SAN ANTONIO (OSV News) — The Lone Star state has its first Melkite Catholic parish, Three Hierarchs Byzantine Melkite Catholic Church, after a decade-long journey that speaks to perseverance, collaboration between Catholics of many cultures — and, most importantly, faith in God.
Melkite Catholic Bishop Francois Beyrouti of the Eparchy of Newton, Massachusetts, visited Three Hierarchs Jan. 28-29 to consecrate its new altar, establish it as a parish and appoint its pastor, Father John Mefrige. The Melkite Catholic Church is one of 24 co-equal, self-governing Catholic churches in communion with each other and Pope Francis, the bishop of Rome, who is head of the Latin Church.
Bishop Beyrouti decreed the parish’s first official day as a parish to be Jan. 30, the feast of the Three Holy Hierarchs, its patron saints: Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom.
Jim Groff, a founding member of Three Hierarchs, recalled the parish’s humble beginnings in San Antonio.
“With about a dozen or so people I guess, we had our first liturgy,” Groff told OSV News at a Jan. 29 parish reception.
Composed of Ruthenian, Roman, Melkite and Ukrainian Catholics, the fledgling community was first called the St. Anastasia Byzantine Catholic Outreach.
The community’s first Sunday liturgy took place March 27, 2011, at the Oblate Renewal Center’s chapel. It was celebrated by Dominican Father Ramon Gonzalez, a priest serving in the Archdiocese of San Antonio who had permission to celebrate both Mass in the Roman rite and the Divine Liturgy in the Byzantine rite. Although liturgy in the Byzantine rite, similarly to the Roman rite, has varied cultural, linguistic and musical traditions, all Catholics can partake in worship and receive Holy Communion, because they are all part of the same Catholic communion united with the pope.
The Divine Liturgy (called “Mass” in the Latin Church) is traditionally celebrated with an iconostasis — a screen of icons that delineates the Holy of Holies (including the altar) from the nave, where the congregation worships.
So in those early days, Groff built one. Before each Divine Liturgy, the community took the iconostasis from the back of Groff’s truck and placed it in the church. Afterward, they packed it into Groff’s truck again. The community followed Father Gonzalez as he served in various locations in the Archdiocese of San Antonio. In 2014, they even rented a storefront. Groff referred to these years as “wandering in the desert.”
When Father Gonzalez was transferred out of state, Father Elias Rafaj, then pastor of St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church, commuted from Houston to celebrate Divine Liturgy with the Outreach community in San Antonio three Saturdays a month. When Father Rafaj wasn’t there, they celebrated Typika, or Communion service with a deacon.
Eventually, Father Rafaj heard that Bishop Nicholas J. Samra — then head of the Melkite Catholic Eparchy of Newton — was receiving an Antiochian Orthodox priest into full communion with the Melkite Catholic Church.
“This is the way I tell it,” said Groff. “Father Elias calls up Bishop Nicholas and says, ‘Hello, Bishop. You have a priest; I have a church. Let’s make a trade.'”
Enter Father John Mefrige, a married priest, which is a norm in the Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Married priests serve alongside the celibate priesthood. In the Eastern churches, Catholic and Orthodox, married men may be ordained to the priesthood. But once they are ordained, priests are not permitted to marry.
“Because I was married to a Melkite Catholic girl, my affinity with the Melkites was very close,” Father Mefrige told OSV News. “I was received by Bishop Nicholas Samra here in San Antonio — who by the way was my wife’s parish priest growing up.”
Father Mefrige emphasized that he did not “convert” to Catholicism from Orthodoxy, rather he was “received” into full Catholic communion through the Melkite Catholic Church in May 2019. The Catholic Church recognizes the validity of all the sacraments received in the Orthodox churches, which is why the church forbids reconferring sacraments already received by Orthodox Christians such as baptism, confirmation (chrismation) or holy orders. A simple profession of Catholic faith is sufficient for Orthodox to come into full communion.
In January 2021, Bishop Samra raised the canonical status of the Outreach to a mission of the Melkite Catholic Church — and with it, a new name. From his decree: “The Patronal Feast of the new Mission is January 30, celebrating Saints Basil the Great, John Chrysostom and Gregory the Theologian.”
Three Hierarchs, or, as Father Mefrige joked, “Three for the price of one!”
Father Mefrige was granted biritual faculties by what’s now called the Dicastery for Eastern Churches, so he can celebrate both the Divine Liturgy and the Roman Mass. Additionally, he serves as the adjunct vicar for clergy for the Latin Church’s Archdiocese of San Antonio under Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller.
“I’m a priest that has one foot in the East and one foot in the West,” Father Mefrige said.
Archbishop García-Siller provided Three Hierarchs with a church building to use.
“Over the last five years, because of my relationship with the archdiocese, they canonically transferred the use of the parish (building) to us permanently,” Father Mefrige said. Three Hierarchs Melkite Catholic Parish now pays rent to the Archdiocese of San Antonio — $1 a year.
“We are all Catholic, we should be supporting each other to grow in our faith no matter what church we attend,” Janet Mefrige, Father Mefrige’s wife, said in an email to OSV News. “Archbishop Gustavo has set a great example. From the moment he met my husband he welcomed him and our whole family, and has supported us from day one!”
Three Hierarchs also has a permanent connection to Ukraine, which has just marked a year since Russia launched Feb. 24, 2022 its full invasion of the country. On Nov. 28, 2022, Three Hierarchs announced on their Facebook page that a Ukrainian family living in Poland was building them their altar from oak. The altar, on which the parish’s Divine Liturgies are now offered, was then shipped, stained, assembled, and installed in the church.
Deacon Tareq Nasrallah, a Palestinian Catholic immigrant, visited Three Hierarchs for the first time during the consecration of the altar. Having served at various parishes (Melkite, Ruthenian and even Roman), he told OSV News he felt “at home” at Three Hierarchs.
“A lot of the music was actually Ruthenian. The liturgy was Melkite,” he said. “So it was kind of a hybrid, which was really really good.”
Father Mefrige emphasized the role of God’s providence in the formation of Three Hierarchs.
“You have to leave room for God, you know, and I think we did,” he said. “When Father Elias handed over the keys, that was a great act of trusting in God’s providence.”
Anastasia Northrop, a founding member of the parish, reflected on the decade-long journey from outreach to parish status, and told OSV News she agreed.
“The pilgrimaging was worth it.”
Kiki Hayden writes for OSV News from Texas. Peter Jesserer Smith, national news and features editor for OSV News, contributed to this story.