Parishioners at St. Ephrem Maronite Catholic Church in San Diego have resorted to demonstrations, YouTube videos and online petitions, among other techniques, in an attempt to persuade their bishop not to transfer their pastor of 20 years.
Following what parish members have described as “a year of turmoil,” Bishop Robert J. Shaheen of the Maronite Catholic Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon of Los Angeles ordered the transfer of St. Ephrem’s pastor, Fr. Nabil Mouannes, to Our Lady of the Rosary Maronite Catholic Church in Carmichael, a suburb of Sacramento.
The Maronite Catholic Church is an Eastern Rite church in full communion with the Holy See. An eparchy is the equivalent of a diocese in the Western Church.
Fr. Mouannes, a popular and well-known priest particularly friendly to the pro-life movement, was named St. Ephrem’s first pastor in 1992 after establishing it as a mission years before. He has also been instrumental in setting up Maronite missions and parishes in Denver, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and, ironically, Our Lady of the Rosary in Carmichael, where he is being transferred.
On April 15, parishioners at St. Ephrem held a demonstration on the parish grounds seeking a reversal of Bishop Shaheen’s decision to transfer Fr. Mouannes. “The overwhelming majority of St. Ephrem (1900 parishioners) have expressed that they want to keep Fr. Nabil Mouannes as their pastor,” says a brief note below a YouTube video of the demonstration. “The church hierarchy has ignored the voices of the 1900 people and have been very cold in their dealings with St. Ephrem parishioners asking for clarity. Could something more sinister be behind the removal and disrespect to the St. Ephrem faithful?”
Hundreds of protesters attended the event, carrying signs with slogans like, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” “Why$$,” and “Hear Our Voices.”
In addition to establishing Maronite churches and missions across the West, Fr. Mouannes was responsible for the establishment of the Mariam, Mother of Life Shrine on the parish grounds, and a special Memorial for the Unborn just below the shrine that features a pre-born infant cradled in God’s hands.
While parishioners continue to hope Fr. Mouannes will be able to stay, including hopes of a possible last-minute intervention from Rome, the countdown for his departure has already begun. Friends and admirers have planned a farewell party for him on May 12.
Exactly what prompted Bishop Shaheen to remove Fr. Mouannes from the parish he founded and nurtured into prosperity remains unclear. The transfer has even prompted conspiracy theorists to speculate that somehow agents of Hezbollah, a militant Shi'a Muslim group based in Lebanon, have played a role. Most Maronite Catholics have family ties to Lebanon, and passions run high because of the destruction and strife Hezbollah has brought to their homeland.
But it appears a more mundane culprit is at work: internal parish rivalries. According to information on a pro-Fr. Mouannes website since taken down, a handful of older, wealthy Lebanese families complained to Bishop Shaheen late last year that Fr. Mouannes wasn’t running the parish the way they wanted.
In fact, according to a letter from the dissident parishioners to the bishop, Fr. Mouannes had actually called them out in public for the divisiveness they were causing.
The pro-Fr. Mouannes faction at the parish, which appears to be vastly larger than the dissident faction, claims that their pastor’s detractors are not even regular participants in parish activities and are simply trying to flex their financial muscle with the bishop to get their way.