California’s New Chaldean and Assyrian Parish

ORANGEVALE, Calif. (CNS) — Tom Simon genuflects and kneels in prayer before the tabernacle. “It takes love, faith and sacrifice to build a house of the Lord,” he says.

Now, after long years of planning, hard work and some divine intervention, the Chaldean and the Assyrian Catholics of the Sacramento area have their own house of the Lord — Our Lady of Perpetual Help Chaldean and Assyrian Catholic Church in Orangevale.

“It’s for the Lord.” Neil Simon Nofaley says softly as he looks around the bright and beautiful church. Nofaley, Simon’s father, has been a subdeacon and leader of the small Chaldean community for 27 years.

He speaks proudly about not only their new church building but of the history of the Chaldeans, a Christian church now centered in Iraq, a history that began long before Christianity. “Abraham came from Ur of the Chaldeans, 160 kilometers from Baghdad,” Nofaley says. “And when he wanted a wife for his son Isaac he found her among the Chaldeans.”

Centuries later Chaldeans were among the first gentiles to embrace Christianity. St. Thomas the Apostle and two disciples brought the Gospel to the small kingdom of Chaldea in what is now northern Iraq.

For nearly 2,000 years, the Chaldeans and the Assyrians have kept the faith even though they were a politically powerless minority in a region ruled at first by pagans and then by Islam. Over the centuries, it has earned the title “the church of the martyrs.” The persecution continues even now.

“Sixty-eight of our churches in Iraq were attacked, bombed and some destroyed,” Simon says. “Twenty-eight of our priests, including the archbishop, were kidnapped, tortured and some beheaded. One nun was beheaded. Children have been kidnapped and held for ransom — often far more than families could afford. One 6-year-old was killed because his family could not pay.”

Chaldeans fled to neighboring countries and eventually to America. In recent years, about 40 families have come to the Sacramento area, doubling the size of the local Chaldean community. They now worship together each Sunday at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church. Father Kamal Bidawid serves as administrator of the church.

Chaldean and Assyrian Catholics had been attending liturgies at parishes in the Diocese of Sacramento for more than 30 years before they moved into their own church in March. They took the first step toward that goal when Nofaley was ordained a subdeacon in 1984. Nofaley had long wanted to build a church, but the task seemed impossible for a congregation of a few dozen families.

In 1995, Simon arrived in Sacramento from Detroit after an illness that nearly took his life. “Building the church was Tom’s idea,” Nofaley says. “He said, ’You have to have a church.’”

Simon found a site in El Dorado Hills and along with his father and brothers, bought the property for $157,000. “My father always said, ’You start with one brick, and God will bless and multiply it,’” Simon says.

Originally, the church was to have been named after a fourth-century Chaldean martyr, St. Simon Barsabe. At one point, Father Bidawid, the priest who long celebrated liturgies for the congregation, asked why construction was delayed. “I told him it would take a miracle,” Simon says. “Then, he said, ’If you want to see a miracle in this church, name her Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and she will do nothing but miracles for you.’”

Then the “miracles” began. About eight years ago, Chaldean Bishop Sarhad Yawsip Jammo, head of the Catholic Diocese of St. Peter the Apostle for Chaldeans and Assyrians, encouraged the congregation to sell the El Dorado Hills property and use the money for another site.

“Miraculously, we were able to sell it for $1.5 million — with many, many prayers in front of the Eucharist,” Simon says. “Once this happened, I knew there was an intervention of God.”

After buying a lot in Orangevale and paying building fees, there was only $550,000 left for building the church. “That was impossible,” Simon says. “I know — I am a developer by trade.”

Somehow they managed to do the impossible. Simon got discounts from suppliers and he persuaded workers, most of them not Chaldeans or Catholics, to help build the church. “Each morning we began with prayers. We worked as late as 7 in the evening. We would end with a prayer — ’God, we will see you tomorrow in your house.’”

“They worked for almost nothing. We did it that way — through love and sacrifice. I am not saying that to boast, but to let other people of faith know that if they want to build a house of the Lord, it does not take money. It takes faith, love and sacrifice.”

“Then we had another miracle,” Simon says. “All these years, we were no more than 40 families. During the construction, we started having new immigrants because of the persecution in Iraq — nearly 40 families and more to come.”

Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church was consecrated in March. Two priests, one from Ceres, the other from San Jose, alternate in celebrating the liturgy each Sunday in Aramaic, the language of the Chaldeans and the Assyrians and the language spoken by Jesus and the apostles.

For those who come to the liturgy but don’t know Aramaic, “We translate back and forth — English and Aramaic. When they understand it, then they love it.”

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