In the Memory of His Holiness Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII
At the 50th anniversary of Mar Narsai Parish that was celebrated on November 22, 2008, a historical moment of its own, in an excellent speech, Arbella d’Mar Shimun describes the greatness of her beloved uncle, the 119th Patriarch of Assyria, His Holiness Mar Eshai Shimun.
When we learned about this celebration honoring the Mar Narsai parish, our family was pleased that such an event would occur. It’s fitting that we are here to pay tribute and celebrate such an important milestone as a Golden Jubilee. In many ways, this joyous occasion is not only for the Mar Narsai parish, but symbolically it is in celebration and recognition for our beloved Church of the East.
The Mar Narsai parish is very dear to us for many reasons, one of which is that it was the Patriarchal See of His Holiness Mar Eshai Shimun, the 23rd Catholicos Patriarch. Before settling in San Francisco, His Holiness came to the United States in 1940, - specifically, to Chicago. Can you imagine an America of that time? A country barely emerging from the Great Depression, a country that was on the verge of participating in World War II. The rest of world was living in its own crisis with war raging through out central and eastern Europe. In the midst of this turmoil, a young Patriarch arrives in America. In 1940, Time Magazine wrote about His Holiness “The first Patriarch in history to visit the US docked in Manhattan last week. His Beatitude Eshai Mar Shimun, 119th Patriarch of Assyria and head of the Church of the East had come to do something, if possible for his persecuted brethren elsewhere.”
Always, His Holiness’ first priority was to see to his flock. When he arrived in the US, the parish of Mar Shimun Bar Sabbai, in Michigan, was in process of being built.
With the Flint parish settled, His Holiness focused his attention to the growing population of Assyrians in Chicago. In 1946, the Mar Sargis Parish was built and for a time, the Patriarchal See resided there. Happily, the Assyrian community began to grow in post World War II America and the next parish, the Mar Addai Church, was built in 1947 in Turlock, California.
This set the stage for more churches to be built: Mar Patros was ordained in Gary, Indiana in 1955 and in 1956 the Mar Toma Church in New Brittain, Connecticut was built. Can you guess which church came next? Mar Narsai in 1958 and in 1966 Mar Mari was built in Yonkers, New York. In that same year, Mar Toma was built in Seattle, Washington, our first English speaking Church of the East. Most of the Churches had a parsonage and the industrious Assyrians of New Britain purchased land to build an Assyrian cemetery.
There were other areas where the Assyrian community was too small to justify the expense of building, so Churches were rented. Canada, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Boston were a few communities in which the Patriarch ensured the local Assyrians received some spiritual succor.
Because of the Patriarch’s relentless pursuit to grow the Church of the East, simply building Churches was not enough. In fact, it required more of his time and attention: Bishops, including our current patriarch, His Holiness Mar Dinkha, were ordained. Likewise, Priests and deacons, were educated and ordained not only in the US but throughout the Middle East and India, parts of Europe, like London and Sweden and even Australia. And it was this growth that required a scalable infrastructure: His Holiness Mar Shimun spent considerable time translating Church liturgies into the modern Syriac and English languages because he knew that through education and understanding we could mature and strengthen our own faith. Some examples include: The Marganitha, Takhsat Raza and Borakha, the Cathecism, the Synhadus as well as helping Dr. Lamsa translate both the Old and New Testaments. Sunday school teachers were selected and trained – I can speak from personal experience since I attended Sunday school that was taught by my aunt Rowena in the Mar Narsai parish. As a matter of fact, I can see a few fellow Sunday school goers from our class here tonight.
In 1958 His Holiness moved the Patriarchal See from Modesto to San Francisco. Settling in San Francisco, the growing Assyrian community required a place of worship. A committee was formed and plans were made. Some of you here tonight may well remember the people involved, like Shamasha Aweemalik, the Lazar family and Mr. Pete Pera. People like Mr. Sam Jacobs, Mr. Sam Benjamin, Mr. Eugene Helbig, Mr. Joe Malik and Mr. Fred Kelaita and many more selflessly volunteered their time and money at nights and on the weekends devoted to converting this simple home into a house of worship. Mr. Luther Warda brought his people to work, donating the labor and materials. It’s important to note that his incredible generosity was not limited to the Mar Narsai parish, but he also did the same thing for Mar Addai church in Turlock. The ladies of the Church, like Shushan, Almas and Rakhel made sure these hard workers were properly nourished. I asked Mrs. Mary Jane Wilson what she remembered from the time this Church was built and her final comment summarizes this beautiful sentiment: “The Mar Narsai Church was built by volunteers and love.”
In 1960 the rest of our family immigrated to the US settling in San Francisco thanks to a private bill passed in Congress and signed by President Eisenhower. Our family was delighted to be reunited with His Holiness after being separated for almost 30 years. Each Sunday we attended Church – my great aunt, my grandparents, my uncle, my parents, aunts, uncles and cousins. We spent considerable time at Mar Narsai, worshipping numerous edayateh maran-iyeh, fund raising events and happy celebratory occasions, like Christmas brunch where none other than Santa Claus would make an appearance for us kids.
Shamasha Awee-malik had generously loaned $12,000 without interest for the purchase of the Church. It was about 1964 when enough proceeds were raised to repay the Shamasha the loaned amount. A dinner was organized in the Church basement in honor of the Shamasha and his generosity. All who’d gathered cheered when the Motwa members burned the mortgage deed in celebration of this accomplishment. A couple of years later, the dastat khwuta accumulated another $8,ooo and used that as a down payment for the parsonage that Kasha Dawid and his family lived in. It would not be a fitting tribute without mentioning Kasha Dawid, our parish priest who tragically passed away at a young age. He was loved, respected and trusted by our family, especially my uncle.
By 1975 our Churches in the US, could boast that each parish was financially solvent, with all operating in the ‘black’ and serving the growing Assyrian community. His Holiness set the stage and built the foundation of what we enjoy today to serve our people, not just as first and second generation Assyrians, but to preserve our Messianic teachings, our faith and our ancient culture for all time.
What strikes me most is that over the course of these 27 years, the Assyrian immigrants began with only some 300 families here in the US. These families and others rallied around His Holiness Mar Shimun and gave their time and energy not to mention their very meager and limited resources. These men and women worked tirelessly to build not only the Mar Narsai Church, but the other parishes as well. Without fail, the small but determined communities would come together during their evenings and weekends. Mrs. Barbara Benjamin recalls “During those days, the Assyrians didn’t have two nickels to rub together” yet Churches were built and mortgages paid off. The common denominator for all this work: building these Churches, motivating others to give so much of themselves, painstakingly translating ancient Aramaic texts in order to educate were motivated by His Holiness’ faith. And it was this faith that was the fulcrum of his inspiring leadership. And it was this leadership that was the springboard by which all these accomplishments were achieved.
As I imagine harnessing and coordinating these efforts, amidst considerable obstacles, I’m exhausted simply trying to process how these accomplishments were achieved. Doesn’t it all sound tiring? Yet, somehow His Holiness found time to attend other equally important issues, such as representing the Assyrian cause to the United Nations. Quoting a portion of an article that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on May 5th, 1945 entitled: “Vanished Empire Pins Hope on SF Trip – Patriarch Seeks Revival of Land of the Assyrians”.
His Holiness was quoted: “Our mission is to see that a home is given to the Assyrians in the Middle East, where all the Assyrians would be permitted to come and where they could, under international machinery be set up, enjoy freedom of life, property, religion and language.”
If you know nothing else of His Holiness Mar Shimun it’s that he valued two things: our Church and its teaching, and you, the Assyrians he served. Indeed, his life’s mission was to serve you, your parents, grandparents, your aunts, your uncles, your children, and your cousins. He believed the vehicle by which he could achieve this for you was through education and he focused his time and energy educating Assyrians. Nothing pleased him more than to see an Assyrian man or woman succeed through educational achievement. However, His Holiness was shrewd enough to understand that education did not stop with the Assyrians he served. Expanding the boundaries of this belief, he took his educational mission into other arenas outside of the Assyrian nation. His tireless work included these few examples: the League of Nations and later the United Nations, the World Council of Churches, establishing relations with various government officials throughout the world and various and sundry lectures.
His education, which culminated at the prestigious Cambridge University set the framework for his work as a patriarch but it was his experience, through adversity, wisdom and old fashion hard work that created his legacy as a history making leader. His uncompromising ethics and integrity were the very hallmarks of his character.
He was a remarkable patriarch, an inspired leader, and a sophisticated statesman. But he was more than that, His Holiness Mar Eshai Shimun the 23rd Catholicos Patriarch was also a son, a nephew, a brother, a cousin, a brother in law, a father and a most loved and cherished uncle.