Proto-Cathedral of Saint Mary
As Byzantine Catholics began moving across the country after the Second World War, they brought the customs and traditions of their parents and grandparents with them. Among those were the Rohal, Gruchala, Onufrak and Sovich families, who came to California and were interested in starting a Byzantine Catholic Church on the West Coast
In response to the invitation of these families, the Most Reverend Nicholas Elko, Bishop of Pittsburgh, appointed Father Eugene Chromoga to establish a Byzantine Catholic parish in Los Angeles. The first Divine Liturgy was celebrated on November 18, 1956, in the chapel of the Nazareth House in Van Nuys. On October 1, 1957, the present church property was purchased and the new community was placed under the Patronage of the Most Holy Mother of God. Until the new church was constructed, Sunday and holyday Divine Liturgies were celebrated at Our Lady of Zapopan Roman Catholic Church in North Hollywood.
On April 13, 1958, Bishop Elko blessed the rectory and the small chapel attached to the back of the rectory. Bishop Elko granted the status of parish to Saint Mary on May 1, 1958, and appointed Father Chromoga as the first pastor. A few days later, the Reverend William Levkulic was sent as Associate Pastor. Father Levkulic, at the direction of Father Chromoga, began to celebrate the Divine Liturgy in Fontana and San Diego. Saint Mary’s began to fulfill her role as Mother Church to the California parishes.
In September, 1959, ground was broken for the new church, and construction began a year later. His Eminence James Francis Cardinal McIntyre, Archbishop of Los Angeles, and Bishop Elko solemnly blessed the new church and hall on February 12,1961.
In 1969, Father Paul Fetch was appointed the new pastor of Saint Mary when Father Chromoga was transferred to the Diocese of Parma in 1969. He continued the parish programs and expanded the Eastern Christian Formation (ECF) Program. With the generosity of the church’s faithful parishioners, the dream of paying off the entire mortgage and making Saint Mary debt free was realized on February 3, 1973.
On April 1, 1976, Father Eugene Linowski was appointed the third pastor of Saint Mary. Through his efforts, a Total Eastern Christian Educational program was made available to the entire community, which helped other churches become more knowledgeable about the Byzantine Catholic Church. On November 8, 1981, Bishop Emil Mihalik ordained Saint Mary parishioner Michael Hladky and Michael Savko from Annunciation parish in Anaheim as the first two permanent deacons on the West Coast.
On December 3, 1981, the Holy Father, John Paul II, made the historic decision to establish a Byzantine Catholic Eparchy to cover the thirteen western states, including Alaska and Hawaii. Saint Mary was elevated to the rank of Cathedral. The Most Reverend Thomas V. Dolinay was named the first Bishop for the Eparchy of Van Nuys. On June 1, 1982, Father Michael Moran was appointed by Bishop Dolinay as the first rector of the new Cathedral. The Chancery Office for the Eparchy was located on the Cathedral property from 1982 until 1989 when Bishop Dolinay moved it to Northridge. The office building would become the convent for the Sisters of Saint Basil who would serve both the Eparchy and the Cathedral as Pastoral Associates.
During the 1980s, as Sepulveda Boulevard became a major artery for the San Fernando Valley, the area around the church saw dramatic change. There were also changes on the church property. Father Moran moved the Shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Help (icon pictured above) from the front of the property to a quiet prayer garden next to the church. The rectory was renovated, new parish offices were built, and a large outdoor patio was constructed as a gathering spot for parishioners. The patio has been the scene of many parish activities, including Family Days, picnics and private parties.
On January 17, 1994, the Northridge Earthquake did extensive damage to the church, rectory and main auditorium. In the wake of the earthquake and the severe damage done to the Pastoral Center in Northridge, Bishop George Kuzma relocated the Pastoral Center and residences to Phoenix, Arizona.
After serving the Eparchy of Van Nuys and the parishioners of the Cathedral of Saint Mary for nearly twenty-two years, Archpriest Michael Moran retired in February, 2004. He was succeeded by Father Melvin Rybarczyk, CR (Congregation of the Resurrection), who became the second rector of the Cathedral.
In April 2004, a major renovation project began which included both the interior and exterior of the church, the Shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and the parking area. The project was completed, and the first Divine Liturgy in the newly renovated church was celebrated in October 2004. On September 30, 2006, the Cathedral of Saint Mary celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of its founding.
On February 10, 2010, the Holy Father approved a name change for the Eparchy. The Eparchy of Van Nuys became the Holy Protection of Mary Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Phoenix. The Cathedral of Saint Mary was given the title of Proto-Cathedral, since it is the first Cathedral of the Eparchy.
From a request made over fifty years ago for a priest to serve the Byzantine Catholics in Los Angeles, the Proto-Cathedral of Saint May has played an integral role in the development of the Byzantine Church in the Western United States. Saint Mary can be thought of as the Mother Church of the Byzantine Catholic parishes founded in California, and the Mother Church of the Eparchy.
For the pastors and priests who have served and for the faithful who have worshipped here, there have been many joys and triumphs, as well as hard work, difficult decisions and some disappointments. Since 1956, when the first Liturgy was celebrated in Nazareth House, the Eparchy has grown to more than twenty churches and missions across the Western United States. Whatever the next fifty years holds for us, we know that God is with us and will continue to care for us as we continue to share our faith with all who come here.