HISTORY IN AUDIO FORMAT, NARRATED BY DEACON PETER SAMORE
HISTORY IN TEXT FORMAT
The history of the Cathedral located in Los Angeles, California is truly a story of people of vision, courage, dedication, leadership, and religious conviction. It is the story of the needs of many Orthodox families who had settled in the greater Los Angeles area since the turn of the twentieth century. It is a story of those who had devoted their lives to the service of our community, of leaders who are no longer with us, but who shall always remain dear in our hearts because of their wisdom, love and accomplishments. Their legacy continues today.
The first endeavor to establish an Antiochian Orthodox Church in Southern California started in the early 1900s by a handful of Arab-American families in Los Angeles; families who had gone to several other churches in their community for their spiritual services. Between 1900 and 1902, two different attempts had been made to build an Orthodox Church. Money had been collected on two different occasions, only to be returned because of disagreements between factions in policies involving the construction and operation of the church. After the end of World War I in 1918, significant changes took place: first, a considerable population increase of Orthodox families of Arabic heritage in the Los Angeles area; second, the much-revered Father Elias Sady moved his family from Duluth, Minnesota, to Los Angeles, where he purchased a four-room house at 36th and Gramercy Place. An altar was installed in this house and Fr. Sady’s “Orthodox Church home” was established. Many families came to share his love of the Orthodox Liturgy and service. Thereafter, Fr. Sady, with the assistance of community leaders, raised the necessary funds to purchase a site for a new church adjacent to his residence. St. George Orthodox Church opened its doors to the faithful in 1924, serving the religious needs of over 100 followers. Fr. Sady served the community well, although it became increasingly difficult to meet the religious needs of an ever-expanding Orthodox family.
In 1927, matters came to a head as problems developed, both in the Orthodox Community and in the church itself on Gramercy Place. The church environment was changing due to patterns of population growth; parking and attending services became difficult. Talk of a new church in a more central and desirable location grew increasingly in popularity. In 1936, the newly consecrated Metropolitan ANTONY (Bashir) visited Los Angeles and attended a general meeting of the Orthodox community in the basement of St. George Church. A general agreement among the St. George Orthodox Society was reached: the time had come to build a new and larger church site better located to serve the needs of the parishioners. Fr. Sady felt strongly attached to his St. George Church, and despite many attempts to get him involved in the new church, he decided to remain with his original parish.
The 1940s ushered in a new era in our Orthodox community. On April 8, 1946, the name of the St. George Orthodox Society was changed to the St. Nicholas Orthodox Society. Its purpose was to go forward with the plans to build the new church. The first Board of Directors put into operation the fund-raising drive, working day and night to collect the money needed for construction. They also took out a $300,000 line of credit with a local bank. Originally, the Church was to be located at 8th and Grandview, where the Haddad family donated the property. That land was eventually sold for a profit and the church site was relocated to 3rd and Grandview where it stands today. In 1948, after years of hope and frustration, struggle and sacrifice, the cornerstone was laid with hundreds of Orthodox faithful in attendance.
In 1950, the dream of a new temple became a reality, as the church building was completed. The cost of the building was approximately $600,000. St. Nicholas Orthodox Church was now ready to begin serving about 350 families in the Los Angeles area. Two pastors, along with two assistant pastors, ministered the flock in the early years of the parish. Fr. Antony Woolf served as the first pastor from 1949-1951. Fr. James Meena followed in 1951 and served the parish until 1961. His father, Fr. Elias Meena assisted Fr. James from 1952 until his death in 1955. With the passing of Fr. Elias, Fr. John Reinhold became the new assistant pastor and served St. Nicholas until 1972, when he was assigned as the pastor of St. Michael Orthodox Church in Van Nuys, California. Fr. John became one of the most beloved members of the clergy to serve at St. Nicholas. All those who worked with him will long remember his contributions to the Church School and Summer Camp.
In January 1952, construction on the hall began under the direction of architect Paul Williams, who also had built the temple. The hall was completed in 1953 at a cost of about $285,000. And again, Metropolitan ANTONY presided at the dedication that September. Most inspiring and memorable about the construction of the hall was that the entire community, men and women, young and old, pitched in on a daily basis to help save thousands of dollars in labor costs. Over the years, the hall has become the center of the Orthodox community in relation to its social, religious, educational, civic, athletic and cultural programs. In the early 1950s, the St. Nicholas community prospered and grew mainly as a result of the work of its organizations. The Men’s Society, the Board of Directors, the Ladies Societies and the SOYO organizations all played important roles in the daily expansion and development of St. Nicholas in those early days. In addition to the continued growth of these organizations, many programs were developed that are still much a part of our daily lives, and form the backbone of our Cathedral.
In 1949, the Junior League first introduced the St. Nicholas Sweetheart Ball. The Sweetheart Ball was established initially as the King and Queen Ball. A king and queen were elected to reign and the queen had a court of princesses. The king and queen concept was reformatted in 1957 in favor of the current presentation of the Debutantes. The year 1950 saw the start of our Church School, our Altar Boy program, and the Cathedral Choir. Shortly thereafter, the Cathedral witnessed growth in our SOYO organizations, as our young people became actively involved in the daily life of the church. Many of our leaders of the church today acquired their leadership skills through their involvement in SOYO, which has greatly benefitted many other outreaches. In 1953-54, our chapter in Los Angeles was instrumental in assisting the formation of the Western Region SOYO. The years 1951 and 1952 saw the birth of our Summer Camping program for the youth of St. Nicholas. In the early years, camp was held at rented properties in various southern California locations.
In 1959, a committee was formed to study the purchase or leasing of our own property. After a long search for a precious treasure that included cool, fresh springs of water, a fountain of youth in a setting of beauty that God created for mankind, a site was selected in the Mt. Pinos area of the Los Padres National Forest located near Frazier Park, California. The construction of the camp was organized around a master plan developed in 1962; construction was completed in 1964, just in time for the first session that summer. The Cathedral holds a 99-year lease on 21 acres of federal national forest land. Over the years, our camp has expanded to a four-week program, with one week of staff training, serving many of Orthodox Churches in the west. Camp has been a “holy mountain” where our children can pray and play, instrumental in building lifelong friendships and bringing our youth closer to God and the Church, while also serving as a ministry for those who attend as counselors, staff and clergy. In 1954, the Church purchased its first plots at Valhalla Cemetery in North Hollywood.
Today, the St. Nicholas Memorial Gardens is one of the most beautiful areas any cemetery has to offer for the repose of our loved ones. Over the years, many improvements to the property have been made thanks to the generosity of several of our parishioners. St. Nicholas Cathedral has hosted a record five Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese conventions, the first in 1952. Just six years later, our parish hosted another one, the 13th Annual Syrian (Antiochian) Archdiocese Convention at the Statler Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles. These were the first of many Conventions and Regional SOYO Conferences hosted by St. Nicholas. A new era in the history of St. Nicholas began in 1961. Fr. James Meena was reassigned to another parish and left for Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Under his leadership, the parish had accomplished a great deal in a short time. To replace him, Metropolitan ANTONY sent Archpriest Paul W. Romley to be our new pastor and dean of clergy in the Western Region. Fr. Paul, his wife Patty and their family arrived from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where he served faithfully as the Pastor of St. George Orthodox Church for ten years. For the next 35 years, Fr. Paul became a major force behind all that was good and all that the parish accomplished. Assisting Fr. Paul during these years were his father, Deacon Habib Romley, Fr. John Reinhold, Fr. George Alberts, Fr. Elias Bitar, Fr. Paul O’Callaghan, Fr. James Haddad, Fr. Michel Najim, Fr. Thomas O’Dea, and Archdeacon George Shishim.
Starting in 1964, the church began a beautification project that has gradually made the Cathedral one of the most beautiful Houses of Worship in all of North America. The murals and icons that adorn our Cathedral today are among the largest and most exquisite to be found anywhere. The mosaics on the Iconostas were made in Florence, Italy, by the world-renowned school of Malini and Company. In October of 1976, construction began on St. George Chapel and its Baptistery. On May 5, 1964, 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. Fr. Paul was named the first dean of the Cathedral and exarch of the Western Region clergy. Fr. Paul was part of the historic North America delegation to witnesses the consecration of Metropolitan PHILIP (Saliba) at St. Elias Monastery in Lebanon on August 14, 1966. His Eminence made one of his first pastoral visits, before his enthronement in Brooklyn, New York, here at St. Nicholas.
In 1967, the St. Nicholas Men’s Society sponsored the first Father and Son Sports Night Banquet. This event has showcased some of the most talented professional and amateur athletes in Southern California and the nation, as well as many famous show business celebrities. Although the format has changed in recent years to a Sports Night Banquet with the whole family participating, this banquet is still one of the most anticipated events every June. Among our celebrities: Willie McCovey, Muhammed Ali, Pat Riley, Mike Scioscia, Bob Miller, and the Famous Peanut Man, Roger Owens. Many of our guests have exclaimed this to be one of the finest sports banquets in all of southern California. For many years this program has sponsored hundreds of underprivileged children from various organizations in southern California, namely Shriners Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles.
In 1968, St. Michael Antiochian Orthodox Church in Van Nuys, California opened with the support of St. Nicholas. Fr. Paul Romley celebrated the first Divine Liturgy for this parish. St. Nicholas was also instrumental in the founding of other Orthodox Churches in Southern California, including St. Luke in Garden Grove, St. Mark in Irvine, and St. George in Upland. We also supported the building project at St. Anne Melkite Church in North Hollywood, California. As we entered the 1970s, our Cathedral membership had grown to well over 500 families. In 1971, the first major renovation of the Hall commenced, and over the years many changes have been made to maintain its beauty and functionality. Many of these improvements were made possible through the generous contributions of members of St. Nicholas.
In 1972, St. Nicholas hosted the 27th Archdiocese Convention at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. The convention registered close to 3,000 people and is still considered one of the largest and most successful conventions in the history of the Archdiocese. In 1977, the Cathedral welcomed his Beatitude Patriarch ELIAS (Muawad) IV as we hosted the Western Region SOYO Conference at the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles. This was the first-ever Patriarchal visit to the United States. On November 5, 1978, ground was broken on the St. Nicholas Cedars Manor project. This Senior Citizens home was erected on property adjacent to the Cathedral. Its purpose was to provide housing to our seniors and, by keeping them close to the church, they would be able to continue to be involved and a part of the community. The project was completed in 1980. With the assistance of the Federal Government, we have been able to provide low-cost housing for many of our elderly parishioners and other residents of the neighborhood.
In 1981, the Orthodox Parents Teachers Organization (OPTO) was formed to give support to the Church School. For the next 10 years this organization was responsible for raising money for the remodeling of the entire Church School facility as well as sponsoring many activities that brought our parents, teachers, and students together for fellowship and instruction in our faith. Also that year, St. Nicholas hosted the 36th Archdiocese Convention at the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles. This convention registered over 2,600 people from throughout the Archdiocese. In 1985, St. Nicholas Cathedral welcomed His Beatitude, Patriarch IGNATIUS (Hazim) IV as we hosted the Western Region SOYO Conference at the Sheraton Universal Hotel in Universal City, California. Just as in 1977, Metropolitan PHILIP proclaimed this year an “Antiochian Holy Year” as the Archdiocese received the Patriarch of Antioch and all the East.
In 1986, the first Christmas Spectacular debuted in the Cathedral Auditorium. As a result of its success, two more Christmas Spectaculars were held in 1988 and 1990 in the Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. The cast and choirs of these Christmas Spectaculars were made up of members of some forty Orthodox Churches of various jurisdictions in Southern California as well as many famous entertainers, including legends Danny Thomas and Jamie Farr. Two significant events at St. Nicholas coincided in 1987. First, the Cathedral assisted in the chrismations of and the “welcoming home” into the Antiochian Archdiocese of over 2000 parishioners (including 150 priests and deacons) of the Evangelical Orthodox Church. Second, Fr. Michel Najim, a renowned scholar, was chosen by Metropolitan PHILIP to educate the newly received Evangelicals, while assisting at the Cathedral.
In July 15, 1987, Fr. Michel and his wife Eva, an accomplished chanter, and their three children arrived in Los Angeles. The Najims have become important parts of our St. Nicholas family. Fr. Michel previously served as Dean and professor at Saint John of Damascus school of Theology at the Balamand University in Lebanon. Drawing on his theological expertise, for eight years he assisted Fr. Paul and taught at the St. Athanasius Orthodox Christian Academy in Santa Barbara, and at other universities and seminaries in Southern California. In 1988, the Cathedral established the Maintenance Fund and an Endowment Fund to meet the future financial and physical needs of the Cathedral property. Today the balances in these funds combined exceed $1.2 million. As a result on the many generous donations by our parishioners and friends, the future of our Church property is more secure now than ever. During the 1980s we saw a tremendous influx of our Orthodox brothers and sisters coming to America from the Middle East. Many of them were displaced by Civil War in Lebanon and were looking for a place to reestablish their homes and their faith. Many of them found their way to our community, became members of the Cathedral, and contributed to our success.
The year 1990 saw the establishment of the West Coast Chancery (residence of the bishop) of the Antiochian Archdiocese in the Hancock Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. Our Cathedral was very involved in supporting this project from its early beginnings. The 1990s brought a new ministry to our Orthodox community. Outreach to our surrounding neighborhood started with the establishment of the St. Nicholas Childcare Center in 1990. Housed on the property of our Cathedral, this program enables many of those working in and around the neighborhood to leave their children in a qualified, approved Childcare Center. In 1993, the Kids Club was born as a community outreach program to the children in the immediate neighborhood of the Cathedral. Four major Kids Club events are scheduled during the year and supported by our youth and our adults. As many as 1200 children and parents in the community have participated at each of these events. In recent years, this ministry has seen establishment of a Spanish-language Divine Liturgy or Typica Service every Sunday morning. Some of these families have become Orthodox as a result of this program.
In 1995, Bishop JOSEPH (al-Zehlaoui) was assigned as Auxiliary Bishop to the West Coast Chancery in Los Angeles. He had previously served in the same capacity for Patriarch Ignatius, and as a priest in several countries before that. Sayidna JOSEPH’s spiritual and loving nature has been a source of inspiration to all of us at the Cathedral, which he uses as the beacon and center of activity for the parishes he serves in the western United States and Canada. Almost without exception, Sayidna celebrates Palm Sunday, Holy Friday and St. Nicholas Day with us, and hosts his southern California clergy each Bright Wednesday for a Hierarchical Divine Liturgy. He also opens the Cathedral to any function that would strengthen the body of Christ, especially inter-Orthodox activities. St. Nicholas Cathedral witnessed the end of an era with the retirement of Fr. Paul Romley. On May 18, 1996 a banquet was held honoring his 35 years at St. Nicholas and 45 years in the Holy Priesthood. The Cathedral Auditorium was filled to capacity with over 550 people in attendance. Metropolitan PHILIP, Bishop ANTOUN (Khouri) and Bishop JOSEPH were among the guests in attendance. Fr. Paul’s impact on this community was immeasurable, as there were so many things he did and so many accomplishments for the Cathedral during these years. Working along with him all those years was his beloved wife Patty and his family. They all have meant so much to this community.
Upon his retirement, Fr. Paul was given the title of Dean Emeritus. Replacing Fr. Paul as Dean of the Cathedral was Fr. Michel Najim. His chief visions include the ongoing increase of liturgical and theological education of the laity at the Cathedral, the expansion of its role in training future priests, deacons and subdeacons on the West Coast, and the reaching out to the lost sheep. Fr. Michel has relied on our own Archdeacon George, a driving force behind this effort who has personally sponsored for ordination and taught generations of new clergy and altar servers the sacred rubrics of the holy altar. They have not only offered their personal guidance to these men, but Fr. Michel put his personal stamp on their curriculum by developing the Antiochian Archdiocese’s House of Studies. Fr. Michel is a professor of the St. Stephen’s Correspondence Course and the Doctor of Ministry (D.Min.) Program. So far, in his tenure as Dean, Fr. Michel has enlisted and cultivated the help of highly-qualified sons of St. Nicholas to serve as assistant pastors of the Cathedral. Fr. George Ajalat, M.D. helped establish the initial outreach to the neighboring Hispanic community.
Fr. George Taweel, a television producer, has been instrumental in reconnecting our shut-ins and lost sheep with their church. Fr. Paul Olson, a former missionary in Columbia, has assisted in connecting and reconnecting all of these groups with the True Faith. In 1996, the newly ordained Fr. John Reimann was assigned as the Assistant Pastor at St. Nicholas. Along with his wife Christina, they had endeared themselves to our Parish. Fr. John and Christina have since been blessed with two daughters, and had assumed leadership of many programs within the Cathedral with much of his focus on summer camp and the young adults. Fr. John’s emphasis on spiritual growth has allowed us to gain a better understanding of our journey to salvation. In January, 2008 he became pastor of St. Anthony Church in La Jolla.
In 1999, His Beatitude Patriarch Ignatius IV made his second visit to the Cathedral. The entire community was involved in this holy visit, as he raised funds for a grateful University of Balamand, just outside of Tripoli, Lebanon. The Cathedral also purchased additional property adjacent to Cedars Manor, “The Nicholas House,” once again expanding our facilities. St. Nicholas hosted the 45th Antiochian Archdiocese Convention at the Century Plaza Hotel in 2001. We welcomed 2400 clergy and laity, including ten Antiochian Orthodox Christian bishops from around the world, and Issam Fares, the Deputy Prime Minister of Lebanon. We hosted history, because this convention began the process of gaining Self-Rule status for the Archdiocese. With the blessing of the Antiochian Patriarchate, our Archdiocese may now elect our own diocesan bishops, and nominate three qualified candidates for the office of metropolitan, of which the Antiochian Synod will choose one.
In 2002, we honored our beloved Fr. Michel on the occasion of his 15th anniversary at St. Nicholas, as well as his 25th anniversary in the holy priesthood. In attendance were his best friend from their seminary days at the Balamand, His Grace, Bishop JOSEPH, and his predecessor Fr. Paul Romley. With any growth comes some loss, and St. Nicholas Cathedral suffered greatly late in 2003. We bid our earthly farewells to Fr. Paul Romley and Fr. John Reinhold, our spiritual leaders and visionaries who strengthened the foundation of our cathedral and community. Combined attendance at both funerals numbered nearly 2000 people, including dozens of clergy from all over Southern California. On September 12, 2004, our Western Region became the Diocese of Los Angeles and the West, as Bishop JOSEPH was enthroned as the ruling bishop at St. Nicholas Cathedral. Metropolitan PHILIP presided over the Hierarchical Divine Liturgy and Enthronement. We once again hosted history, as Bishop JOSEPH’s enthronement was the first enthronement in our Archdiocese since Metropolitan PHILIP’s 38 years prior.
In 2005, we celebrated the golden anniversary of the Cathedral’s Debutante Ball. St. Nicholas honored its daughters for the fiftieth time in a glorious ceremony marking their presentation to the Holy Church. This joyful evening is conducted in the manner in which the Holy Theotokos was presented to the Temple, and to the service of the Lord. In 2006 and 2007, the Cathedral established the “Property Procurement Fund” to purchase adjacent properties to meet the ever-growing physical needs of our community. Escrow closed for the sale of the 7,500 square-foot property on 4th Street, next to the “Nicholas House” in January, 2007. This will help the Cathedral expand its footprint in the neighborhood at a time when real estate is at a premium. The 4th Street property cost $760,000, and it is the Cathedral’s goal to pay off the loan within five years. A dinner honoring the “Loafers” in October, 2006 raised $75,000 to relieve some of the costs. No doubt, every family in the community will need to play a vital role in contributing to this goal.
Our Cathedral hosted the 2008 Diocesan Parish Life Conference at the LAX Marriott over the Fourth of July weekend. St. Nicholas is no stranger to this role, but since the major expansion of the Diocese, it had only recently hosted a PLC in 1992, and an Archdiocese Convention in 2001. The leadership team, headed by C. Fredrick Milkie, Jr., provided for a most successful gathering of over 900 clergy and laity. At the Conference climax—the Sunday Hierarchical Divine Liturgy—Sayidna JOSEPH ordained a native son, Dn. George Taweel, to the Holy Priesthood. Fr. George now serves as an assistant pastor at the Cathedral. December 6, “St. Nicholas Day”, is a day of major celebration in our community, and usually coincides with clergy ordinations and elevations.
The years 2007 and 2008 were no exception. In 2007, we witnessed the ordination of Dn. George Ajalat, M.D., to the Holy Priesthood, where he will continue his leadership with the Hispanic Mission. In 2008, Fr. Ajalat’s assistant, Dn. Paul Olson, was also ordained to the priesthood, having come to the Cathedral several years before for this ministry. (Fr. Paul was ordained a deacon on St. Nicholas Day in 2006.) Right after Fr. Paul’s priestly ordination, another native son, Subdn. Maxime Najim, was ordained to the Deaconate. He grew up at the Cathedral in its various ministries: altar boy captain, Teen SOYO officer, and Church School Teacher. St. Nicholas Cathedral has long been a proponent in inter-Orthodox unity, as it has hosted countless activities to bring Christ’s flock together. We most especially express this in our sacraments and worship and, through the years, the Cathedral has celebrated Vespers on the evening of the Sunday of Orthodoxy in Great Lent. All the clergy and laity process with icons to celebrate their correct restoration and veneration in the ninth century. This celebration took a different form in recent years, as all canonical Orthodox Christian bishops on the West Coast now concelebrate the Hierarchical Divine Liturgy that morning. St. Nicholas Cathedral and our Bishop JOSEPH hosted this inspiring gathering in 2009.
The Cathedral concludes a busy 2010 with the remodeling of the hall, a necessary update so that it can house our meals and events for years to come. The famed iconographer Nicola Majdalani continues to write beautiful, gold-leaf icons for our parish for even more windows into Heaven. On Lazarus Saturday, March 27, Sayidna JOSEPH ordained two men, Subdns. John Germain and Nicholas Hanna, to the Holy Deaconate. Father Michel has launched more Bible studies across the greater Los Angeles area based on zip codes and neighborhoods. The visitation program is also expanding to reach new members, the lost sheep and shut-ins. Our laity benefit from www.stnicholasla.com, which offers audio from the Sunday sermons, various articles and room for other multimedia. The Antiochian Women (Ladies Society) continues its vital ministry to the Cathedral and plans another Debutante Ball for the spring of 2011. Our young adult and youth programs, especially the Church School, still contribute and represent the Cathedral at various Diocesan and Archdiocesan gatherings. In the 60-year history of St. Nicholas Cathedral, there have been over 2800 Baptisms, 1500 Marriages, 1500 Funerals, and dozens of clergy ordinations and elevations. As a parish, we have so much for which we must be thankful to God. Our Father in Heaven gave us such a great patron and top intercessor in St. Nicholas, archbishop of Myra in Lycia, the wonderworker, who is our model as a parish: meek and humble like a child, yet wise in the Lord like an adult. We work together as a family – physical and spiritual – just like St. Nicholas did.
The road may be bumpy at times, but we forget that we are to help and love one another, which makes our arrival at the destination even more joyous. The success of the Orthodox Christian community of St. Nicholas these past six decades has predicated itself on spiritual leadership, dedication, vision and sacrifice. Our blessings from God Most-high have been our clergy and every parishioner who has helped to build a truly heavenly and holy temple for us in which to worship. Now, we must encourage our youth to carry their cross and follow Christ, take up the torch given to them by the prior generations and assist them in continuing the work of the Lord through His Holy Church.