A Catholic church, to be truly in communion with Rome, must be in communion with the diocesan bishop,” Persico said. “I don’t know where they get their legal authority. It’s not a Roman Catholic church, no matter what they say.
“Union with Rome and the Holy See is very important if you’re going to be a Roman Catholic. It’s essential.”
Hutton Gibson said he despises the casual dress and lack of piety of today’s mainstream Catholics.
“The Mass of the church has been held for centuries,” he said. “Vatican II just didn’t translate it into English. They changed the rite.”