Just up the street from Sacred Heart rectory in the Pleasant View section of Pawtucket there was a decent-sized Syrian community, some of whom came from the old country and most of whom were born in America. A number of these Syrians belonged to St. Basil’s Melkite Catholic Church, then in Central Falls but now in Lincoln. A number of other Syrians were parishioners at St. Mary’s Antiochian Orthodox Church, still in downtown Pawtucket. Charlie Agartie ran a local variety store and the Risho family maintained the local market. The Assermleys were one old time family in the neighborhood. When I first visited her residence on the parish census, old Mrs. Assermley introduced me to a homemade Syrian delicacy — grape leaves stuffed with rice and lamb. For years, she would frequently send a portion of these delicacies to the rectory for my enjoyment. Believe it or not, Ocean State Job Lot still stocks cans of stuffed grape leaves on its discount shelves. They’re not homemade but they’re still very tasty.
My interaction with the fairly large Syrian community in the Blackstone Valley has always been very pleasant and very heartening. Father Joe Haggar, the pastor at St. Basil Syrian Church, and I were ordained the same year. Deacon Yany from that parish is an indefatigable worker in prison ministry and in ecumenical efforts. St. Mary’s Antiochian Church has a good number of parishioners who are quite influential in the local community. Woonsocket has a now small Syrian community that once worshipped at St. Elias Church in the Bernon section of town.
Roman Catholics whose ancestry traces back to Western Europe — Ireland to Italy, Portugal to Poland — often forget that the first five centuries of Christian evangelization took place most thoroughly and most successfully in Asia Minor and North Africa. Palestine is the providential home of Christianity. Nearby Lebanon has enduring Christian roots. Antioch in Syria was St. Peter’s first diocese. Ephesus and Colossae, dear to St. Paul, were in Turkey. Alexandria in Egypt was a powerhouse of theological discussion. St. Cyprian and St. Augustine were both North Africans. Ethiopia entered early on into the Christian picture. Alas, Christian civilization along the lower and eastern Mediterranean Sea was severely altered with the advent of the Islamic prophet Mohammed in the sixth century. Mohammed was not only a forthright religious thinker; he was also a brilliant soldier. Within Mohammed’s own lifetime much of Asia Minor — the Near East — was solidly under Islamic military control and consequently firmly under Islamic religious influence. As is well known today, the so-called Arab nations are predominantly — and some possibly exclusively — Islamic.
Nonetheless Catholic and Orthodox Christians from a number of assorted Oriental Rites maintained their Christian faith in the Near East in spite of their minority status. The Melkite, Maronite, Coptic and Antiochian churches in Rhode Island today testify to the enduring faith of these Christians in their old country and in the New World now. The Solemnity of the Epiphany, commemorating the arrival of Wise Men “from the East,” should give all American Catholics pause to be grateful, first of all, for these ancestors in the faith who first heard the Gospel message and embraced it with vigor. But Western Catholics should ponder as well the decade long sufferings that these Christians as well as their neighbors in Asia Minor and in North Africa have endured during the recent Middle Eastern revolts and rebellions. Many lives have been lost. Many homes have been destroyed. Many families have fled their homeland. And the conflicts continue.
The Solemnity of the Epiphany, with its emphasis on the wideness of God’s mercy and the universality of salvation, demands that Western Christians look kindly on the many displaced persons from the Near East forced by unhappy circumstances to seek a new home or wait endlessly to be resettled in their ancestral lands. While the human dignity of all innocent refugees deserves our respect, Middle Easterners who share our Christian faith deserve our special esteem for their spiritual resilience and religious perseverance over the centuries.