At 10:45 am on Sunday at Holy Cross Melkite Catholic Church in Placentia, families with small children, teenagers and grandparents, slowly filled the pews of the small church on Madison Avenue. Father Francois Beyrouti, pastor of the parish, stands at the entrance of the church and greets parishioner Michel Kashou with, “sabah alkhyr,” or “good morning” in Arabic.
Michel and his wife, Nadia, have been members of Holy Cross and volunteer in several parish positions for the last 35 years. The couple raised their five children here. Nadia prepares coffee in the parish hall every Sunday and sings in the choir during the 11a.m. Divine Liturgy. Michel serves as usher, financial adviser and parish council president. Like the Kashous, many of Holy Cross’s members have roots in Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Sudan. Many of them are immigrant families who are originally from different Melkite churches in the Middle East. It is what makes the Byzantine Eastern Catholic parish so unique.
“All of these communities who originally have been praying and worshipping as Melkite Eastern Catholics for the last 2,000 years, this is their home, this where they come. They gather here as one Melkite Church,” said Father Beyrouti. “But it’s also an expression of Eastern Catholicism in Orange County. People from all over the Middle East who are Melkites, are here.”
The Melkites are descendants of the early Christians of Antioch where the Disciples of Christ were first called Christians. St. Peter established Christianity in the region before he traveled to Rome. In 451 A.D., in the Council of Chalcedon, the Catholic Church significantly defined that Jesus is “perfect both in deity and in humanness; this selfsame one is also actually God and actually man.” While some of the eastern churches rejected this teaching, others in the Middle East accepted the decision and followed the lead of the Byzantine emperor and were called Melkites, or “King’s Men.”
The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Eastern Catholic Churches in 1964 is considered an important step toward continued unity between the Melkite Church and Rome. It recognized the right of Eastern Catholics to maintain their apostolic traditions and prayers. Present-day Melkites continue to be in communion with Rome as well as follow the Byzantine liturgy and traditions. It is also technically the only Eastern Church not associated with a particular ethnicity.
Holy Cross Melkite Catholic Church was originally founded in 1973 in Fullerton and later moved to Placentia in 1998 after purchasing the current property from a Scandinavian Lutheran community. The parish kept the traditional architecture of the Lutheran church, which was designed after the interior of large wooden voyaging boats used by Lutheran missionaries to travel in the past. Once the missionaries reached land, the boats were flipped over and used as a makeshift church. The growing, tight-knit Holy Cross community is comprised of 500 registered families and has plans to build a new, larger church that will accommodate up to 350 people and will be designed in the style of the traditional Byzantine church.
Every Sunday begins with Orthros (morning prayer) at 9:45 a.m., followed by the Divine Liturgy at 11a.m. The hour-long service consists of rich traditions and prayers chanted in Arabic, Greek and English. Services in Arabic are held on the first Sundays of the month. Members gather in the hall after the liturgy to socialize and meet. Sunday school for young children and youth ministry for high school students are also held after liturgy, while a young-adult group for adults ages 21 to 35 is held every first Sunday of the month. Many of its members make the hour-long drive from parts of San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino Counties.
Sandra Maayah and her family have been commuting from Moreno Valley for 21 years. She and her husband were married in the church and their two children received their sacraments there as well. She could have driven a shorter distance to a Melkite church closer to where she lives, but she has made a home at Holy Cross.
“They have great activities for kids here especially during Easter and Christmas, as well as Sunday school. Father explains scripture so well for us. Our deacon is very supportive. And the website and bulletin are so helpful,” said Maayah. “We have made many friends that became like family over the years.”
Michael Nassar, 18, serves as youth-group president and altar server. He and his family have been members since he was a child.
“There’s no other way to say it other than it’s like family here,” said Nassar. “We’re a small parish and we welcome everyone as family. God brings us together in a love that can’t be provided or obtained without Him.”