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Sharing the Gospel to Grow

The city and the neighborhood have changed since St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral's beginnings. But the congregation is thriving.

September 16, 2000|MARGARET RAMIREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was 1950 when a handful of Lebanese and Syrian immigrants in Los Angeles came together to build an Orthodox church of their own. Bobbie Sadd, only 8 years old at the time, remembers how the group of about 60 families worked day and night, laying down wooden planks that would become the floor, hammering nails into the sacred walls and carrying the marble and mortar that would rise from 3rd and Alvarado streets as St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral.

"Me and my family literally helped put the boards on the floor," recalled Sadd, who now uses her married name, Bobbie Fitzgerald. It was during that time that she met Julia Zakaib and Zakaib's young son, John, a boy of Lebanese and Irish descent. John would become Bobbie Sadd's husband.

"The neighborhood has changed. But the thought that this church is still here and still growing after 50 years is what makes it so special," she said.

Next weekend, the congregation of St. Nicholas will commemorate its 50th anniversary, and for pioneers like the Sadd and Zakaib families, there is much to celebrate. The congregation has multiplied to more than 800 families--2,000 members of ethnicities that include Lebanese, Syrian, Egyptian, Jordanian, Palestinian, Russian and Ukrainian.

Additionally, as the gritty downtown Los Angeles neighborhood known as Westlake was transformed in the 1980s into an enclave for working-class Mexican and Central American immigrants, St. Nicholas began an outreach program for Latino families.

About five years ago, the church started a Sunday morning Spanish-language service for Latinos interested in converting to the Orthodox faith. The Very Rev. Michel Najim, dean of St. Nicholas, said the 8:30 a.m. service is attended by about 50 families and is growing.

"As immigration continues to change Los Angeles, it changes our church. It started with Lebanese and Syrians. Now it's become almost like an American church. We're trilingual here--we speak Arabic, English and Spanish."

"We have found that we have to share the Gospel with everyone, regardless of race. If Chinese people start moving into the neighborhood, then I'll learn Chinese too," Najim said with a laugh.

The Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church dates to the time of the apostles. According to tradition, Peter established the See of Antioch. Scripture refers to Antioch as the place where followers of Jesus were first called Christians.

The church claims about 5 million members worldwide, with most of its followers concentrated in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Kuwait. Its spiritual leader, Ignatius IV, patriarch of Antioch and all the East, resides at the church's headquarters in Damascus, Syria.

The North American branch of the church was born in 1895, when Syrian immigrants in New York City established a Syro-Arabian mission of the Russian Orthodox Church. St. Nicholas Cathedral in Brooklyn is considered the mother parish of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of North America. The movement to build an Antiochian Orthodox church in Los Angeles began in the 1920s when a group of Arabic Orthodox families began meeting at the home of Father Elias Sady at 36th Street and Gramercy Place. As the early church grew, Father Sady bought a site adjacent to his home in 1924 that would become St. George's Orthodox Church.

In 1936, Metropolitan Antony Bashir visited Los Angeles and after meeting with members of the church decided that a new and larger cathedral should be built. Father Sady felt strongly attached to his church and decided to remain with the original parish. Eventually, the St. George Orthodox Society was changed to the St. Nicholas Orthodox Society. In 1948, the cornerstone was laid and in 1950 the majestic Los Angeles cathedral opened.

Though the Antiochian Church was built in the United States primarily by Syrian and Lebanese immigrants, it has seen strong growth in recent decades as a result of intermarriage and introduction of converts from varied ethnic backgrounds. In 1966 there were only 16 Antiochian Orthodox churches in North America; today there are 250 churches throughout the United States and Canada.

St. Nicholas in Los Angeles stands as one of the nation's most exquisite Antiochian cathedrals. Above the altar is a breathtaking 16-foot mosaic of the Virgin Mary with the Infant Jesus, created by Italian artist Franke Learnaduzzi. Immediately below that mosaic is a panel of the Last Supper. A series of murals surrounds the cathedral, depicting various phases of the life of Christ.

Yet even in its splendor, St. Nicholas faced a test of faith. In the 1980s, as the scourges of gangs and drugs invaded the Westlake neighborhood, many members wondered whether they should abandon the church and switch to another in a safer place. Other members were thinking they should move the church altogether.

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