By Marissa Romero
EL CAJON — San Diego County has a thriving Chaldean Catholic community made up of almost 60,000 migrants from Iraq. They represent the second-largest Chaldean population in the country after the metropolitan area of Detroit.
Nearly 12,000 people turned out during the Sept. 16-17 weekend for the 11th annual Chaldean American Festival, hosted by the Knights of Columbus at Hillsdale Middle School.
Chaldeans were among the first to whom Jesus’ Apostles proclaimed the Good News of salvation. After receiving the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the Apostles preached in different languages to the crowds, including people from Mesopotamia (Acts 2:9), or present-day Iraq.
Chaldean tradition traces their embrace of the Gospel to St. Thomas the Apostle’s evangelization efforts in their territory.
The Chaldean Church has been in union with the Roman Catholic Church since the late 19th century. During the preceding centuries, Chaldeans had looked to their patriarch as the supreme head of their Church.
“When we became in communion with the Catholic Church, we professed the pope as the successor of Peter,” said Father Daniel “Danny” Shaba, rector of St. Peter Chaldean Catholic Cathedral in El Cajon.
While the Chaldean Catholic Church still has a patriarch and its own synod of bishops, the pope is recognized as their head.
In San Diego County, St. Peter Cathedral and the parish churches of St. Michael, St. John the Apostle, and St. Joseph, collectively serve more than 5,000 families, Father Shaba said.
Chaldean Catholic Bishop Emanuel Hana Shaleta explained that many Chaldean Catholic families also attend Mass at non-Chaldean Catholic churches across San Diego County “because we are not closed; we are an open people.”
Bishop Shaleta said that, at St. Peter Cathedral, all are welcome to attend Masses that follow the Eastern Chaldean Catholic rite in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus and His apostles, as well as Masses celebrated in Arabic and English.
Christian persecution drove Chaldean families to migrate to the United States in large numbers during the second half of the 20th century. The migration process dispersed the flock, causing families to live in “silos.”
The Chaldean festival has had the opposite effect.
“What the festival does is break that wall. (It) brings us all back together, like we were before,” said Father Shaba. “This (event) ties us back to our original roots in Iraq because, in Iraq, we were a very close unit.”
During the weekend, the Chaldean community transformed Hillsdale Middle School into a vibrant hub for families. The festival featured an array of cultural activities, delicious Chaldean food, live music and spirited dances.
At almost 100 tents, local businesses shared information about their services, as well as goodies for festival-goers’ enjoyment. Families with young children and teens flocked to rides and games, including pony rides, which were a favorite among little ones.
“This festival is bigger than ever – more booths, more vendors, more people. The kids’ area is double the size that it was last year,” said Paul Batta, main sponsor of this year’s festival. “The community (is) coming together to celebrate each other.”
Almost 12,000 people attended this year’s festival, said Steve Mattia, lead organizer of the festival and a 16-year member of the Knights of Columbus.
“It is very rewarding to see our community come together,” he said. “As a Catholic organization, everyone is (at the festival) to serve a purpose, to serve God, and to serve our community. The community comes together and organizes it.”
As a first-time attendee, Francis Tupas appreciated how “family-friendly” the festival was.
“I like that there are plenty of things for all walks of life to do,” he said.
Proceeds from the festival are used not only to support St. Peter Cathedral’s projects, but also to help other Chaldean Catholic churches in the county, he said.
Bishop Shaleta thanked the Knights of Columbus, volunteers, vendors and sponsors who contributed to the festival. After stressing that this event is for all communities countywide, he offered a blessing.
“May the Lord bless all of you who came and participated in this event. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and forever.”
“Amen,” responded the enthusiastic crowd.