The Byzantine Church in the West: the Eparchy of Van Nuys

The first step in initiating a Byzantine Catholic parish in the West was in 1956 when a letter was sent to His Grace, Bishop Nicholas Elko of Pittsburgh requesting a priest for the Los Angeles area. Soon Rev. Eugene Chromoga was appointed to undertake the organizational work. The first Divine Liturgy was on November 18,1956 in Van Nuys, Cardinal McIntyre of Los Angeles granted the use of a Roman Catholic Church which became their center of worship for four years. People and priest worked together diligently, and two years later Bishop Elko blessed a newly built chapel and rectory, naming Father Chromoga the first pastor. In the next few years, parishes were quickly established in Anchorage, Fontana and San Diego. Over the succeeding years, Byzantines migrating to the West, along with others seeking to live the Byzantine Catholic Faith, formed communities and parishes in Phoenix (1968), Anaheim and San Mateo (1969), Sacramento (1968), Albuquerque and Denver (1974), Tucson, and Las Vegas (1977), Spokane (1979), San Jose and San Luis Obispo, CA (1986), Seattle (1981), Gilbert, AZ (1982), Los Gatos, CA (1985), Portland, OR (1988) and Olympia, WA (1989) An mission for Italo-Greek Catholics was established in Las Vegas in 1993.

From the beginning of the Van Nuys parish in 1956, Byzantine Catholics in the West were shepherded by the Byzantine Catholic Bishop of Pittsburgh. In 1969, they became part of the newly formed Eparchy of Parma (Cleveland), OH. In May 1981, the bishops of the Byzantine Catholic Metropolia met in Pittsburgh. One of the topics at this meeting was the proposal by Bishop Emil Mihalik to create a fourth eparchy to minister to Byzantine Catholics in the western portion of the United States (the third being the Eparchy of Passaic, NJ, which was established in 1963). In light of the great distances between the emerging western parishes and the episcopal see of the Parma Eparchy, Bishop Mihalik felt a new eparchy organized and headquartered closer to these parishes was imperative to better serve their needs. When his fellow bishops agreed with this assessment, a formal request was dispatched to His Holiness, Pope John Paul II, through the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, to establish a Byzantine Catholic eparchy for the western United States.

On December 3, 1981, the Holy See responded favorably to the bishops’ request. By papal decree, a new eparchy composed of the states of Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming was created. This new eparchy would be centered in Van Nuys, California, a suburb of Los Angeles, and its cathedral would be at St. Mary’s Church, the first Byzantine Catholic parish formed in the western United States. Named to head the newly-created Van Nuys Eparchy was the Most Reverend Thomas Dolinay, the auxiliary bishop of thePassaic Eparchy.

The son of a Byzantine Catholic priest, Thomas Dolinay was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania on July 24, 1923. A product of the Struthers, Ohio and Uniontown public school systems, young Thomas Dolinay graduated in 1941 and entered St. Procopius College in Lisle, Illinois. Upon receiving his degree in 1945, he entered the Benedictine Seminary and completed his theological studies in 1948. On May 16, 1948, Bishop Daniel lvancho ordained Thomas Dolinay to the priesthood in the chapel of the Motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Basil in Uniontown.

For the next eighteen years, Father Dolinay enjoyed successful pastorates at a number of parishes throughout the Pittsburgh Exarchate and the Passaic Eparchy. In addition to these pastoral assignments, Father Dolinay, who had a long-time interest in journalism, served as the first managing editor of The Byzantine Catholic World and the first editor of the Eastern Catholic Ltfe eparchial newspapers. In 1966, Father Dolinay was given the dignity of a papal chamberlain and the title Monsignor.

On November 23, 1976, Monsignor Dolinay became the first auxiliary bishop of the Passaic Eparchy. His ordination as bishop was held at St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Scranton, Pennsylvania. As auxiliary to Bishop Dudick, Bishop Dolinay was assigned a number of important administrative tasks for the Eparchy including serving as the Vicar for the churches located in the Anthracite Region of Pennsylvania and vicar for Hungarians.

On March 9, 1982, the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Van Nuys was canonically inaugurated; Bishop Dolinay was formally enthroned as the first Bishop by Metropolitan Stephen Kocisko. The impressive ceremonies were held at St. Cyril of Alexandria Roman Catholic Church in Encino, California. Archbishop Pio Laghi, the Apostolic Delegate to the United States, read the papal decrees. Cardinal Timothy Manning, the Archbishop of Los Angeles and a great friend of the Eastern Churches, was the homilist. Thirty Eastern and Roman Catholic Bishops and over one thousand clergy, religious and faithful witnessed the ceremonies.

As the new shepherd of a small and far-flung flock, Bishop Dolinay, with the assistance of the eparchial officials, laid the groundwork for the new eparchy that would be spiritually strong and materially viable. Despite the great distances between the twelve parishes and three missions stretching from Anchorage to Albuquerque, Bishop Dolinay set about with great fervor and enthusiasm visiting his flock of three thousand. Growth was slow, but was spurred in part by the influx of new parishioners from diverse ethnic backgrounds who found a spiritual home in our Byzantine Catholic Churches. During his tenure as Bishop, one church was closed, five missions became parishes, and six missions were established.

Under Bishop Dolinay’s stewardship, the Eparchy of Van Nuys became the first eparchy to sponsor an annual clergy week for continuing education as well as strengthening the unity and fellowship among the far-flung priests.

Drawing upon his previous experiences, Bishop Dolinay founded the Van Nuys Eparchial Newsletter. This newsletter proved to be an invaluable tool in providing information and news about the Eparchy to the Bishop’s geographically dispersed faithful.

With the retirement of Archbishop Stephen Kocisko of Pittsburgh looming, Pope John Paul II relieved Bishop Dolinay of his responsibilities as Bishop of Van Nuys and named him Coadjutor Archeparch of Pittsburgh in 1990. To succeed Bishop Dolinay, the Pope appointed the Auxiliary Bishop of Passaic, the Most Reverend George Kuzma.

George Kuzma was born on July 24, 1925 in Windber, Pennsylvania. A navy veteran of World War II, Bishop Kuzma attended St. Francis College in Loretto, Pennsylvania and St. Procopius College in Lisle, Illinois. When SS. Cyril and Methodius Byzantine Catholic Seminary opened, he transferred there and received his collegiate degree from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Upon completion of his theological studies, George Kuzma was ordained a priest by Bishop Nicholas T. Elko on Pentecost Sunday, May 29, 1955. He served our churches in the Pittsburgh, Detroit and Cleveland areas before being assigned to the West Coast where he had always wished to serve. He was ordained as Auxiliary Bishop of Passaic on February 4, 1987.

His Grace, Bishop GEORGE

Bishop Kuzma was quite familiar with the duties and problems facing the fledgling Eparchy of Van Nuys. From 1971 until his elevation to the episcopacy, Bishop Kuzma served as pastor of Annunciation Parish in Anaheim, California. While in Anaheim he initiated the celebration of the Divine Liturgy and Quinceneras in Spanish to better meet the needs of the growing Hispanic members of his parish. He was sought as a spiritual director and confessor for both laity and clergy.

In addition to being pastor, Father Kuzma served in a number of important areas in the new Eparchy. He was the first eparchial treasurer, chairman of the Liturgical, Ecumenical and Heritage Commissions. Under his leadership as treasurer, the Eparchy of Van Nuys became the first of our eparchies to publish a financial report. He inaugurated a successful stewardship drive and upon his departure for Passaic left the Eparchy debt-free with money in the bank.

On January 15, 1991, Bishop Kuzma was enthroned as the second Bishop of Van Nuys by Metropolitan Stephen at St. Charles Borromeo Roman Catholic Church in North Hollywood, California. As Bishop, he visited every parish and mission of the Eparchy in the first few months, and faced overwhelming debt.

In 1994 as things began to look encouraging for the debt-ridden See, Bishop Kuzma was confronted with a natural disaster that would greatly affect the Eparchy. The devastating Northridge Earthquake with its epicenter a mile from the Pastoral Center and the episcopal residence caused severe damage to these structures as well as to the Cathedral complex eight miles away in Van Nuys. In the wake of the earthquake, Bishop Kuzma began a restructuring of the eparchial and administrative offices and relocated the Pastoral Center and residences for its personnel to St. Stephen’s Church in Phoenix, Arizona.

During his eight-year tenure, Bishop Kuzma has promulgated the Pastoral Handbook of eparchial statutes written in a more pastoral manner rather than the usual legal language. The Handbook has been well received by the Eastern Bishops and has reached as far away as Ukraine and Australia. Bishop Kuzma has also been at the forefront of liturgical renewal as mandated by the Holy See. He has established three small monasteries of men and is looking to establishing a monastery for women. He was the first of the Bishops to dispense completely with the use of Latin honorary titles for clergy and return to the use of the traditional Eastern honors of archpriest and archimandrite, he has expanded the annual clergy conference to include deacons, monastics and men and women religious serving the Eparchy. Although he closed three missions, he has established three missions and has raised two missions to the status of parishes.

Under the leadership of Bishop George Kuzma and his band of dedicated clergy and religious, the Eparchy of Van Nuys continues to grow. Today, you can find parish communities made up of Slavs, Anglos, Hispanics, Jamaicans, Australians, Eskimos, Native Americans, African-Americans and Asians worshiping God and hearing the Gospel proclaimed as brothers and sisters following our Byzantine Catholic Traditions.

In December 2000, Pope John Paul II accepted the retirement of Bishop George. The consultors elected Right Reverend Mitred Archpriest Stephen G. Washko, Rector of St. Stephen Pro-Cathedral as Eparchial Administrator until a new bishop is enthroned.

In 2002, Rev. William Skurla was ordained and enthroned as the third Bishop of Van Nuys.

Data prior to 1999 based taken from Byzantine-Ruthenian Metropolitan Church of Pittsburgh Directory, Published in Observance of the 75th Anniversary of the Establishment of the Byzantine-Ruthenian Metropolitan Church of Pittsburgh, published by the Byzantine Catholic Metropolia of Pittsburgh through the courtesy of the Greek Catholic Union of the U.S.A., Beaver, PA, 1999.