Arlington's growing Eritrean Catholic community

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When Holy Spirit Church in Annandale was founded in 1964, Richmond Bishop John Russell could not have anticipated that the parish would become a gathering place for Eritrean refugees 50 years later.

Eritrea separated from Ethiopia in 1991 following fighting that dated back to the 1960s. The country received international recognition of its independence in 1993. But that did not end the violence.

In 1998, the Eritrean-Ethiopian War broke out, lasting until June 2000. Fifteen years later, Eritrea continues to face economic instability and drought and still shows signs of its Ethiopian legacy, such as the observance of the Ge'ez Rite faith.

Named after the old Ethiopian language, the Ge'ez Rite was founded when missionaries traveled from Alexandria, Egypt, to Ethiopia to spread the Gospel. The rite follows the Julian calendar, meaning that all holidays, including Christmas and Easter, fall on different dates than they do in the Roman Rite.

Today, Holy Spirit Church is home to the Eritrean Catholic community not just locally but regionally, with the faithful coming from as far as Richmond, and, after a years-long struggle, the community is on the quest for a home of its own.

Zach Gebre, community liaison, said, "Our community is only at infancy stage now. We have dream and goal to build the first Ge'ez Rite church within the Diocese of Arlington, but we are long way from our goal. We are very happy in our current home at the Holy Spirit Catholic Church."

The fact that the 1,000 faithful associated with this community do not observe the Roman Rite has complicated their situation. Until last November, the community had no pastor. Some of the faithful would travel to Washington or New Jersey for Mass.

"We had no branch here," said Gebre. "So we started contacting the Arlington Diocese for help."

With Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde's permission, the community has worked with the diocesan Office of Multicultural Affairs for the past seven years to secure a bi-rite priest, someone who could celebrate the Ge'ez and Roman Mass. In 2012, the diocese witnessed its first Ge'ez Rite Mass, but it would take another three years for the celebration to become a regular occurrence.

"We wanted Mass in our own language," said Gebre. "We needed Ge'ez Rite. We wanted to pass our traditions on to our children."

Their prayers were answered with Father Hagos Tesfagabir. Having completed his formation with the Sons of St. Anne in Italy, the Eritrean-born and raised priest knew the community's desired language, culture and rite.

Yet the transition has not been easy, Father Tesfagabir said.

While serving in Italy, he ministered to refugees, going to Germany and Switzerland on weekends to celebrate Mass with displaced Eritreans, but this is his first assignment as a pastor.

"Whereas I did not have lots of responsibilities before, here I am the spiritual director for (Eritreans in) Maryland, Virginia and D.C.," he said.

Cindy Curran, business manager and human resources director at Holy Spirit Church, said that, as someone new to the United States, Father Tesfagabir has to learn legal and financial customs in addition to cultural ones.

He also juggles teaching the faith with making heritage opportunities available for the community's children. Curran said that the community uses four classrooms for Sunday school and weekend language classes, and has plans to start a Saturday youth group.

The biggest obstacle has been not having a space of their own, though they hope to raise enough funds to make that possible one day.

"They are very dedicated to their faith and eager to practice their faith," said Curran. "They immerse themselves in their culture, and they need a venue for their faith and culture to get that full experience."

Find out more

To learn more, go to holyspiritchurch.us/ministries/medhanie/.

To donate to the Eritrean community, go to holyspiritchurch.us/about/parish-giving/.

Stoddard can be reached at cstoddard@catholicherald.com.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015