Melkite Catholics celebrate parish's centennial

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LINCOLN – The parishioners of St. Basil the Great Parish know that their church is much more than a building.

In fact, in its 100-year existence, the parish has worshipped in three different buildings, two in Central Falls and now the third in Lincoln.

The essence of St. Basil Parish is the unique Melkite tradition and the dedicated people who carry it on.

The church community is “very close-knit, they stick to their traditions,” said Msgr. Joseph S. Haggar, the pastor of St. Basil since 1973. In the Melkite tradition Msgr. Haggar also holds the title of exarch, a title that is higher than a parish priest. But, most members of St. Basil Parish know him simply as “Father Joe.”

Last weekend, the parish celebrated its 100th anniversary with a dinner and dance on Saturday night and a Mass celebrated in English and Arabic on Sunday morning.

Many of the hundreds of people who attended Saturday’s festivities are lifelong members of the parish and a large group has family ties that reach all the way back to the founders of the parish. They immigrated to the United States from Syria at the turn of the 20th century.

Thomas Lazieh, a lifelong member of the parish and the former mayor of Central Falls, is one such parishioner with deep family ties to the church.

“My family’s been here almost a century,” he said, “Many of the families here were some of the original families who opened the church.”

St. Basil the Great Parish began in 1907 when a group of Syrian immigrants came to Rhode Island and settled in Central Falls to work in the textile mills.

In 1907, Bishop Matthew Harkins founded St. Basil parish to serve this growing Syrian community.

The first church was built in Central Falls for

$8,000. The parish continued to grow, eventually a parish school was also built to accommodate the Melkite community.

In Rhode Island, the Melkite tradition can be traced back to this community, but the Melkite rite is, in fact, an ancient tradition.

Melkite Catholics trace their history back to the founding of the Catholic Church in the Middle East. Their tradition is rooted in the same beliefs as the Roman Catholic Church, with some important differences. “We reach the same apex in both rites, but our methods and teaching are different,” said Msgr. Haggar.

They share with Roman Catholics the same fundamental faith and a belief in the Pope as the spiritual leader of the Church. But, there are also important differences between the Eastern and Western Catholic churches. St. Basil is not a part of the Diocese of Providence, it belongs to the Melkite Diocese of Newton, Mass. The two dioceses are considered “sister” dioceses by many. They also have their own bishop, or eparch, Archbishop Cyril Salim Bustros. The first Melkite Catholic bishop was not appointed until 1966, before that Melkite church es in the United States were under the direction of their respective Roman Catholic dioceses. In 1966 St. Basil parish was considered an exarchate, not quite an independent diocese, but differentiated from the Roman Catholic churches. And, in 1976 it was finally a part of an eparchy, a completely independent diocese, based in Newton, Mass.

Dr. Yusuf Mussalli, a member of the parish who spoke at the anniversary celebration, said “without the Diocese of Providence the parish of St. Basil’s could not have been founded 100 years ago, so we owe them a lot.”

The unique Melkite Catholic tradition is historically spoken in Arabic, rather than Latin like in the Roman Catholic church. “Arabic, although it’s an ethnic language, for the Melkites it’s also a liturgical language,” said Mussalli. St. Basil holds two Masses every weekend, one in English and one in both English and Arabic.

Rhode Island’s Melkite Catholic history continued throughout the 20th century at the original church in Central Falls. The, in May, 1972 the parish was faced with tragedy. A fire ripped through the Church, damagin it beyond repair. For a few years services were held at Central Falls high school and at Holy Trinity Chruch. Finally, a new church was dedicated in 1975 on Broad Street in Central Falls.

For decades this new church served the parish well. But, by the 1990s it was clear that the parish had outgrown the building and a committee began the search for a new piece of property to call home.

The move to nearby Lincoln was completed in 1998 and the parishioners quickly embraced their beautiful new building as home. The large building is now being used to house a parish hall, the parish offices and to hold church services. But there are plans to expand and build a church proper in the near future.

On Saturday night the parish hall was filled with nearly 500 people, parishioners, clergy and guests, who enjoyed traditional Syrian appetizers prepared by women in the parish and a buffet dinner. There were speeches from Monsignor Haggar, Bishop Louis E. Gelineau and Most Reverend Cyril Salim Bustros, the Eparch of Newton.

Archbishop Bustros called on those present to remember the founders of their parish and the struggles they endured. “How many difficulties have encountered those who built this community? How many hurdles? How many headaches? And, in spite of all this, they remained faithful to their mission,” he said.

Monsignor Haggar congratulated his parish on their continued commitment to the Melkite tradition. “100 years of continued existence is a huge accomplishment which could not have happend without the vision of our fathers,” he said. “I never though I would buildl two churches,” he added.

Following the meal and speeches, Tarek Abdel Haie and his band took the stage to provide traditional Arabic music and the dance floor quickly filled as young and old celebrated the parish’s anniversary together.