By Subdeacon Peter Samore
When he first stepped onto American soil in 1920, little did Archdeacon Antony Bashir know that he would plant the seeds that would blossom into the Diocese of Los Angeles and the West. That year, the future Metropolitan-Archbishop of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America came to Portland, Oregon on a visit with His Eminence, Metropolitan GERASIMOS (Messara). Shortly thereafter, Archdeacon Antony was secured to minister to the Antiochian flocks yearning for Jesus Christ throughout the United States and Canada as a priest and hierarch. As the latter, His Eminence, Metropolitan ANTONY organized and established the collection of parishes in the west as the Western Region, the predecessor of the Diocese of Los Angeles and the West.
It was in Portland, Oregon, that those seeds of Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church in the western United States bore the initial fruit with the establishment of St. George Church in 1930. This was soon followed by the founding of the community of St. George in Los Angeles, California in 1933 (which later gave way to St. Nicholas in 1950). St. Nicholas in San Francisco, California was established in 1938, followed by the birth of St. George in Phoenix, Arizona in 1949, thus giving the region four parishes in three western states. The Orthodox Church in the west continued to grow as the faithful continued to establish parishes for the purpose of worship and fellowship.
On May 5, 1964, His Eminence, Metropolitan ANTONY declared St. Nicholas of Los Angeles to be the Cathedral of the Western Region, the see of the metropolitan (and later, the diocesan bishop) for the western United States and Canada. Its pastor, Father Paul Romley, was named the first dean of the cathedral and exarch of the Western Region clergy.
Though the passing of His Eminence, Metropolitan ANTONY in 1966 was indeed a sad one, a new hierarch took charge of the flock in the west and throughout all of North America. His Eminence, Metropolitan PHILIP (Saliba) was consecrated in Lebanon on August 14, 1966. His first visit to the flock was in the Western Region, as he returned to preside over the Archdiocese Convention hosted by St. Nicholas of San Francisco. His Eminence, Metropolitan PHILIP then visited the western churches before heading for New York to be enthroned on October 13, 1966.
By 1975, with the joyful reunification of the Archdioceses of New York and Toledo, Ohio, the number of parishes grew to ten and now included the state of Nevada. Though small in stature at this point, the Orthodox Christian witness and ministry shone brightly out west. We shared in the joy of the “Antiochian Holy Year” in 1977 when we welcomed His Beatitude, Patriarch ELIAS IV (Muawad) to the Western Region Parish and Family Life Conference, hosted by St. Nicholas Cathedral in Los Angeles.
By 1985, the Western Region had grown to a total of 15 churches. Also declared an “Antiochian Holy Year” by His Eminence, Metropolitan PHILIP, the Western Region once again welcomed the Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, His Beatitude, IGNATIUS IV (Hazim). He presided over the Parish and Family Life Conference, once again held in Los Angeles.
His Beatitude, Patriarch IGNATIUS had visited the west on what would be the dawn of a new era in the Western Region. On the verge of a major growth spurt, the Antiochian Archdiocese moved to purchase the Los Angeles Chancery in 1986, which would house the future diocesan bishop and headquarters. This stately manor nestled in the Hancock Park neighborhood of Los Angeles is just three miles from St. Nicholas Cathedral. One year later, the Antiochian Archdiocese welcomed into the Orthodox Church some 2,000 members of the Evangelical Orthodox Church, bringing with them many new parishes and faithful to the West. Many of them were chrismated at St. Michael Church in Van Nuys, California; many new clergy were ordained shortly thereafter at St. Nicholas Cathedral. That year, the Western Region exploded to 27 parishes in seven states and two Canadian provinces.
Mass conversion of faithful and whole parishes into the Orthodox faith has led to a period of unprecedented growth, as the Region expanded to 47 churches and missions by the year 2000. Many former Protestants conducted extensive searches into church history, and their own souls, and discovered the Orthodox Church, the faith of the Apostles. Recent immigration fluxes from the Middle East have also contributed to the growth of the Diocese.
The Western Region had previously been shepherded by His Eminence, Metropolitan PHILIP and the auxiliary bishops of the Antiochian Archdiocese. In 1995, a permanent auxiliary bishop was assigned to the Los Angeles Chancery to lead the flock of western North America. His Grace, Bishop JOSEPH (Al-Zehlaoui) makes constant visits to his parishes, carrying with him the love and grace of God as he strives to strengthen the Diocese entrusted to him, making no distinction between those who have grown in the Orthodox faith and those who are new to it.
The growth of the Diocese is indeed characteristic of the Archdiocese. In 2001, His Eminence, Metropolitan PHILIP and the General Assembly of the Antiochian Archdiocese petitioned the Patriarchate of Antioch for “Self-Rule” status. When this degree was awarded in 2003, the seven geographic regions became dioceses.
A bright, new chapter opened for the Diocese of Los Angeles and the West in 2007, as His Grace, Bishop JOSEPH hosted the canonical Orthodox Christian Bishops of the West Coast in their historic first gathering on Bright Tuesday, April 10, 2007 in Los Angeles. In attendance were His Eminence, Metropolitan GERASIMOS (Michaleas) of the Greek Orthodox Christian Metropolis of San Francisco; His Grace, Bishop MAXIM (Vasilijevic) of the Serbian Orthodox Christian Diocese of Western America; and His Grace, Bishop BENJAMIN (Peterson), along with the Deans of the four Cathedrals in the Los Angeles area, including V. Rev. Great Economos Michel Najim of St. Nicholas Cathedral. His Grace, Bishop JOSEPH opened the gathering by stressing the importance of expressing our Holy Orthodox Faith with one voice. The hierarchs discussed a variety of matters including the need for Pan-Orthodox gatherings. To that end, the bishops agreed at their second meeting on July 19, 2007 in San Francisco, California, to concelebrate the Hierarchical Divine Liturgy every year on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, starting in 2008. They pledged to develop collaborative continuing education programs for clergy and laity, as well as work more closely with Orthodox Christian Fellowship (OCF) ensuring that every university campus within the western states and provinces has an Orthodox presence. In 2010, they initiated the annual Pan-Orthodox Clergy Retreat during the season of Advent. This provides gifted scholars and speakers for our priests and deacons who ordinarily would not have the opportunity for fellowship across jurisdictions. We pray that the Holy Spirit Himself will guide the works of the hierarchs in this continuing effort with the oneness of spirit, heart and mind.
Sayidna JOSEPH has led two delegations of clergy and laity on spiritual pilgrimages to two of our sister Orthodox Christian patriarchates. In June of 2008, the first group journeyed to Russia, visiting holy and historic sites in St. Petersburg, Moscow and Sergiev-Posad. Some on the journey remarked that each cathedral they visited was more majestic than the last. Sayidna JOSEPH met with his brother-in-Christ, His Grace, Bishop NIPHON (Saikaley), the representative of the Antiochian Church in Russia, who then facilitated an audience with His Holiness, Patriarch ALEXEI II (Mihailovich-Ridiger) of Moscow. The three hierarchs, as well as two others, concelebrated the Vigil for the feast of Pentecost at Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Monastery in the presence of the incorrupt body of St. Sergius Radonezh.
The second trip occurred in the autumn of 2010 to the Middle East. Sayidna JOSEPH and the pilgrims toured throughout Syria and Lebanon, and for some it was a homecoming to their spiritual and ancestral roots. His Beatitude, Patriarch IGNATIUS IV warmly received the delegation in the synodal chamber at the patriarchate, as did nearly all of the metropolitans and superiors of the Middle Eastern chanceries and monasteries. Near the end of the trip, the delegation went into southern Turkey to visit the historic city of Antioch, where the disciples were first called Christians (Acts 11:26). The group walked where the Apostles walked, and celebrated Great Vespers at Ss. Peter and Paul Cathedral for St. John Chrysostom.
Nearly one year later, Sayidna JOSEPH led an archdiocesan delegation to Lebanon for the consecrations of three new hierarchs for North America: Their Graces, Bishop JOHN (Abdalah), Bishop ANTHONY (Michaels) and Bishop NICHOLAS (Ozone). At the end of the Divine Liturgy on December 11, 2011, His Beatitude, Patriarch IGNATIUS surprised everyone by elevating Sayidna JOSEPH to the dignity of Archbishop. In his remarks upon elevating his spiritual son of fifty years, His Beatitude, Patriarch IGNATIUS confirmed and celebrated what Orthodox Christians already knew about Sayidna JOSEPH: that “he is a good man and a great bishop and deserves to be called an archbishop,” especially in respect to his lifetime of service to the Church of Antioch. His Beatitude also praised His Eminence as an ambassador of the Balamand Seminary, Monastery and University to the West.
From its humble beginnings, the Diocese of Los Angeles and the West now includes well over 60 parishes and missions in eight western states and three Canadian provinces. We pray that God will continue to bless our Diocese with the growth of our parishes, not just in number, but in the eternal faith of our Lord Jesus Christ.