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Eastern-rite parishes in California help keep traditions alive
While southern California is home to several Roman Catholic dioceses, it is also home to many Eastern-rite Catholic communities. While their liturgies and customs may differ from Latin-rite churches, they still share the Faith and the sacraments, and they are in communion with the bishop of Rome, the pope. These eparchies (Eastern dioceses) include: Our Lady of Lebanon in Los Angeles (Maronite) — with 46,800 Catholics; Our Lady of Nareg in Glendale (Armenian) — with 51,000 Catholics; and St. Peter the Apostle of San Diego (Chaldean) — with 66,000 Catholics.
In addition to their serving a small fraction of the numbers served by California’s Roman Catholic dioceses, these eparchies cover territories that extend over large swaths of the United States. So local communities are often distinctive enclaves of cultures and customs associated with a particular rite and have strong ties to their ancestral homelands.
The following are two such parishes.
Chaldeans in San Diego
St. Peter Chaldean Catholic Cathedral is located inland of San Diego, not far from the Mexican border. It was established in 1973 and is today the seat of one of the two Chaldean Catholic eparchies in the United States, the Eparchy of St. Peter the Apostle. The eparchy encompasses 19 western U.S. states; the other, the Eparchy of St. Thomas the Apostle of Detroit, encompasses the remainder of the country. Together, they serve 210,000 Chaldean Catholics living in the U.S., with 12 parishes and 21 priests in the east and 10 parishes and 14 priests in the west. Another 15,000 Chaldeans live in Canada.
“Wherever you go, a Chaldean parish is like your extended family,” remarked Samir Salem, president of the parish council at St. Peter Cathedral. “You see familiar faces and friendly people, making it like a second home.”
Salem is originally from Tel Keppe, a historically Christian town in northern Iraq. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1982, joined St. Peter’s in 1983 and has been an active parishioner ever since. The number of Chaldeans in the San Diego area has grown steadily since, with an estimated 60,000 in the region. To accommodate the increasing numbers of Chaldeans in the area, a second Chaldean parish in El Cajon, St. Michael’s, opened a few decades ago, and another, St. John the Apostle, opened a year ago.
Two seminarians will be ordained for the eparchy in December, Salem noted, as “we’re working hard to grow our Church and keep our kids in the Faith.”
St. Peter’s has 5,000 active parishioners. It offers liturgies in Arabic, English and Aramaic, although Arabic and English liturgies both incorporate Aramaic hymns. The altar area of the church is rich in icons, including a central image of the Last Supper; there is a large dome overhead.
While the U.S. Church has grown, many have been repressed in the Middle East. St. Peter’s rector emeritus, Father Michael Bazzi, noted that the 15,000 Christians who lived in Tel Keppe in the ’70s have diminished to five families.
Armenians in Glendale
St. Gregory Armenian Catholic Church in Glendale, California, is the episcopal seat of the Eparchy of Our Lady of Nareg. The eparchy includes eight parishes, three missions and four schools serving 60,000 Armenian Catholics across the United States and Canada. It is under the authority of Bishop Mikael Mouradian, who also serves as acting pastor of St. Gregory’s.
“Our people come from Armenia and all over the Middle East,” Bishop Mouradian said. He himself was born in Lebanon. “We’ve especially seen a lot of immigration in the past 10 years.”
St. Gregory’s was previously a Lutheran church, converted for use in Armenian Catholic worship and dedicated in 2001. It was elevated to cathedral status in 2013 when the bishop moved his seat from New York.
Nearly all of the rite’s clergy are from the Middle East, especially Lebanon. Of the laypeople, most who are 30 and older were born in the Middle East. The bishop noted that the community was making a strong effort to communicate the Faith to the second generation of Armenian Catholics. The cathedral has active youth and young adult programs, and in 2010 programs were launched to teach parish children ages 4-14 the Armenian language, catechism, history and culture.
Liturgies are offered in English, Armenian and Arabic; an Armenian high Mass is entirely sung. The Armenian rite has some similarities to the Latin rite; however, the Armenian vestments are bulkier and more ornate, the priest faces the altar, and Armenian hymns are sung.
About 2,500 families are active in St. Gregory’s. Additionally, the community has a second parish in downtown Los Angeles, Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, which pre-dates the cathedral.
Bishop Mouradian stays in touch with Armenian Catholics in the Middle East. The state of religious freedom enjoyed by Armenian Catholics, he said, depends on what part of the Middle East you visit. He explained, “If you go to Lebanon, there’s no problem. If you visit places where ISIS has been active in Syria or Iraq, we’ve seen our churches devastated.”
Parishes such as St. Gregory’s have been a valuable aid in helping Armenian Christians to relocate to the United States. While older Armenians may struggle with the English language or working in the U.S., “Our younger people, however, are adjusting to life in the U.S. quite nicely,” the bishop said.
Jim Graves writes from California.