History of Our Parish

 

The Early Years (1960-1975)

 

In 1960 the small Episcopalian parish of St. Mark’s in Palo Alto began its journey to find the true roots of Christianity. They were disturbed by the controversial teachings of Bishop Pike, which strayed from traditional Christian theology. Having discovered that Christianity began in Antioch, the congregation of St. Mark’s found their spiritual home with the Orthodox Church. Led by their pastor, Canon Edwin West of blessed memory, the parish petitioned Metropolitan ANTHONY Bashir of thrice blessed memory to be admitted to the Syrian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese, which later became the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.  Father West was received into the Orthodox Church when he was ordained by Metropolitan ANTHONY in January 1963, and his parishioners made a profession of faith in the Orthodox Church. The American Orthodox Church of the Redeemer became the first Western Rite Orthodox Church on the west coast.

During this time a parishioner, Burt Crowell, an employee of the Department of Highways found a muddy area full of trash at the intersection of Magdalena Avenue and Highway 280, which was under construction. The land was useless to the state and Burt went to the responsible authorities to negotiate acquisition of the land for the church. In November 1964 the State of California sold the land to the church. Parishioners mortgaged their homes to raise the necessary funds for the construction of the chapel and a small adjacent hall. Tragically, Father West died in 1964 and never set foot in the church he and his parishioners had sacrificed so much for.

After the passing of Father West, Father Gregory Ofeish, pastor of St. Nicholas Church in San Francisco, arranged for a young priest, Father Theodore Micka, who was attached to the Russian Orthodox Holy Trinity Cathedral in San Francisco, to serve liturgy on Sundays. Father Micka was released by the OCA and received into the Antiochian Archdiocese by Metropolitan PHILIP Saliba who assigned Father Micka to the church, where he served for 11 years. During that time the original church was completed and furnished, the mortgage was paid off, a SOYO chapter was established, and the existing church hall was built. While the church observed the Western Rite Liturgy, certain elements of the Eastern Rite were introduced, including the Trisagion Prayer and Russian Orthodox as well as Byzantine hymns. The parish continued to grow and became a home for many “cradle” Orthodox Christians in the area as well as the original converts.

 

Years of Growth (1975-1987) 

 

On July 1975, Father John Ocana was assigned to the church with his wife Eileen and their four children. At that time, the Eastern Rite Liturgy was introduced and the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom was fully implemented. Under Father John’s spiritual guidance, and using his experience as an educator, he focused on growing the church spiritually, and spreading Orthodoxy to all. Father John served the parish until the middle of 1983.

During this period our church witnessed a dramatic growth of new parishioners, many of whom were new immigrants from the Middle East. The original chapel became too small to accommodate the growing community. In 1977 the parish council began serious discussions about building a new church structure that would accommodate a larger congregation. A building committee was formed, consisting of Wageeh Tawfik and Cam Hanna of blessed memory and Fuad Kattuah, who worked tirelessly on the project from its beginning through completion. The ground breaking was in June 1980 and work proceeded as funds were raised over the next five years. Once again, parishioners put their homes up as collateral for a construction loan. In September 1983, construction reached a critical stage when the church needed to raise funds to seal the exterior of the building before the winter rains. Lenore Baba organized the first International Food Festival to raise the necessary funds, and the food festival has been the principal annual fundraiser for our church ever since.

In 1983, Father Kirrill Gvosdev was assigned to the church to replace Father John and served until 1986.  During this time, construction continued to proceed, with the electrical and plumbing completed in 1983, and the interior walls in 1984. The baptismal font was dedicated in memory of Maryann Ajlouni by her parents Basem and Maha in 1984. Finally, in 1985 the church passed inspection by the county and an occupancy permit was issued. The church was completed with the exception of pews and an altar, and the first Divine Liturgy was held the week before Christmas 1985. From 1986-7, the church was served by two priests, Father Dennis Lajoie followed by Father James McLuckie. In 1987, the Very Reverend Thomas Ruffin of blessed memory was assigned to the church, where he faithfully served for the next twelve years.

 

Taking Root, Bearing Fruit (1987-2000)

 

Father Tom Ruffin brought with him years of experience in the priesthood and government service, having served in the administration of President Gerald Ford. Under his stewardship, the iconography and furnishings were completed, and the church was consecrated by Bishop JOSEPH. A new altar was dedicated in memory of Iman Tarazi, by her parents, Widad and Subhi Tarazi. Our youth programs, SOYO and Sunday school, were strengthened and grew in numbers. Children attended summer camp and the annual Christmas pageant and a visit from St. Nicholas became traditions that continue to delight young and old alike.

Once again, the parish began to look to the future and the need for a hall and Sunday school rooms that would accommodate our growing community. A building committee was established to examine the feasibility of building a new, expanded hall, Sunday school and offices. Father Tom considered his own future as well, and decided that it was time to return to Michigan to be near his family. He announced his retirement in 1999, and Metropolitan PHILIP assigned his replacement at the beginning of the new millennium.

 

The Lord's Vineyard (2000-Present)
 

Father Samer Youssef was assigned to the Church of the Redeemer by His Eminence Metropolitan PHILIP in January 2000. This occurred upon the retirement of Father Tom. Father Samer is originally from a suburb of Damascus, Sehnaia, in Syria. Sehnaia is not far from the place where St. Paul, on his way to Damascus to persecute the Christians, was blinded and the voice of Jesus said to him “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:3-6). Father Samer graduated in 1997 from Holy Cross School of Theology with a Masters of Divinity Degree. He was assigned to St. Nicholas Cathedral in Los Angeles, where he directed the youth program. He was ordained to the Diaconate by the Laying on of Hands of His Grace Bishop JOSEPH in 1998, and to the priesthood by His Beatitude Patriarch IGNATIUS IV on 25th of July, 1999 at the Archdiocese Convention in Chicago (St. George, The Shrine of the Weeping Icon).

The world changed on September 11, 2001. Like all Americans, our parish grieved over the destruction and loss of life. On the Sunday after 9/11 we observed the Elevation of the Cross. As we sang the hymn, “O Lord Save Thy People and Bless Thine Inheritance,” we knew we were praying for all of our fellow citizens and indeed for the world. We did not know, however, that the coming year would test our faith and resolve in an unprecedented way.

In the early morning hours of April 7, 2002 our beautiful sanctuary, iconography and furnishings were destroyed by arson. The impact of this event was devastating. How could we ever find the resources to rebuild? The church had insurance, but it was not sufficient to replace all that was lost. Yet in the midst of our tragedy, a message of hope and compassion was revealed in the unburnt remnants of the Gospel. Our Lord said:

"You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” Matthew 5:38-39

The message from the Gospel gave us a sense of direction and inspired all of us, clergy, parishioners, neighbors, friends and many throughout the country. Congresswoman Anna Eshoo invited Reverend Father Samer to deliver the invocation at the House of Representatives in Washington, DC, on July 24, 2002, where he shared the message of the Gospel with members of Congress. (Documented: Congressional Record – Proceedings and Debate of 107th Congress 2nd Session.) From April 2002 until our church was rebuilt in 2005, we returned to the original chapel courtyard built by the church founders to celebrate Divine Services under a tent. Under the leadership of Reverend Father Samer, the work in our Lord’s Vineyard continued uninterrupted. Our Choir, Men’s Fellowship, Women’s Auxiliary, SOYO, Order of St. Ignatius, St. John the Divine and the Sunday school each continued with their ministries. We learned that although the structure of the church had been destroyed, the body of the Church, our worshipping community, remained intact and strong.

Our community learned that though we were struck by tragedy, we were not alone in our struggle. Parishioners, neighbors, friends and the community in general helped us in the rebuilding of the Church. The Parish Council, with the entire parish, took the torch lighted with spirituality and the teaching of Christ and began the work to build an even more beautiful Church -- to the greater glory of God. We selected four members of the parish as an Executive Building Committee, faithful and knowledgeable men: Nicolas Azar, Reyad Katwan, John Mogannam and Abdullah Saah. In November 2004 we broke ground, and on Feast of the Transfiguration, August 6, 2005, Bishop JOSEPH blessed our new sanctuary with Holy Water and presided over the first Divine Liturgy. Since then the church has gradually been furnished by parishioners and friends, and the magnificent iconography has been and continues to be written by Dimitry Shkolnik.

As we celebrate the consecration of our beloved sanctuary, it is fitting to look back to honor the memory of those who sacrificed in the early years, as well as those who had the vision to plan for the future. Through the devotion and hard work of many, our community has built a Sanctuary which, God willing, will continue to serve the Orthodox faithful for many years to come.