CORONA — An 81-year-old widow is fighting eviction from her home of the past three decades after the Lutheran church that owns the property and the adjoining church told her she's no longer welcome there.
Thelma Rivera has lived in a three-story home attached to what is now the Emanuel Corona Lutheran Church on 104th Street since 1987, she said.
At the time she moved in, the neighborhood's dwindling Lutheran congregation had shrunk to around 60 people — and after the church's pastor moved, there was no one to live in the home, she said.
So she and her husband, who was a reverend, moved into the house rent-free, with the idea they'd take care of the property as they waited for another full-time pastor to arrive, she said. She didn't sign any lease or agreement, she said.
But as the parishioners diminished, they were left with the home and church — so she began putting money she made as a maintenance worker into fixing the property.
Thelma Rivera said she moved into the house on 104th Street in 1987. (DNAinfo/Katie Honan)
"I work and all my money went inside of the church, because the church needs lots of fixes," Rivera said, claiming the larger Lutheran organization "abandoned" the church for many years.
Her husband died in 2002 and she continued to look after the church, renting out the basement for baby showers and other parties, she said. A Korean congregation also rented the space two days a week for mass.
She and her daughter, Thirsa Scanlon, estimate she's spent $750,000 over the years to fix the home, including fixing bricks, replacing a wooden beam in the roof and heating both buildings.
But beginning in 2015, the Lutheran church began to try to push her out — most recently sending her a notice to leave last June and then taking her to landlord/tenant court when she refused.
The church's lawyers did not return a request to comment.
Rivera's lawyer, Samuel Denny, said the church's legal papers claim Rivera is a "licensee" and they are revoking her privileges to the space.
"The church used her for over 30 years to maintain the church," Denny added. "And then they want to swoop down and pull the rug out from her and toss her in the street."
Denny said the issues began in late 2014 after Rivera had to go in and out of the hospital and care centers for six months before returning to the home in late 2015.
By then there was another small congregation and pastor who began asking questions about the home's deed and where it was, according to Rivera.
In 2016, the locks on the church were changed, and in June, Rivera was given a paper saying the Lutheran church administration wanted her out of the house.
Now Rivera and her lawyer are fighting to extend the eviction so she can figure out where to live, and are also hoping for a settlement of up to $200,000 to help her find a place.
Taking care of the church was an obligation from her faith, having been a Lutheran since she was a child in Guatemala — where her mother taught Spanish to missionaries.
"I told them, after all these years you just came and you want me out?" she said, "I was feeling sad, I was surprised."