By Michael Stechschulte, OSV News

FARMINGTON HILLS, Michigan (OSV News) -- St. Toma Syriac Catholic Church in Farmington Hills has always been a "cradle" of Syriac Catholic faith and traditions in the U.S.

It was the first church erected outside of the Middle East to serve Syriac Catholics, including refugees and migrants from Iraq, Lebanon and Syria making a new home in Metro Detroit, where automotive and manufacturing jobs were plentiful.

The Syriac Catholic Church is one of 24 self-governing churches in the worldwide Catholic Church, which are in communion with the pope and each other. The church's origins reach back to the Aramaic-speaking Christian community of Antioch, shepherded by St. Peter the apostle before he left for Rome.

On Nov. 6, 1995, recognizing the growing need to spiritually care for Syriac Catholics in the U.S. and Canada from a growing Middle Eastern diaspora, Pope St. John Paul II established the Syriac Catholic Eparchy of Our Lady of Deliverance, as a diocese responsible for their spiritual care, headquartered in New Jersey.

Today, the eparchy is home to approximately 16,000 Syriac Catholics spread across eight U.S. states -- the Canadian parishes were broken off to form a new apostolic exarchate in 2016. The Catholic community of St. Toma and two other Michigan Syriac Catholic parishes have continued to serve the largest concentration of Syriac Catholics outside the Middle East.

"St. Toma is the cradle for the Syriac Catholic diocese in the United States," Bishop Yousif Benham Habash, the eparchy's second and current bishop, told Detroit Catholic. "We love this church, and we are proud of this first Syriac Catholic church in the west."

Twenty-seven years later, the Detroit Catholic reports St. Toma is now officially the eparchy's cathedral, with Pope Francis having approved the transfer of the episcopal seat from St. Joseph Cathedral in Bayonne, New Jersey on July 1, 2022.

Bishop Habash, who was named the eparchy's bishop by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, following then-Bishop Joseph Younan (now Syriac Catholic patriarch of Antioch and All the East), said the decision to move the cathedral to southeast Michigan has been a long time coming.

"When I became bishop, it was not really practical (to have our cathedral in New Jersey) because it was very hard to follow the needs of the diocese, of the parishes and missions," Bishop Habash said. "The biggest part of our diocese is in Detroit. We have three (Michigan) parishes -- two in Detroit (St. Toma in Farmington Hills and Christ the King in Troy) and one in Lansing (St. Isaac of Nineveh). So, logically, the bishop should be here with the people and the priests."

Along with the Michigan parishes, the Syriac Catholic eparchy has parishes or missions in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Florida, Illinois, California and Arizona.

Besides being centrally located, Michigan is home to approximately 200,000 Iraqi-Americans, most of whom belong to either the Chaldean Catholic or Syriac Catholic churches, both part of the global Catholic Church. The Chaldean Eparchy of St. Thomas the Apostle, led by Bishop Francis Y. Kalabat, is also headquartered in southeast Michigan.

Bishop Habash said the three Syriac parishes in Michigan care for approximately 1,200 families -- many of whom have relatives in the Middle East.

"We have a lot of refugees from Iraq and the Middle East, and we don't like to be just empty hands," Bishop Habash said. "We have the treasure of the Eastern heritage of the apostolic churches of the Antiochian Syriac rite, the teachings of the Eastern part of the church, and the opportunity to provide an American education to prepare for the future, to find vocations here. We are very optimistic."

Bishop Habash expressed gratitude to the Archdiocese of Detroit, which is part of the Latin Church, and to Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron, for the archdiocese's hospitality. He noted the archbishop celebrated a liturgy with the St. Toma community on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, Dec. 8.

The Archdiocese of Detroit was instrumental in the founding of St. Toma in the first place, Bishop Habash added. Before the Syriac eparchy was established in 1995, Syriac Catholics in the United States depended on the pastoral care of their local Latin Church dioceses.

"We cannot but be thankful for the Archdiocese of Detroit," Bishop Habash said. "Before 27 years ago, this church was supported by the archdiocese. First of all, they provided the land we have for the Cathedral of St. Toma in Farmington Hills. Then, the same archdiocese gave us a loan to build the actual church."

Bishop Habash noted the significance of St. Toma becoming the Syriac Catholic cathedral for the United States, since St. Thomas the apostle was known for his missionary outreach to the far east.

"We consider ourselves a missionary diocese of the Syriac Catholic heritage," Bishop Habash said. "Along with the patriarchate (in Beirut, Lebanon), we work for the growth of our people and never forget our Antiochian Syriac origins and heritage."

While much of the pastoral work of the Syriac parishes in the United States is in English, the eparchy works to preserve the original Aramaic spoken by Jesus, Mary and the apostles in its liturgies, Bishop Habash said.

"Outside of the Aramaic, we keep using the Arabic language," Bishop Habash said. "The first generation of immigrants don't speak English, especially the elderly. As for the youth today, they cannot help but use the English language."

While the eparchy is part of the Syriac Catholic Church, Bishop Habash said the eparchy is also part of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which includes bishops of both Eastern and Latin dioceses. It also works together with the dioceses of the numerically larger Latin Church across North America.

The U.S. Catholic bishops, along with the apostolic nuncio to the U.S., were consulted in the eparchy's decision to move its see, he said.

For years, Catholics in Iraq, Lebanon and other Middle Eastern countries have faced brutal persecution, being driven from their homelands in staggering numbers, Bishop Habash said. For this reason, it's critically important that they're able to find a welcoming spiritual home in places like southeast Michigan, he added.

"We are proud of our Syriac Antiochian heritage because the name means a lot," Bishop Habash said. "When we say 'Antiochian,' we are talking about the church of St. Peter, the first diocese he came to. After Peter, it was St. Ignatius of Antioch, the pearl of the Antiochian heritage."

St. Ignatius, one of the church's first martyrs, showed the world what it means to be a joyful witness in the face of hardship -- a lesson for all Catholics, but especially those of Antiochian heritage, Bishop Habash said.

"Even when we are in the middle of the persecutions of an unjust world, when we read the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch, we are expected to be creatures of joy and peace, no matter the persecutions," Bishop Habash said. "Where can we find this joy? There's no way to find it outside of Jesus."

"We can buy pleasures, but we cannot buy joy," Bishop Habash continued. "Joy is not the stuff of markets. Joy comes from and is provided by the word of God. This joy comes from one source, which is our Christian faith. That drives our mission. We believe strongly that we are missionaries of joy and peace."

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Michael Stechschulte is the editor-in-chief of Detroit Catholic, the newspaper for the Archdiocese of Detroit.