In the early years of the twentieth century, with the world about to erupt in a Great War and the Ottoman Empire gasping its last breaths, a group of immigrants from what we now call Lebanon, as well as other places in the Middle East, settled in Danbury, Connecticut. Drawn by the hope of a better life, these immigrants sought jobs in the area’s hatting industry. They brought their families, established homes and businesses, and sought comfort together in the shared traditions of their homeland.
The original Melkite Greek-Catholics in Danbury gathered regularly for prayer before they had a church or parish and relied on visiting Melkite priests to celebrate the Divine Liturgy of their Rite. The first recorded baptism took place in 1903. Regular services and sacraments were established by 1910, long before the purchase of the first property in 1922. But the story of the Melkite Catholic Church in Danbury really goes back to the arrival of the first permanent Melkite priest in the United States, Fr. Abraham Bechawate, on Christmas Eve, 1890.
Fr. Bechawate was sent to America by the Patriarch, with the permission of Rome, to serve as a missionary among the “Syrian Christians”. In this role, he traveled all over the country ministering as an itinerant priest. He and other priests who were sent to the United States traveled from community to community via trains in a large circuit. Several baptisms and marriages were recorded in Danbury between 1910 and 1920, the earliest of which were performed by Fr. Bechawate.
Another of these itinerant priests was Rt. Rev. Archimandrite Nicholas Medawar, B.C.O. He came to America in the early 1900’s and met with Melkite Christians in many parts of the United States. It was dedicated men like Fr. Medawar who made it possible for Syrian-Lebanese who came to this country to celebrate the Divine Liturgy and the sacraments in their native Arabic. He traveled extensively to minister to his people, meeting with them in their homes, hotels, or wherever they would gather. He spent considerable time with the Syrian-Lebanese people of Connecticut. He discussed establishing a permanent parish and building a church with the community in Waterbury but was encouraged to come to Danbury where there was a more substantial Syrian-Lebanese population.
Fr. Medawar ministered to Melkites, Maronites, and Orthodox Christians in Danbury from 1910. He served all of these people until they were able to get leadership of their own and build their own congregations. Ecumenism is often regarded as a consequence of Vatican II, but these people lived it. Drawn together by their common ethnic background, they united in prayer and worship, setting an example for future generations. Apparently he considered Danbury his home since he recorded baptisms from other parts of the country in the registry of Saint Ann parish.
On October 10, 1922, Fr. Medawar purchased a private home from the Andrews family on William Street to use as a church for the small congregation. It was the first permanent site used by the community, which at the time was called St. Ann Syrian Mission. Services were held there until 1928 when it was decided that another location on William Street would better meet the needs of the church. Joseph Andrews, one of the most influential Melkites in Danbury, generously agreed to an exchange of properties and on December 1, 1928, titles were transferred.
Mr. Andrews arranged for necessary remodeling of the house. The first floor was converted into the chapel and the second into an apartment. An Irish friend of the parish, John McDonnell, helped with the renovations. Parish lore is that the first altar was built by Mr. McDonnell from crates and boxes. This is plausible since Mr. Andrews had the largest fruit and produce business in the area, which was next to the church. Upon his death in 1929 Fr. Medawar bequeathed all his earthly possessions, including the church property, which was his home, to the Basilian Choerite Order.
Fr. Nemetallah Saliba was the second pastor to serve the people of St. Ann parish, but his stay in Danbury was brief. He left Danbury in the latter part of 1931 and moved to the Philadelphia area. It is believed that Fr. Lawrence Sawaya and Fr. Cyril Anid also served the parish during this period. While there are no records to indicate that either one was ever appointed to the parish, these early Melkite priests lived the role of missionaries and went wherever they were needed.
Rt. Rev. Archimandrite Philip Salmone was the next pastor to minister to the needs of the parish. He was appointed December 12, 1931. The Basilian Choerite Fathers deeded the property at 51 William Street to Fr. Salmone on December 19, 1932, who then transferred it to St. Ann Corporation on July 25, 1940. The Roman Catholic Bishop of Hartford was listed as the president of the “St. Ann Roman Catholic Church Corporation”, a special statutory form of civil law Catholic parish organization in Connecticut. Resort to that form of organization was necessary at the time because no Melkite Eparchy existed in this country and the local Roman Catholic ordinary was entrusted by the Church with oversight and ultimate management of all Melkite parishes in the United States.
Fr. Salmone was a highly educated man, fluent in both English and Arabic. He traveled throughout the country giving lectures to educate people about Christians in the Middle East and the challenges they faced. In the Saint Ann parish archives are numerous letters of thanks from Bishops, pastors, universities, and communities from all over the United States. The 1930’s and 1940’s were a period of growth under his leadership. The first recorded ladies group was formed on December 4, 1932 and was named The Christian Mothers Society of St. Ann. Many of their minutes from the 1930’s are available and they give an indication of the financial stress the country was under in this period. They also exhibit a spirit of trust, love, and sharing. A men’s society is mentioned frequently, but their records are no longer available. In the early 40’s, a young adult group was formed under the name of The Sons and Daughters of the Pioneers, with Joseph Khoury serving as the first president. Fr. Salmone also began a religious education program. During his tenure, parish life was revitalized.
Divine Liturgy continued to be celebrated in the little church at 51 William Street and the priest’s residence was still the apartment above it. St. Ann Parish Association, Inc. purchased the land and buildings at 43, 45, and 47 William Street on January 15, 1945. The intention was to construct a new church at 45 William Street. A building fund was established. “Bricks” were sold and the gifts were pledged as “quantities of bricks.” The Christian Mothers Society took an active part in this drive and both the men and women of the parish went out “selling bricks.” The drive enabled the parish to build the basement of the church at 45 William Street which was used as a church hall for meetings and socials, but the superstructure was not built at that time due to lack of funds.
The interior of the church blended Melkite traditions with Roman Catholic architecture. There was a high altar, icons, and statues but no iconostasis. The Divine Liturgy was celebrated in Arabic and it also combined Melkite and Latin customs. Without a Melkite Eparchy in the United States the parish continued to function under the authority of the Diocese of Hartford and subsequently under the Diocese of Bridgeport when the Archdiocese of Hartford was erected in 1953. On May 12, 1950, Fr. Salmone retired but continued to reside in Danbury until his death in1966. Since no Melkite priest was available, the Bishop of Hartford appointed Fr. Edward Zibell of St. Peter Church in Danbury as administrator.
During Fr. Zibell’s tenure there was a fire in the church. A group was at the Andrews’ house next door to the church and responded to the fire call. Fr. Zibell arrived at the scene almost instantaneously and risked injury to himself trying to remove the chalice and other holy articles from the altar. His arms were blistered and his face was reddened for a week. He acted to continue serving the parish immediately. He borrowed some chairs and set up an altar in the newly built basement of the future church. The altar and sanctuary supplies were cleaned and Divine Liturgy was celebrated there on Sunday morning. The basement continued to be used as a place of worship until the remainder of the building was completed in 1959.
Fr. Zibell served as administrator of St. Ann until September of 1952 when the parish received a response to their request for an Arabic speaking Melkite priest.
In August of 1952, Rt. Rev. Archimandrite Dimitri Hatoum B.C.O. was named pastor. On September 19, 1955 Patriarch Maximos IV honored the community with a visit.
After listening to Fr. Hatoum and his parishioners tell of their plans for remodeling the house at 47 William Street for a rectory and the completion of the church, His Beatitude encouraged them to continue with their endeavor.
To move forward, the parish initiated a professionally executed Building Fund Drive. Abe Najamy was general fund chairman and Evelyn George was in charge of memorial gifts. The drive opened September 1, 1957 and closed September 27, 1957. In that short period they were able to exceed their minimum goal of $25,000 by over 30%, raising $33,562 in money and pledges. Saint Ann was on its way to fulfilling a long awaited dream.
Remodeling of the rectory and the completion of the construction of the church began in the fall of 1958 and both buildings were completed by late spring of 1959. The building was an A-frame structure typical of Roman Catholic churches of that era. Inside, the use of statues, side altars, communion rails, and Stations of the Cross created the visual impression of a Latin Rite church. The only Byzantine furnishing was the free standing altar surmounted by a marble baldachin. Since this was before the formation of the Melkite Eparchy in the United States, Bishop (later Cardinal) Lawrence J. Sheehan of the Diocese of Bridgeport officiated at the dedication. Archbishop Philippe Nabaa, Metropolitan of Beirut, and four other priests participated in the con-celebration of the Divine Liturgy that followed.
Bishop Sheehan blessed and set the cornerstone. He then blessed the exterior of the church and entered for the chanting of the Litany of the Saints and the blessing of the interior. The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom was celebrated by Rt. Rev. Archbishop Nabaa, Fr. Dimitri Hatoum, Fr. Elias Skaff, Rev. George Haddad (from Beirut) and his secretary Rev. Anthony Hibbey. The future Eparchial Bishop of the yet to be established Eparchy of Newton, John Elya, served as deacon. After Fr. Hatoum’s introduction, Rt. Rev. Archbishop Nabaa, extended the greetings of Patriarch Maximos IV and praised the parish for its accomplishments.
The growth of St. Ann was enhanced by the formation of the Ladies Guild, which began officially on January 10, 1966, replacing the Christian Mothers Society. The St. Ann Ladies Guild was established for the purpose of organizing the interest and loyalty of the members of the parish, assist in the administration of the church, sponsoring and developing spiritual and social activities, and maintaining, strengthening, and enriching the spiritual heritage of the Melkite Rite. To this day the Ladies Guild remains very active and supportive of the church, annually organizing the Holiday Bazaar, the Palm Sunday pastry sale, and various other activities. These fundraisers are critical to the financial well being of the parish. They also organize the Father’s Day Brunch and co-sponsor the annual St. Ann Day Picnic.
Only seven months after the dedication of the new church, on July 26, 1966, the parish celebrated the paying off of its mortgage. His Excellency Justin A. Najmy, B.A.O. the first Apostolic Exarch for the Melkites in the United States, attended. Divine Liturgy was followed by a banquet and the ceremonial burning of the mortgage. St. Ann rapidly became a leading parish in the newly formed diocese and was chosen to host the eighth annual convention of the Melkite Association of North America from June 22-25, 1967. Continuing this leadership, St. Ann joined with St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church, St. Anthony Maronite Church, and the Lebanon-American Club in sponsoring a Labor Day weekend Mahrajan. All four groups shared in the proceeds and the affairs were both a social and financial success, garnering renown across the country within Melkite and Maronite communities. The installation of the stained glass windows in the church on William Street also took place during this period. The five triple panel side windows portrayed the Nativity, Baptism, Good Shepherd, Crucifixion, and Resurrection. A large window in the front of the church depicted St. Ann and the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Archbishop Joseph E. Tawil was sent to the United States as Apostolic Vicar after the death of Bishop Justin in 1968. In August 1969, seminarian and future Eparchial Bishop Nicholas Samra, with the help of the parish, organized a youth club. His initiative helped bring the teens to church and to have them become more familiar and comfortable with their religion. Though his actual stay in Danbury was short, Fr. Nicholas kept returning and communicating with the group to encourage and maintain their interest.
Fall 1970 saw the formation of the Diocese’s Religious Education Office. St. Ann in Danbury was selected by this group to pilot an experimental program in Christian Education with the primary purpose of revitalizing our Melkite parishes. The most memorable part of this program was a series of public forums and home discussion groups for the Byzantine Catholics of the Danbury area. The subject matter was selected to explore the riches of the Eastern tradition. The presentations included Byzantine Catholics, Our Past and Our Futureby Rev. Joseph Francavilla, Our Liturgical Traditionby Rev. Albert Gorayeb, The Laymen’s Place in Our Churchby Mr. William Baroody, Clergy and the Hierarchy in Eastern Traditionby Rev. John Elya, and Our Sister Eastern Churches,which was a panel presentation headed by Rev. Kenneth Michael. The Diocese and the parishioners made a great effort to familiarize both the youth and the adults with their religious heritage.
In December of 1976, Archbishop Joseph Tawil transferred Fr. Hatoum to St. Joseph parish in Scranton, Pennsylvania and moved Fr. Roman Obrycki M.I.C. from Scranton to Danbury, where he became fifth pastor of St. Ann. Fr. Roman’s presence signaled a period of renewal of Melkite traditions. One of the items that received immediate attention was the creation of a baptistery with a baptismal font imported from Lebanon that permitted baptism by immersion, an ancient and deeply symbolic tradition of the Eastern Christian churches.
Fr. Roman was aided by the strong support he received from his confrere Fr. Seraphim Michalenko, and the Melkite Sisters of the Community of the Mother of God of Tenderness: Sr. Mary Ann Socha, and Fr. Seraphim’s siblings, Sr. Sophia Michalenko, and Sr. Victoria Michalenko. The Marian Congregation and the Melkite seminarians visited frequently and assisted in any manner they could.
In 1977, the Diocese was raised to the status of Eparchy and Archbishop Joseph was appointed the first Eparchial Bishop of Newton. St. Ann underwent a period of slow, steady growth. A new religious education program was developed for the parish children, the Ladies Guild initiated new fundraising projects including the annual bazaar, and a new tradition began for the celebration of St. Ann Feast Day with Divine Liturgy was offered at an area park followed by a family picnic. In 1977 the parish began its annual October Hafli, including a banquet and Arabic and American music.
St. Ann expanded its spiritual boundaries with the foundation of “Cross-Connection”, an inter-faith and inter-life connection with four other parish communities within the two-block neighborhood. The other churches involved were The First Congregational Church, Central Christian Church, New Hope Baptist Church, and a Hispanic Baptist group that met at the Central Christian Church. One annual shared event was the Lenten potluck supper at St. Ann which was highly anticipated by the neighborhood group. All participants adhered to the Melkite rules regarding fasting, making for creative planning and cooking. Fr. Roman also reached out to Melkites in nearby Putnam County in New York and founded a mission in Poughkeepsie for them.
St. Ann continued to progress liturgically towards a more authentic observance of the Byzantine Rite. In accordance with Byzantine custom, Sunday liturgies were reduced to a single service, placing the emphasis on the entire family worshipping together. Arabic singing for the Liturgy was provided for many years by George David, and later by Souad Karam, a trained cantor from Lebanon. English singing was led by the Melkite sisters. Sr. Victoria continues to lead our community in singing with Nuhad Haddad. A new iconostasis with icons painted by iconographer Christopher Kosmas graced the sanctuary. For the first time parishioners saw the traditional Melkite services of Orthros, Vespers, and Compline celebrated on a regular basis, and Holy Week services were restored to their Eastern solemnity and splendor.
St. Ann parish had the honor and great pleasure to welcome His Beatitude Maximos V, on June 2, 1981. His Beatitude was accompanied by Archbishop Joseph Tawil, Fr. Oreste Kerame, Fr. Elias Nacouz, and Fr. James King. Parishioner Abe Najamy of Channel 10 was able to broadcast his interview with the Patriarch. A dinner which many local clergy attended was followed by the celebration of Vespers with the Patriarch presiding.
In 1988 the parish decided to sell the property on William Street and build a new church. Land was purchased on Clapboard Ridge Road where the current church is located. But between the sale of William Street and the completion of the new church the parish was obliged to move between several locations. After a brief period of sharing the church with the new owners, St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church, St. Ann began holding Sunday services at Danbury High School, and later at the Lebanon-American Club. On feast days and during the Lenten period, the community enjoyed the hospitality of St. Nicholas Byzantine (Ruthenian) Catholic Church on Roberts Avenue.
Holy Friday and Pascha services were held at Assumption Greek Orthodox Church when calendars permitted, or at Sacred Heart Church. St. Anthony Maronite Church kindly extended the use of their church for funerals and their parish hall for special events. Some services were also held at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church.
The building of the new St. Ann church occupied most of the next five years. The processes of selecting a builder, deciding on a design, dealing with the land use agencies in the City of Danbury, and weathering the fluctuations in the national economy absorbed more time, money, and energy than anyone at first had imagined. Fr. Roman was without a rectory for several months when the condominium was sold and lived with a hospitable parish family. A new permanent rectory was finally obtained when a house next door to the new church property was placed on the market.
The parish purchased the “handyman’s special” and several industrious parish members gutted the structure and renovated it, providing an attractive residence for the pastor.
During the winter and spring of 1991-92, parishioners watched the new church structure slowly rise on Clapboard Ridge. Foundations gradually filled empty space, brickwork covered cement block, arched framing sketched the outline, and three gold domes crowned the new house of worship. Auxiliary Bishop Nicholas Samra dedicated the new church in 1992. Only a few months later, in June 1993, Fr. Roman was succeeded by then Deacon James Graham, who was appointed administrator and subsequently, after his priestly ordination, pastor. Under his leadership, the parish held its 85th Anniversary Celebration, hosted an Eastern Christian Family Values conference, initiated the custom of blessing cars on the feast of St. Elias the Prophet (July 20th), and reorganized the Men’s Society.
While still a deacon, Fr. Justin Rose did a summer internship at St. Ann in 1994 and assisted in presenting the first Vacation Bible School for the children of the parish.
In November 1995, Fr. James was transferred and Fr. Basil Parent was installed as pastor. During Fr. Basil’s tenure many projects were undertaken. Parishioner Edmund Nahom spearheaded a critical refinancing of the parish debt associated with the building of the new church, which brought much needed relief.
Fr. Basil encouraged and supported the installation of the cell tower that became a source of income for the parish. A beautiful tile floor was installed, new chairs were donated for the church, the parking lot was paved, the rectory was substantially renovated adding a second floor, a St. Ann shrine was installed in the narthex, and additional icons were acquired for the sanctuary, all of which greatly enhanced the beauty and dignity of our Father’s house.
The influx of young families lead to renewed growth in the children’s religious education program. Fr. Basil added Bible study and adult education classes. Then deacon seminarian Thomas Davis joined the choir and organized a Lenten adult study program. Along with his wife they started a bi-monthly newsletter to help keep parishioners and friends informed about developments in the parish and in the Melkite Church worldwide, as well as provide education on Melkite traditions and teachings.
On May 28th, 2003, the parish was honored with a visit from Patriarch Gregory III Laham. A packed house welcomed him and Bishop John Elya at Vespers, and greeted them at a reception and dinner that followed in the church hall. Bishop William Lori of the Diocese of Bridgeport, visiting clergy, political leaders and community representatives all joined the celebration.
In 2004 Fr. Basil returned to Maine to care for his aging mother and Fr. Michael Skrocki was appointed pastor. Shorty after his arrival, seminarian Tom Davis was ordained to the Holy Diaconate by Archbishop Cyril Bustros as St. Ann’s first ever deacon. In 2006 Archbishop John Elya ordained Nicholas Bourjaili as St. Ann’s second deacon. Improvements to the church also continued with the addition of icons in the Holy Place, the central Dome, the Dome over the baptismal font, and many festal icons. Each of these icons was donated by individual members and families in the parish. Four magnificent chandeliers were also donated by Anis and Josephine Nassif, adding to the beauty of our church.
In recent years, the parish celebrated the Golden Jubilees of all three of the sisters of the Community of the Mother of God of Tenderness.
In 2010 the church paid off its mortgage debt and celebrated its 100thAnniversary with a banquet and the burning of the mortgage. Subsequent capital improvements and major physical plant maintenance projects were undertaken inclining a new church roof, additional parking lot paving, installation of and many new building mechanicals.
In late 2019 Fr. Michael was transferred to St. Ignatios Melkite Church in Augusta, Georgia. On December 1, 2019 Deacon Tom Davis was ordained to the Holy Priesthood by Eparchial Bishop Nicholas Samra and installed as pastor of St. Ann. At his ordination Fr. Tom announced the he had obtained a First Class relic of Saint Mary of Jesus Crucified (Mariam Baouardy), a religious sister of the Carmel du Saint Enfant Jesus in Bethlehem in the Holy Land. She was a Melkite Catholic canonized by Pope Francis in 2015 whose heroic life of virtue is witness that the sap of sanctity flows in the veins of the Churches of the East. A shrine at Saint Ann honoring the saint is planned around her relic.
St. Ann is one decade into her second 100 years. The commitment of the new pastor and the parish is to honor and remember the past, preserve Saint Ann’s glorious liturgical and theological tradition, and to usher in a future that will shine brightly for generations to come, witnessing to the apostolic faith handed down from those who walked with the Master and Savior of the world.