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IV. My Days at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary; His Grace Bishop Antoun

As I look back on those days at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, my mind frequently flows back to His Grace, Bishop Antoun.   Newly arrived from Brazil and accepted by Metropolitan Antony to study at the Seminary, we all became fast friends because living in New York was a new adventure for all of us and all we had was one another to hold onto.

The Slavic students were so much different in mentality. Many of them came from small Pennsylvania towns and were reared according to Russian traditions, while we Antiochians had very different upbringing with all of our Arabic traditions. But for then-Deacon Antoun, America was altogether an alien territory. He wore a top hat, a very long black jacket, sunglasses and a beard that made him look like a Hasidic Jew. My friend, Basil Dallack, and our small group took him to Greenwich Village for an Italian supper. Firstly, we were walking and he held my hand as they do in Syria. I abruptly put it down and told him, not here! When we arrived at the restaurant and we ordered spaghetti, he yelled, “Macaroni? That is all I ate for one week in Rome!” And we thought this was going to be a treat!

After a short while, we shared an apartment together and I tried to teach Bishop Antoun English. He tried to teach me Arabic. He taught us Arabic in a class and I never got past “It is Truly Meet” in Arabic. One icy day, Bishop Antoun fell and broke his leg. We all took turns in taking care of him. But he arrived to the U.S. with some money that he generously shared with us, treating us to meals. We all felt like he was our brother and we did whatever we could to make him comfortable. 

Midway through his Seminary days, Metropolitan Antony decided to ordain him a priest in Boston where then-Deacon Antoun had relatives. My wife Lynn took up a collection and for $45.00 we bought him his first vestment. Then we drove him to Boston for the ordination. He later was assigned to our parish in Philadelphia so Fr. Joseph Shaheen could assume the pastorate in Indianapolis. The new Fr. Antoun shuttled back and forth between New York and Philadelphia until his graduation from seminary. We occasionally went with him to his new parish to keep him company as he was initiated into an American milieu.  One time, Metropolitan Antony was visiting the parish and while censing the iconostasis in the small church of St. George, he noticed there was no icon to the patron saint. His Eminence exclaimed for all to hear, “For God’s sake, where is St. George?” Of course there was muffled laughter in the church. Those were days of great intimacy.

The late Metropolitan Philip and Bishop Antoun were classmates at the Balamand Seminary in the 1940s, and they certainly shared a unique relationship that lasted decades. In the 1960s, when both men were priests, Fr. Philip invited Fr. Antoun to come visit him in Cleveland from New York. Father Philip told Fr. Antoun to just get on a bus and he’d be in Cleveland in no time at all. “No time” really meant 12 hours! Father Antoun got off the bus in a fury, and all Fr. Philip did was laugh. Father Antoun settled down after the practical joke and the lifelong friends caught up. When it was time for Fr. Antoun to return to New York, Fr. Philip had purchased Fr. Antoun an airline ticket.

When graduation came around, Fr. Mark Campbell – who served at our parish in Youngstown, Ohio – and I, were awarded crosses quite ahead of schedule due to the fact both of us were straight A students and never missed a class or had to do makeup work. Father Antoun was recognized for his assiduous note taking with exact precision that helped him learn not only theology but English, even though he really struggled in his new environment. Today, Bishop Antoun, Fr. Mark, and I are last standing members of the Class of 1962 from St. Vladimir’s Seminary in New York; close to Columbia University, Union Seminary and the Jewish Theological Seminary. What an intellectual environment!

Also in 1962, we were all in Boston to bid farewell to the new Metropolitan Ilyas Kurban who had been elected to the Archdiocese of Tripoli. This was one of the most emotional moments for all of us, for we knew him well as a priest in our Archdiocese. Father Tom Ruffin came from Worchester and it was a reunion of old friends seeing their friend transformed from a parish priest to archpastor of a major archdiocese in Lebanon at a tender age. It was one of the few occasions that I witnessed Metropolitan Antony choke up during his speech. The “golden voice” was a favorite of Sayidna. The entire parish of St. George seemed to weep at his departure. Father Michael Abraham was the toastmaster and quoted freely from The Prophet by Khalil Gibran, which added to the heightened emotions of the banquet.

To return to our graduation, I was not sure Lynn would be able to make the trip with our little son David. I walked into the Common Room at the Seminary and there, to my surprise, was David sitting on the couch. Having Lynn and David there completed the day for me. We later took the faculty for supper at a Lebanese restaurant to express our gratitude for their care for us. I was being assigned to my first parish in Phoenix, Arizona and I knew that it would be some time before I would see the faculty again. While packing the car to leave, I ran in for a final farewell and forgot to lock my car which was ransacked by the time I returned. All of my clothes were gone!

My family and I stopped in Syracuse to see my parents and the parish there organized a farewell lunch after church. Then, in a few days we were off to Phoenix in the new car my parents purchased for the long trip. We didn’t realize until we arrived in Phoenix that we needed air conditioning! On the way, we stopped to see Fr.  Joe and Diane Shaheen (Fr. Joe gave me my first little hand cross), Fr. Gregory and Mary Jane Ofeish, and other friends as we trekked across country to an unknown “world,” the so-called “Wild West.” And thus, my small family and I began our first priestly adventure.