The first Byzantine Church in California — at a site identified originally in Van Nuys and now Sherman Oaks — has a rich background of history, religious belief and geographic elements. Although the church has been in existence for less than 50 years, the parish stems from ancient rites and mystical theology.
The Byzantine Rite originated at Constantinople during the fourth and fifth centuries and by the ninth century Saints
Cyril and Methodius were evangelizing in the region of Carpatho-Rus, the present day Ukraine area. They promoted the use of the ancient Slavonic language in worship and established what was known as “spiritual song” that has been handed down through the centuries.
Although a schism occurred in 1054 that separated East and West, a faithful reunion with Rome was achieved in 1646. By the 19th century immigrants brought the Byzantine Rite to America and many parishes were established in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio and the Northeast. In the Western States, about 8,000 Ruthenian Catholics formed parishes in Seattle, Portland and Denver and a monastery in Montana.
The history of the Cathedral of St. Mary began in August of 1956 when Bishop Nicholas T. Elko of the Pittsburgh Diocese granted permission for a priest to minister in Los Angeles for all the faithful who had migrated from the East Coast. Father Eugene Chromoga, a native of St. Louis, was named the first pastor and celebrated Divine Liturgy first at Nazareth House in 1956, then was granted use of the facilities of Our Lady of Zapopan Mission in North Hollywood.
The following year land was purchased on Sepulveda Boulevard and deeded October 1, the feast of the Patronage of the Mother of God, the official parish title. The new church was solemnly dedicated in 1961 and subsequent parishes founded in Fontana (St. Nicholas) and San Diego (Holy Angels).
In 1969 Father Paul Fetch, a native of Pennsylvania, was appointed pastor and instituted many new parish programs. The third pastor, Father Eugene Linowski, in 1976 re-ordered all the liturgical services to conform with the authentic traditions of the Byzantine Church. The icon screen was installed two years later. The screen maintains a traditional aura of mystery that separates the sanctuary from the rest of the church. At St. Mary’s the screen is a wrought iron grill with icons painted by local artist Mila Mina.
The Eparchy (diocese) of Van Nuys was established in 1982 and Most Reverend Thomas Dolinay installed as first bishop. Father Michael Moran, also from Pennsylvania, was named the first rector of the cathedral, served as chancellor, was later named monsignor and had a doctorate in canon law. During his 22 years heading the Byzantine parish, besides keeping pace with the growing community, Msgr. Moran had to cope with the aftermath of the 1994 earthquake that damaged all the buildings at the cathedral. As a result it was necessary to renovate all the structures on the property.
Before his retirement, Msgr. Moran had completed all the plans and city permits needed for the entire renovation of the church and the shrine area. In 2004 Father Melvin Rybarczyk, a member of the Congregation of the Resurrection, was named rector and easily completed the renovation project in October. Father Rybarczyk is a native of Chicago, ordained in 1963 and served at the Byzantine Church of Saint Nicholas in Fontana.
The Cathedral of St. Mary is the only Byzantine Ruthenian Church in the archdiocese but also has the distinction of having two geographic locations without leaving the Sepulveda site. Originally listed in the city of Van Nuys, around 1998 the postal service moved the city limits about a mile and the new address was in Sherman Oaks. Interestingly, both cities owe their origins to two industrious developers and California pioneers.
Isaac Newton Van Nuys left New York in 1865 to restore his health in California, but his wealth grew from farming and land development. He eventually purchased 60,000 acres that became the Van Nuys and Lankershim ranchos. The great ranch was slowly subdivided into tracts and by 1910 the remaining 47,000 acres were sold for $2,500,000 — the largest transaction in Southwest history. He died in 1912.
About the same time General Moses Hazeltine Sherman bought 1,000 acres of the original 47,500 owned by the Los Angeles Suburban Homes Company, and he subdivided his holdings in 1927 for $780 an acre. Known as a leading educator and entrepreneur who created the greatest electric inter-urban system in the world, he died in 1932.
Both history and mystical theology have formed and continue to enhance the traditions of the Cathedral of St. Mary.
*Source: Tidings Online – http://www.the-tidings.com/2005/0114/stmaryside.htm