The new Holy Cross Chaldean Catholic Church took the space that formerly housed St. Colman Catholic Church on Middlebelt Road. / Photo by Joanne Maliszewski
Monsignor Zouhair Kejbou has lived in Michigan since 2006, but after almost 30 years in Australia, this winter’s frigid temperatures and mounds of snow are still tough even though the state’s green landscape and changing seasons are a plus.
But the big bonus that has accompanied Kejbou’s move to Michigan — particularly his move to Farmington Hills — is his family, including his 94-year-old mother and three brothers and their families.
“I was coming here every other year to attend family celebrations,” he said. “Now I am trying to catch up.”
Kejbou is the pastor of the new Holy Cross Chaldean Catholic Church, 32500 Middlebelt in Farmington Hills. The new church opened in March 2013 in the former St. Colman’s Catholic Church, which was closed in 2013.
“I have my whole family here,” Kejbou said, adding members of his family began immigrating to the U.S. in the 1960s. “I needed to move and spend time with them.”
Plus, Kejbou believes it is always good for the human spirit to try something new. And so far the change agrees with him. “I miss home (in Australia) often. But since March, I now consider Farmington Hills my home.”
A new home
Yet Farmington Hills and Michigan are a long way from where Kejbou began life and his career in the priesthood.
Born in northern Iraq, Kejbou was ordained a priest in Baghdad in 1968. Throughout much of the 1970s, he was assigned to parishes in Iraq. But in 1978, Kejbou became the first Chaldean priest to arrive in Sydney, Australia, to establish a parish for Chaldeans. Kejbou bought an existing church and built a rectory on adjacent vacant land.
In May 1989, Kejbou was granted the title of Monsignor Chaldean Patriarchal Vicar for Australia and New Zealand.
At an early age, Kejbou knew he would join the priesthood. “I believe your vocation is a call from God. It is God’s plan. God created us to be happy wherever we find that happiness.”
He completed his early studies in his hometown of Telkaif in northern Iraq, followed by studies in philosophy and theology, which led to his ordination. In fact, Kejbou was just 21 when he completed his studies and became a priest.
When Kejbou was first sent to Australia to provide Chaldean residents with a spiritual center, the plan was that he would establish the church and head to Rome for more study. That didn’t happen. His work in Australia and New Zealand continued to grow.
In the interim, Kejbou arrived in the United States in 1990 and was assigned to St. Joseph Parish in Troy. In March 1991, Kejbou returned to Australia, where he completed his postgraduate studies.
The 1990s were a period of growth for the Chaldean Catholic Church in Australia. In 1995, Kejbou moved his original parish center to a more central location and built a large complex that included a religious instruction center, social hall, residences and offices. A new church was also built.
During his almost 30 years in Australia, Kejbou established two more parishes, one in Melbourne and another in Auckland, New Zealand. He also invited six other priests to join him in ministering to the growing Chaldean community. By the time Kejbou headed to the United States in 2006 and the St. Joseph Parish in Troy, the Chaldean community in Australia and New Zealand consisted of about 30,000 people.
Holy Cross opens
By Palm Sunday, March 24, 2013, Kejbou was celebrating the first Mass at the new Holy Cross on Middlebelt. “We are very happy to be here. We are grateful we have been welcomed in the area. We have been communicating with local organizations. This is a good sign. It is wonderful that we can work together for the welfare of the community.”
The St. Thomas the Apostle Diocese’s decision to purchase the former Roman Catholic Church was appropriate as Farmington Hills has some 1,000 Chaldean families.
While the diocese helped obtain records of Chaldean residents in the area, Kejbou also contacted the city to find Chaldean property owners to invite to the new church. “We made several announcements and community members were aware the (St. Colman) church had transferred to the Chaldean Catholic Church,” he said.
In addition to daily Masses — in English and Chaldean — Holy Cross offers catechism classes, liturgical training, devotional groups and Bible study, again in Chaldean and English
By Kejbou’s calculations, today’s younger Chaldeans are fourth-generation. And by far, English is their primary language. But like many families today, particularly those whose older members are in the United States, younger members remain interested in their heritage.
“They hear the Chaldean language from their parents. They are interested in maintaining it as part of their culture,” Kejbou said. “Younger people are proud to be Chaldeans. Being here gives them the best of both worlds.”
Unlike many immigrants, the influx of Chaldean families to the U.S. wasn’t driven by economics. Back home, Chaldeans for the most part were financially secure. But Iraq’s political instability played a central role in Chaldean immigration. “The instability was a threat to their safety and their dignity. They came here in search of freedom,” Kejbou said.
Chaldeans are the descendants of the ancient Babylonians. They created Chaldea, which was in today’s Iraq. Chaldea lost their sovereignty in the sixth century before Christ. “They continued to exist and remained steadfast in their culture,” Kejbou said.
The Chaldean Catholic Church shares the same doctrines as the Roman Catholic Church. The difference is in the liturgy and expressions of faith, as well as a different discipline. Like Roman Catholics, the pope is the head of the church, as is the patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church.
Chaldean Catholics also follow three important values in their lives: God, family and work ethics. “We are very much church- oriented. Chaldean families collaborate with church organizations in great ways,” Kejbou said.