According to memories and anecdotes, Melkites settled in Arizona since early 1900’s. They established themselves around the cities of Globe, Superior and Ray. (According to the web site of the city of Kearny, the city was established during the mid to late-1950s when the older towns of Ray, Sonora, and Barcelona were demolished to make way for Kennecott Copper Company's open pit mine.) They came peddling and catering to the mines and miners in that area. Probably some came before 1912, before Arizona became a State.
Thirty years ago, a Melkite Catholic Church began as the hope and aspiration of faithful Melkites who moved to the Phoenix area from within the state and from other states. By that time, they had a well established Club, the “Cedars Club”, and were looking for a Spiritual Home and a parish community of their own.
They invited Fr. John Elya (who later became Bishop John) to visit and celebrate the Divine Liturgy. He came and celebrated the first Divine Liturgy on Sunday, December 11, 1983, at St. Stephen Byzantine Catholic Church. Nearly one hundred persons attended. This was the beginning event of our parish community. Fr. John reported a list of seventy Melkite families in the Phoenix area, most of whom attended local Roman Catholic churches.
Fr. John returned to Phoenix each quarter throughout 1984 to serve the new community’s spiritual needs. He met new people, built community, administered Holy Mysteries (sacraments), and studied the feasibility of beginning a mission community.
Archbishop Joseph held the 1984 Diocesan Pastoral Council (DPC) meeting in Phoenix, so that he could meet with our community and evaluate the possibility of beginning a Melkite mission. He also believed that gathering in Phoenix would encourage the members of our community. Soon after the meeting, he asked Fr. Max Chalhoub, (pastor of St. Anne Church in North Hollywood, CA.,) to travel to Phoenix twice a month and celebrate the Divine Liturgy. The community was also given the name of St. John of the Desert Melkite Catholic Mission. At that time, the community consisted of Melkites, Maronites and Chaldeans, which eventually formed their own communities.
For a time, the Divine Liturgy continued to be celebrated at St. Stephen’s. Then, we moved to the “Cedars Club”. In June of 1985, Fr. Robert Skagen (Fr. Bob) invited us to worship at his parish, St. Joan of Arc and in August of that same year, we were incorporated in Arizona. When Fr. Bob was transferred in November 1985 to St. Thomas the Apostle, he invited us to worship there instead. We accepted and celebrated our Divine Liturgy there. In December 1985, Fr. Max moved to Phoenix to be our first pastor. The mission rented an apartment to serve as Fr. Max’s temporary residence and office.
In October 1986, the dream of having a church of our own became a reality when we purchased the complex on Osborn Road with loans from some parishioners and the Diocese of Phoenix. At that time, St. John of the Desert Mission was raised to the status of a parish church. The records show that the community consisted of about forty families.
Fr. Max remodeled the school building to serve as a sanctuary, and the house to serve as his residence, office, and meeting rooms for the community; a ladies guild and youth group were formed; and a program was begun for the religious education of our children.
In February 1990, our community was honored by the elevation of Fr. Bob to the dignitary title of archimandrite. Fr. Bob regularly celebrated the Divine Liturgy with Fr. Max and assisted him in ministering to the needs of the faithful.
In early 1993, having long reached the age of retirement, and also due to poor health, Fr. Max submitted his resignation. In October 1993, Fr. Adib Badaoui, succeeded him and soon after took a six-month leave of absence due to health problems. Fr. Bob served the community until Fr. Adib was able to return. Due to continued poor health, Fr. Adib submitted his resignation in March 1995.
Fr. Basil Samra became the community’s third pastor. The rectory and church were renovated and painted. The Parish Advisory Council (PAC) was restructured and organized, and the Finance Council was formed so that the PAC could concentrate on the spiritual ministries of the community. During that time, it was decided to actively seek a more suitable church and community center.
In June 2000, Fr. Bob succeeded Fr. Basil, as the fourth pastor, for a brief period aided by Fr. Samir Abulail as his associate pastor. Then, Fr. Peter Boutros was assigned to serve the parish starting October 1, 2001 as its fifth pastor. At this time, the parish needed an attentive community re-assembling and a new church building.
The Diocesan Pastoral Council (DPC) gathered in Phoenix shortly after the arrival of Fr. Peter and while Bishop John was in Phoenix. During this meeting, Fr. Peter shared with Bishop John the community’s thoughts regarding a proposal to purchase a new facility and the plan to find a temporary place to worship. Bishop John was also made aware of the parish’s financial situation at this time. Bishop John received these suggestions favorably.The parish immediately set the plan in motion and a generous offer by Paul and Shirley Davis helped secure the property on Greenway Road by December 2001. By March 2002, the Osborn property was sold. The parish, for the second time in its history, began worshipping at St. Joan of Arc, anticipating the completion of the new church just across the street. Khouriyeh Simone, Tina Saada (Khouriyeh’s mother) and Fr. Peter decided to supply their own accommodations, and purchased a condo less than two miles away from the location of the future church. In the meantime, the dissolution of the Arizona Corporation was effected and the parish joined the Melkite Eparchy of Newton Corporation by April 2002.After about two years of doing due diligence: researching requirements with the city of Phoenix, checking local contractors, investigating prices of materials, partnering with different social organizations, and addressing other concerns involved with the building project, we found ourselves constrained by unrealistic requests, battling discouragement, and facing a decline in parish membership. The feasibility of the building project seemed doubtful. For the second time, feeling moved by the Holy Spirit, Paul and Shirley Davis offered to donate the adjacent property. This was on condition that Bishop John would free us from the eparchial costly requirements and red tape that were beyond our means to satisfy, and would have only benefited lenders and vendors.When Bishop John agreed, in July 2004, a wave of hope and a new life invigorated the community. The property was donated and transferred in September 2004. Father Peter moved in with his family and the community gathered at the house, rather than at St. Joan of Arc. The planning for our new church was on its way. We started building the church in August of 2005 and completed it in six months, debt free, at the cost of approximately $383,000.00. This was accomplished because of the donation of equipment labor, and money.Many struggled to be part of building this church! Numerous volunteers donated their time and labor, others made offers of church furniture and building materials.
Memorials and other money offerings were bestowed, in large sums, as well as, in nickels and dimes.In January 2006, Bishop Cyril dedicated the new St. John of the Desert Melkite Catholic Church. Within a couple years, St. John of the Desert was instrumental in initiating and completing an agreement with the Diocese of Phoenix to erect the Eastern Catholic section of Holy Redeemer Catholic Cemetery with sections for each Eastern Catholic Church in Phoenix. It was blessed in May, 2009.The hope is that St. John of the Desert becomes a source of assistance and spirituality, reaching out, beyond our community to feed, clothe, and house the poor. The aim is to raise the children of the parish, and all others within the community’s influence, to become good and loving Christians. To accomplish this, efforts continue to be made to seek creative opportunities, build ministries and committees, partner with other communities, and plan activities that will sustain St. John of the Desert as a healthy, vibrant, loving, and faithful Melkite Catholic parish community. The Holy Spirit prompts each of us to always remember that quality is much more significant than quantity.