Friday, May 2, 2014

History of St George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Houston, TX

History of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America

The Faith of Orthodox Christianity reached the New World through the missionary activities of the Russian Orthodox Church. Early merchants and explorers were sent from Russia to expand and explore unknown regions to the east of Russia. A small group of missionaries arrived at Kodiak Island in 1794. The Alaskan mainland and the islands of the coast were inhabited by a number of native tribes, especially Tlingits, Aleuts, and Eskimos. The mission in Alaska was perhaps the most important missionary endeavor of the Orthodox Church in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. At a time when much of the Orthodox Church throughout the world was confronted with political systems and rival religions that prevented much missionary work, the mission in Alaska heralded the entrance of Orthodox Christianity into a new land.

For more information on the Russian mission in Alaska, please visit HERE:
The foundation of Orthodox Christianity in the continental United States was established during the last quarter of the 19th century. During this time, the focus of Orthodoxy dramatically shifted from Alaska to the major cities of the continental United States. The principal cause of this was the massive influx of immigrants from Greece, Russia and Eastern Europe and the Middle East. These parishes were established chiefly by immigrants who were determined to preserve their Orthodox Christian faith in the New World.

Following in the footsteps of many Europeans who left their homelands in search of a better life, many Christians from the Middle East landed on the American shores in the late 19th century. The formation of the Syro-Arabian Mission under the auspices of the Russian Orthodox Church helped to keep these new immigrants attached to their Orthodox roots. In 1895, the Syrian Orthodox Benevolent Society in New York City contacted a young Syrian priest (Fr Raphael Hawaweeny) serving as professor of Arabic Language at the Orthodox Theological Academy in Kazan, Russia, inviting him to come to New York to organize and pastor the first Arabic-speaking parish in America. At the request of Archbishop Tikhon, Fr Raphael was elected to serve as his vicar bishop, to head the Syro-Arabian Mission. His consecration as “Bishop of Brooklyn” took place in 1904, thus becoming the first Orthodox bishop of any nationality to be consecrated in North America.

St Tikhon, then Archbishop of North America, with Bishops Innocent
of Alaska and Raphael of Brooklyn
He traveled all across the United States and Canada, and Mexico, visiting his scattered flock and gathering them into parish communities. Although brief, Bishop Raphael’s ministry was extremely fruitful, having established over 30 parish communities in various places, such as New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Texas, and Nebraska. Bishop Raphael fell asleep in the Lord on February 27, 1915, at the age of fifty-four. In 2000 Bishop Raphael was glorified as a saint by the Orthodox Church in America with participation from hierarchs of the Antiochian Archdiocese. His feast day is celebrated on the first Saturday in November (AOCA) and February 27 (OCA).

Following the tragedies of the First World War and Bolshevik Revolution, financial and administrative hardships were brought upon the Orthodox communities in America. Movements arose in every ethnic group to divide it into ecclesiastical factions. It would take sixty years from the death of Bishop Raphael for total jurisdictional and administrative unity to be restored for the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. Some communities desired to remain under the jurisdiction of the Russian Diocese, while others sought stronger ties with their Arab Christian roots seeking to be received into the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Antioch. In 1975, Metropolitan Philip (Saliba) of the Antiochian Archdiocese of New York and Metropolitan Michael (Shaheen) of the Antiochian Archdiocese of Toledo, Ohio, and Dependencies signed the Articles of Reunification which restored administrative unity. The Antiochian Archdiocese was led for over forty years by His Eminence Metropolitan Philip Saliba, prior to his falling asleep in Christ on March 19, 2014. Today, the faithful of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America are served by nine hierarchs and over four hundred clergy in 266 churches and missions throughout North America.

Metropolitan Philip (+2014)
Photo Source

St George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Houston, TX

In 1928 a small group of immigrants, mostly from Syria and Lebanon organized into an Orthodox community in Houston, Texas. These families had settled in Houston, opening “mom and pop” stores selling merchandise of all kinds, as well as finding work in the oil boom which hit Houston in the early 20th century. While living and working in Houston, these families desired to keep the language, culture, and religion of their forefathers. Fund raising efforts began, mainly from the efforts of Arab women by cooking and selling Middle-Eastern foods and specialties. In 1936 the faithful of this Orthodox community purchased a building on the corner of Chestnut and Harrison Streets on the north side of Houston.
Growth within the St George community continued as more families immigrated to Houston seeking work and a better life. The needs of the community demanded a larger property to include a sanctuary and church hall for social events. Prior to 1954 the following clergy served the needs of the Orthodox faithful at St George Church: Frs Thomas Abodeely, Gabriel Barrow, Gabriel Debes, Essa Kanavati, Nicholas Nahas, George Taweel, and James Rottle. In September of 1954, property was purchased in the City of West University, southeast of downtown Houston (the parish’s current location). The current sanctuary of St George Church was built in 1968.

Location of St George Church
Map Source

Since the early 1970s the parish has seen a steady increase in membership, especially due another wave of immigration of Arab Christians from Palestine, primarily in the villages of Ramallah and Taybeh. With the influx of these Arab Christians, as well as other immigrants from predominantly Orthodox countries, such as Bulgaria, Ethiopia, and Russia, the parish community has grown over the decades of the late 20th century. In addition to the increase of immigrant Orthodox Christians, St George Church has always fostered outreach to the Greater Houston community, which has seen many American converts “come home” to Orthodoxy.

The parish has truly been a model of a mission-oriented community for Orthodoxy. As Houston’s population has greatly increased, and new suburbs created, the parish (clergy and laity) have created many “daughter” mission churches in the area: St Anthony Orthodox Church of Spring, TX (north of Houston), St Joseph Orthodox Church in the west side of Houston, and Forty Holy Martyrs (of Sebaste) Orthodox Church of Sugar Land, TX (southwest of Houston) are vibrant Orthodox communities who call St George Church their “mother.” Many prominent Antiochian clergymen of the Archdiocese once served at St George Church, including Frs Thomas Skaff (1959-1968), John Namie (1969-1979), Anthony Sabbagh (1979-1983), Joseph Shahda (1983-2000), John Salem (2000-2011), and James Shadid (2011-present).
St George Church, while starting missions in Greater Houston, has also been a leading community in ministry for the youth of its parish. This parish has had a full-time paid Youth Director since the early 1990s, including Dn Thomas Joseph (now Auxiliary Bishop of Charleston, WV), Khouria Gigi (Baba) Shadid, daughter of the parish and now married to the head pastor (Fr James Shadid), Fr Michael Sakran (son of the parish and now assistant priest of St Elias Orthodox Cathedral in Ottawa, Ontario), and myself (Paul Fuller) who served from 2008 till 2013 prior to attendance at St Vladimir Orthodox Seminary. The parish community of St George is a beacon for pan-Orthodoxy in America, as a multi-ethnic community, as well as begun numerous missions to serve the needs of Orthodox Christians living in Greater Houston, and leading the cause for youth ministry in a parish setting.

For more information on the history of St George Church, please visit HERE:

St George Orthodox Church (Current State of Affairs)

St George Orthodox Church continues to be a vibrant Orthodox community of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of North America. The parish is under the Diocese of Wichita and Mid-America (Bishop Basil, Auxiliary Bishop). The parish currently has approximately 600 families who call St George their home parish, as well as 300 members in regular attendance at Divine Liturgy on Sundays.  On staff at the parish include Rev Fr James Shadid (pastor), Rev Fr Symeon Kees (associate pastor), Rev Fr Christopher Eid (attached), Ms Grace Tannous (Youth Director), Ms Octavia Battles (Church Secretary), and Mr Alvaro Palencia (Grounds Supervisor). Clergy who also serve at the Altar of St George Church include V Rev Fr Joseph Shahda (pastor emeritus), Rev Fr George Dahdouh (attached), and Dn Joseph Carter (attached).

Interior of St George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Houston, TX
 The parish has several ministries and organizations that offer service to the community: Parish Council, Ladies Altar Society, Order of St Ignatius, Fellowship of St John the Divine, Church School program, Choirs and Chant (English and Arabic), St Nicholas Men’s Society. Under the leadership of the clergy and Youth and Young Adult Director, ministry is offered to the youth and young adults of the parish community. Organizations are broken up into age-specific groups, including JOY (Junior Orthodox Youth) Club (ages 7-12), Teen SOYO (ages 13-18), OCF (Orthodox Christian Fellowship) (ages 18-22), and YAM (Young Adult Ministries) (ages 21-40).
St George Houston teens win "Chapter of the Year 2009" with Bishop Basil
Orthodox Young Adult Book Club 2012 with Bishop Thomas
 The parish has an active liturgical life including Great Vespers on Saturday evening, Matins and Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning, and Daily Vespers on Wednesday evening, along with Divine Liturgies for feastdays during the week. The parish also offers catechism courses for those converting to Orthodoxy, and Bible Studies. In the fall, the parish hosts a weekly Family Night program on Wednesday evenings which include Daily Vespers, educational classes for all ages, and fellowship/dinner.
Clergy of St George Houston

Ladies Altar Society of St George Houston
 The parish offers numerous opportunities for ministry to those in need through the programs of the parish. Monthly visits by the clergy and laity to elderly who are sick or shut in, and visits to the Houston Food Bank and Star of Hope Community Center. Large number of parishioners “serve” during liturgical services, such as altar servers, choir and chanters, and ushers. The Church School program educates over 150 children and youth on Sundays, and Vacation Bible School during the summer. This program is a joint effort between St George Church and Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral which offers a week long program for over 200 children.
Vacation Bible School 2013
The children and youth of the parish also participate in summer camping programs at Camp St Raphael near Tulsa, OK and Antiochian Village near Pittsburgh, PA. The teens of the parish are extremely active both on a parish and diocesan level, participating in various Teen SOYO retreats, service projects, and fellowship throughout the year, including the annual Diocesan Basketball Tournament and Retreat, Advent Retreat, and Winter Camp. The OCF and YAM groups have hosted retreats and conferences for college students and young adults in the region, as well as OCF Coffee House and Game Nights, Orthodox Young Adult Book Club, and monthly service projects in downtown Houston.

St George Houston teens at Winter Camp 2012
 The parish community has also been a “hot spot” for visiting hierarchs and national gatherings for the Archdiocese and other jurisdictions and organizations. Over the last decade, the parish has hosted visits from the patriarchs of Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria, as well as fundraisers and meetings of the following organizations of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North America: IOCC (International Orthodox Christian Charities), OCF, OCMC (Orthodox Christian Mission Center), OCPM (Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry), and Camping and Youth Committee. Most recently, the parish hosted the 51st Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese Convention in the summer of 2013.
The parish is extremely active interacting with local Orthodox churches in Greater Houston, which has 21 Orthodox communities from various jurisdictions. The clergy meet on a monthly basis, as well as host annual events throughout the year to support the witness of Orthodoxy in Houston and surrounding cities, such as Sunday of Orthodoxy Vespers and Fellowship, Vacation Bible School for children and youth. In 2003, as part of our 75th Anniversary Celebration, His Grace, Bishop Basil presided over the groundbreaking for the new Administrative and Educational Building. In November of 2005, His Grace returned to bless and dedicate our new wing. In 2006 the Parish Hall was completely updated and renovated. Continuing the need for expansion the parish community voted in the fall of 2013 to expand the sanctuary which is scheduled for completion by January 2015. St George Church continues to grow, thanks to the leadership of clergy and laity, who strongly desire to worship God and serve His creation. Glory be to God!

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