2 February 2016
Chaldeans pray during an ordination Mass at St. Peter Chaldean Catholic Cathedral
in El Cajon, California. (photo: Nancy Wiechec)
The Winter 2015 edition of ONE includes a visit to Chaldeans who have settled in the American southwest. Journalist Joyce Coronel offers some personal reflections below.
“We have the blood of martyrs running in our veins.”
It was the most compelling quote I’d ever had in a long career in Catholic journalism. Those words, spoken in the wake of a deadly attack on a Catholic cathedral in Baghdad in late 2010, set me on a path that still unwinds before me.
When CNEWA asked if I would write about the Chaldean Church in the western U.S., I knew I would finally get to see the eparchy’s headquarters located in El Cajon, California, a five-hour drive from where I live in Arizona.
What I saw there in the course of writing the article for ONE was deeply inspiring. Two young men, eager to serve the church, stood before a packed cathedral and promised to spend their lives as priests.
The church was jammed with the faithful, and clergy watched from around the altar. Among them were two young priests ordained last spring as well as Chorbishop Monsignor Felix Shabi, better known around the eparchy simply as Father Felix. A canon lawyer, he speaks five languages and is devoted to serving his people.
Father Felix leads the Chaldean Catholic vicariate in Arizona and it is he who spoke those words of martyrdom to me five years ago, explaining that the Chaldean church has endured nearly 2,000 years of persecution. His own cousin, Father Ragheed Ganni, was martyred for the faith in Mosul in 2007.
As he told me of the plight of his people on that fateful day in 2010, the aroma of Chaldean cuisine filled the air. No one had ever invited me to stay for lunch after an interview! Food, I now realize, is integral to the Chaldean identity. To meet and not break bread is anathema.
Standing inside the Good Old Days Spices shop on Main Street in El Cajon, it was easy to see the blending of faith, family and food that characterize the Chaldean culture. Nancy Delly runs the store along with her husband, Wisam. The family has been in business 30 years. Behind the counter are large statues of the Virgin Mary as well as various saints, along with strings of rosary beads. There’s also a giant photo of her cousin, the late Patriarch Mar Emanuel III Delly, just over the display of Middle Eastern teas, kabob sticks and cans of fava beans.
As Nancy rings up customers’ purchases, she tells them, “Thank you. God will bless you.” But does she miss the old country?
“My life here is quiet and good and I like it. If somebody don’t like America, I say, ‘Go back. I buy your ticket.” Life here is good. This is my home.”
It’s all about family here. I asked Raad Delly, president of the parish council at Mar Abraham Chaldean Church in Arizona, about the close-knit community. It seems to me that everyone is related. How many cousins does he have in the U.S. anyway?
“Probably 200,” he laughed. “When you introduce yourself, they say, ‘My mom’s mother was a Delly’ and so on. Somehow, some way, we are all related to each other.”
In the streets and shops and restaurants as well as the church, it’s not uncommon to see older women, dressed in their native attire of long, simple dresses, their heads covered in a close-fitting cap. Many of these elderly Chaldean immigrants have spent a lifetime in villages where they walked to church every day and visited with friends, so life in a new land can seem lonely. In El Cajon, they attend early morning Mass, then spend several hours at local senior adult day care centers.
It takes a while for the community to accept a journalist who is clearly not one of their own. I found that greeting them with the traditional “Shlama,” (“Peace”) and mentioning the name of Father Felix opened more than a few doors.
One woman didn’t want to share her name with me or be photographed, but after I spent two hours sitting with her and four generations of her family, the evening ended with hugs and kisses all around. Her son — who was only an infant in her arms when his father was killed — will be a student in my First Communion class at Holy Cross Chaldean Mission in Gilbert, Arizona this year.
Angel Mikha, who teaches alongside me, is frequently mistaken for my sister. But it isn’t a mistake, not really. Over the last five years, we’ve become sisters in Christ as this community has adopted me, a Latin rite Catholic, strengthening my own faith with their heroic witness and hearty hospitality.
It’s a journey that’s still unfolding and one that inspires me daily to try to follow Christ more sincerely.
Read more in “Nineveh, U.S.A.” in the current edition of ONE.