ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Eastern Catholicism in the American West

The Byzantine Church is alive and well in, of all places, the American southwest.

It’s not something you’d expect to find in the American southwest. Here are people who trace their roots to eastern and western Europe, Africa, Japan, Latin America and the native American territories – all singing traditional Slavic hymns.

Come to think of it, you’d probably not expect to find that anywhere.

Enter Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Albuquerque, N.M., a Byzantine Catholic parish whose members venerate icons and worship according to Ruthenian and Ukrainian customs. A strong, quiet trend has been changing the Western Christian Churches in the western portion of the United States. Many people from a mix of religious and ethnic backgrounds are drawn to the ancient churches of the East.

This parish is a good example. In 48 of 71 households, at least one member is of a non-Byzantine background. Some come from Jewish and Protestant families, many are formerly inactive Roman Catholics brought hack to the faith by being introduced to the Byzantine Church.

Just about everyone drives long distances to the church. Our Lady of Perpetual Help covers four counties, with some people driving for nearly an hour oneway. One young couple calls the parish office to get a ride or to let the priest know that they are unable to attend Sunday liturgy. Altar servers are known to hurry their parents out the door so they can get to the sacristy early to prepare for the Divine Liturgy.

In order of importance, the parishioners name what makes them so dedicated to the parish: worship, spirituality, a rich tradition and the sense of community. It is interesting that while so many seem to mention reverence and holiness, there is no sense of being far from God. “There’s a sense of the entire person being involved,” one parishioner said. “It’s complete-mind, heart and body.”

The power of involvement in worship is well-demonstrated in the youngsters. They sing the liturgy right along with their parents and neighbors, they bow and kiss the icons and are comfortable with dialogue sermons, raising their hands and answering questions. Most can sing the entire Nicene Creed and know the long Communion Prayer by heart.

One of the oldest forms of Christian prayer outside of Divine Liturgy is the Jesus Prayer, which is deeply rooted in Byzantine Christendom. A lady of Irish background makes Jesus beads and distributes them with a copy of a short article on how to recite the prayer so that it becomes a constant practice. She had given out over 1,000 sets of beads by the spring of 1991.

Besides a rich liturgical and spiritual tradition, Eastern Christianity has preserved its various ethnic roots. For Slavic parishes, that includes practices such as the use of the distinctive three-barred cross; the painting of pysanky, the ornate Easter eggs; preparing baskets of foods to he blessed at Easter; making and enjoying traditional Slavic foods like holubki, pirohi and sausages for fund-raisers; using specially decorated candles; or celebrating feasts with mystery plays handed down since the Middle Ages. All of these enrich Christian life in the community. Making holubki and pirohi for a parish festival becomes a chance to learn from older parishioners who came from Europe.

The practice of blessing houses provides an opportunity for people to be able to sit down and visit with their pastor. Having the priest in annually for a short visit or dinner also remains fairly popular.

Life events of an individual family become life events for the church family. At baptism/chrismation, the first half of the Sunday liturgy is replaced by the celebration of these mysteries with the entire congregation. The oldest parishioner is asked to come up and give a blessing to the child as a symbol of the continuity of the faith. The hall becomes a place to continue the celebration. Solemn communions are done individually. When a child is ready to approach the altar, it is his or her own special day of rejoicing with the community.

Sickness is always trying, but the parish can help ease the pain. Names of ill relatives and friends are sung aloud during the Litany of Peace, and cards are sent to those we pray for as a sign of support. Locally, of course, there are visitations to hospitals and homes by the pastor, as well as by parishioners.

When a parishioner dies, the entire choir joins the priest in celebrating the Parastas the night before the funeral; people take off from work in order to assist in funeral services. The priest helps with the funeral arrangements as much as possible, a luncheon is hosted at the hall after services, and designated parishioners follow up with the families afterward.

The phenomenon of this parish is experienced elsewhere in the western states. The first Byzantine Catholic parish in the West, St. Mary’s in Van Nuys, Calif. (founded in 1956), foreshadowed this trend, for its first families were a mix of Slavs and non-Slavs, all dedicated to making a home for Byzantine worship at a time when Church leaders “back East” could not fathom how that parish would ever be connected with the rest of the nation.

In the years since, a host of parishes and missions of the different Byzantine Churches – along with other Eastern Churches – have sunk deep roots into western soil. Some parishes use Spanish in the Divine Liturgy; St. Nicholas’ parties feature a piñata for children’s delight. Decoration and landscaping reflect life in the West and the new experiences here. Each parish is diverse.

The presence of Byzantine parishes is important. This has two sides, for keeping the local parish going will necessitate more support and involvement than is required in a big Latin parish. When the congregation counts only 150 people (not families) it can be rough. But the beauty of the worship, the warmth of community, and the ongoing effect of prayer life during the week are such that everyone is willing to make sacrifices of their time and offerings of their gifts and talents. The enthusiasm and living spirit continue to invite more people.

Father Zugger, a Ruthenian Catholic priest, is pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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