From the early 1930s to the early 1950s a number of Syrian/Lebanese-American Christian Orthodox families, who lived in the Omaha area and were members of the Phoenician Club of Omaha, began meeting in family homes where they conducted Orthodox Vesperal Services. As numbers increased, they moved the Services to the Phoenician Club House located at 39th and Jones. In 1954 they began to lay plans to establish an Orthodox Church. The group contacted his Eminence Bishop Bashir for his advice on establishing an Antichion Orthodox (at the time known as Syrian Orthodox) parish in Omaha. Bishop Bashir sent Father Tom Skaff from St. Paul, Minnesota to assist in the organizing of the church. He began by collecting resources for the foundation for the church, starting with $5 from his own pocket. By December of that year, Sunday Services were held at The Phoenician Club on an irregular basis. Father Nicholas Bashara was retained as the first full-time Priest in September 1956, and regular Sunday Services soon followed. Early the next year, 1957, St. Mary Syrian Orthodox Church was officially incorporated under the laws of the State of Nebraska, changing its name to St. Mary Eastern Orthodox Church.
St Mary continued to grow and by May 1957 purchased the Lutheran Memorial Church and Rectory on 52nd and Seward Street. The Church occupied its new home for about 20 years. Funds were needed to maintain the Church. The Phoenician Club passed the sponsorship of the annual Syrian Dinners from their club, which served 1,500 people annually, to the Church. Sylvia Abdouch organized a choir, and the church formed a Sunday school. Both Senior and Junior SOYO (Syrian Orthodox Youth Organization) programs were developed. An active Parish Council was established and the St. Mary’s Ladies Guild became prominently known for its dedication and support of the needy throughout the community. In 1968 St Mary hosted the Midwest SOYO Conference.
Several Priests journeyed to Omaha over the years. Each provided a mix of religious personality and leadership styles that helped mold the St. Mary mosaic, directing families and friends toward a more common purpose and objective.
During August 1969 Father Jehad T. Michael came to Omaha to be St. Mary’s Priest along with Khouria Salwa (khouri is an honorific for a priest’s wife), and their eight children. They were active and most helpful in fostering a positive parish life. In that same year the name of the Church was changed to St. Mary Eastern Orthodox Church. In 1968 St. Mary hosted the Midwest SOYO Family Conference. His Grace the newly appointed Bishop Philip Saliiba honored us with his presence.
The parish soon grew to 80 adults and 50 Sunday School Students. By 1975, the Parish Council initiated efforts to seek a new and larger facility, and the church building at 5210 Seward sold in 1976. Without a facility, St. Mary used Trinity Episcopal Church in downtown Omaha until early in 1977. That same year St. Mary purchased the Countryside Briardale United Church of Christ, located at 12020 Pacific Street in Omaha.
The Church underwent several changes over the next few years. In 1979 St. Mary hosted successfully the Midwest SOYO Family Conference. His Grace, Bishop Philip Saliba, again honored us with his presence and elevated Father Michael to the rank Archpriest. He also made John Hays a Sub-Deacon who was later ordained to the Holy Diaconate in 1982 by His Eminence Metropolitan Philip at Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and assigned to St. Mary.
After many struggles to meet the monetary requirements and endless fundraisers, St. Mary had to make some hard decisions. Through the special efforts of the Parish Council and the New Horizon Committee the property at 12020 Pacific Street was sold. After much searching and deliberation, St. Mary decided to make its new and current home at 10303 Boyd Street, by purchasing the Living Faith Assembly of God Church. St. Mary Church purchased the Boyd Street property on March 4th, 1985, and Father Michael conducted the first Liturgy in the new facility soon after.
Many major rehabilitation projects followed to transform the new facility into today’s St. Mary Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church. These included a new roof, new parking area, redecorating the interior and exterior of the facility, new church pews, the transfer of stained glass windows from the old Church, church hall expansion, addition of a modern and fully equipped kitchen, modification of heating and air conditioning systems, and landscaping and sprinkler projects. Perhaps the most significant and expensive improvement was the addition of the major Icons written by Antoine Solounias and the design and manufacture of the Iconostasis and other special furniture pieces including the Bishop’s Throne, Altar Table, Baptismal Font, Chanters stand and Icon stand.
Bishop Antoun Khouri blessed St. Mary Antiochian Orthodox Church with a visit during October of 1985 where he conducted a Hierarchical Divine Liturgy.
By 1986, we had witnessed the transformation of our newly acquired facilities into an Orthodox Church. We had achieved all our goals. On May 3, 1987, the 30th anniversary of St. Mary, His Eminence Archbishop Philip Saliba consecrated our new church. That same year our Beloved Father, Jehad Michael, celebrated his 25th year in the Holy Priesthood.
In 1989, a small group of people from St. Barabas Episcopal Church, lead by their Priest, approached Father Michael about joining the faith. After long deliberations, Bishop Antoun Khouri confirmed the 34 members in February of 1990, and their Priest became an Orthodox Priest during a Hierarchical Divine Liturgy. That group today constitutes St. Vincent of Lerins church on 50th and Lake streets. St Vincent shared our church until they found their new facility.
In 1990, St. Mary also added icons to the iconostasis were added to the Iconostas and we were also blessed with a visit by the Very Reverend Father Peter Gillquist. In May of 1991, Father Michael announced that after 22 years of service as our Parrish Priest, he would be leaving for a new assignment.
The Very Reverend Father John Elias, Khouria Nawall, and their three children, came to St. Mary in August of 1991. It was a homecoming for Nawall. She is the daughter of the late Very Reverend Father Zacharia Nasr, one of St. Mary’s first full time Priests in the early 1960s. June 21, 1992, Father John announced he would be leaving for a new assignment and Fr. Constantine Masood served as the new Parish Priest for a short duration. Our present Priest, Fr. Don Hock and Khouria Maggie, and their five children came to St. Mary in October 1992. Being the third priest at St. Mary in that year alone, Father sensed the need to bring stability and growth to the church. Many Parishioners desired to be further educated in the rudiments of the Faith, so one of Father Don’s first projects was to institute adult instruction and catechism classes.
Since that time, the parish has experienced significant growth spiritually, in numbers, and in income. Attendance at the services and especially at Divine Liturgy on Sunday has increased. One hundred six new members have been added. New ministries have been developed and solidified.
In October of 1995, four parishioners were honored as recipients of the highest award given to lay people by the Archdiocese. His Grace Bishop Basil Essey presented this award, the Certificate of Meritorious Service, to Ken Shada, Gilbert Gibreal, Sade George, and Duane Skaff.
The church building has undergone many wonderful changes. An illuminated Orthodox Cross was installed on the building in 1995 and has been an inspiration to all who have viewed it. Beautiful oil votive lamps, candelabras, new altar cloths, and many other items along with the Holy Table have also been added. The building has also undergone many new improvements as well.
Since our move to the Southwest Region in 1992, St. Mary has contributed its time, talent, and resources to the diocese in the form of regional officers, spiritual advisors, contributions to missions, and in 1997 the hosting of the Parish Life Conference. St. Mary has become an example of faith and good works in the diocese through our people and their commitment to Christ and His Holy Orthodox Church.
St. Mary Parish will further the Kingdom of God, by the Grace of God, through devotion and dedication expressed through faith, humility, and good works. Outreach is included in our vision for the future, as well as further church building enhancements and even a possible building program. The deepening of our relationships with other Orthodox churches in Omaha remains a priority as well as welcoming those seekers of the true faith and the fullness of the Church. May the blessings of the Lord be upon us all as we continue on in this journey towards salvation!