Parishioners protest transfer of popular pastor at Maronite Catholic Church in San Diego

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.



Posted Wednesday, April 25, 2012 5:31 AM By Dana
How strange! How selfish! If Fr Mouannes is so wonderful, what a blessing to other parishes to be able to enjoy his faithful service. Why not trust in the decision of the shepherd (bishop) that you are given? We go to our churches to meet Jesus, don’t we? It sounds like the congregation of St.Ephrem are going to meet their priest.

Posted Wednesday, April 25, 2012 5:49 AM By Larry
And just what sort of “divisiveness” were these “older, wealthy Lebanese families” causing? What specifically were the issues? This article does not allow me to know whether to praise or condemn the Eparch’s actions. Also–twenty years is longer than any pastor is allowed to stay at one post in the Latin Archdiocese of Chicago. I don’t know what the policy is throughout the Church.

Posted Wednesday, April 25, 2012 5:49 AM By Angelo
Sounds like the situation with the late Fr. Sweeney at Our Lady of Peace in Santa Clara California. Everything going perfect, then the Bishop pulls out the rug from under Fr. Sweeney. We still don’t understand why. Bishop Shaheen should at least give an honest reason. Perhaps the Bishop is preparing Fr. Nabil for something greater, but then maybe not.

Posted Wednesday, April 25, 2012 7:34 AM By Diane
Father Mouannes has been a priest for so many of us who do not go to St.Ephrems’s. He is a true leader of the faith. Front and center when we have gathered to protest the taking down of the Soledad Cross, praying in front of the abortion clinics, speaking at Religious Freedom rallies….if only all priests would have the courage to step out in front as he has. I pray that he can stay in San Diego. As the storm clouds gather with the pending government crackdown on our religious freedoms, the pewsitters yearn, cry out, are hungry for leadership.

Posted Wednesday, April 25, 2012 7:41 AM By Anna Asher
Fr. Mouannes sounds like a wonderful holy Priest, may God bless him. I see the real problem here is with both sides erroneously thinking they have authority in parish and Eparchical matters. The danger of a wonderful priest is that he becomes the focus instead of Jesus. I don’t see these public displays of dissidence of the “keep Fr. Mouannes” faction as being successful. Let us hope it isn’t. The Church is not a democracy, it is a Theocracy. The parishioners would do well to reflect Fr. Mouannes as a priest who taught them obedience. Throw him a party. Welcome the new Pastor warmly and enthusiastically. What causes them to assume the new Pastor would accept bullying from non participatory elitists?

Posted Wednesday, April 25, 2012 8:23 AM By Marie Searles
Perhaps being active in the anti-abortion/pro-life movement is unappreciated by Catholics who are not that concerned about the killing of innocent pre-birth babies. Let’s hope that Fr. Mouannes will be able to continue his mission in the Sacramento area. Heaven knows that the state capital is a cesspool of pro-abortion activity.

Posted Wednesday, April 25, 2012 9:49 AM By Timothy
Exact same thing happend at our parish in the Dioscese of Sacramento with a young priest that did so much for our community. Over 3000 signatures were gathered but nothing worked. I urge your parish to be cautious as diocesan leaders can take it out on Fr. Mouannes.

Posted Wednesday, April 25, 2012 10:04 AM By Abeca’s Daughter J
I am currently 17 years old, a senior in high school. I have known Abuna (Arabic for father) Nabil since I was in elementary school. I went to his school for the sixth grade. I had learned a lot from him such as the our father in Arabic. Going to that school, I learned a lot about my faith. Abuna is very close to my family and he has always been there for us. He celebrated my quincenera, and performed a service for my grandpa’s funeral. My brothers are alter boys at his church as well. We all love Abuna Nabil and we will all miss him when he leaves. Bishop Shaheen’ had came to our church one day just to tell us that he will not take Abuna from us and now he took that promise from us. He is sending Abuna away. I can only pray that the bishop will in the end keep his promise. Abuna is a down to earth and sweet priest. I have never known anyone like him. He has grown an amazing community here at St. Ephrem’s and I hope that he wont be taken away.

Posted Wednesday, April 25, 2012 10:12 AM By Abeca Christian
This is our Pastor, whom we love so much. I just don’t get it just because some wealthy few do not like how he is running the parish wants him out, that is wrong to me! He is running it like a true Catholic parish! Full of love and true leadership! Why is their money speaking up. I wish I was wealthy so I can pay to get him to stay, sounds like that is the only way to get them to listen to us! I couldn’t stop crying since the news, my heart is broken! This priest always brings out the best in me, he is very pro-life, very traditional and he does live the gospel and teachings of the faith. I love how he takes the time for my family when I really need him, he is very much loved and is very busy a lot but still finds time for us. He is also very humble and obedient so it is no surprise to me when he tells us all to be obedient and confess our sins.

Posted Wednesday, April 25, 2012 10:22 AM By Abeca Christian
Thank you CalCatholic for doing an article on this situation! I am ever so grateful to you for this! If they do take him from us at least we were able to honor all his hard work through this story! I want to add that Father also appeared on EWTN several times. We even had Fr. Mitch Pacwa visit our little parish one year for Mass! Father Nabil also prayed with us in protest in Hillcrest, CA area when they had a blasphemous play about Jesus and apostles being homosexuals! Sue Lopez was the one leading the peaceful protest at that time. We prayed the rosary and it was nice to see Father Nabil supporting us. He always has a big smile, he is always full of Christ’s love!

Posted Wednesday, April 25, 2012 11:09 AM By Larry
Well, I’ve got four questions: 1) Is it certain that Father Mouannes’ transfer is a punishment? Here in the Latin Archdiocese of Chicago, twenty years is much longer than any pastor is allowed to stay at one post. 2) What are the objections against him? 3) Why would Bishop Shaheen credit the objectors over the defenders? 4) Are there no other faithful and compassionate priests in the Los Angeles Maronite Eparchy to replace Father Mouannes? I feel like I’m getting a very narrow, one-sided account of this business here.