|The Byzantine Church in the West: The Eparchy of Van Nuys|
In May 1981, the bishops of the Byzantine Catholic Metropolitan Province met in Pittsburgh. One of the topics at this meeting was the proposal made by Bishop Emil Mihalik to create a fourth diocese to minister to Byzantine Catholics in the western portion of the United States. In light of the great distances between the emerging western parishes and the episcopal see of the Parma Eparchy, Bishop Mihalik felt that a new diocese organized and headquartered closer to these parishes was imperative in order to better serve their needs. When his fellow bishops agreed with this assessment, a formal request was dispatched to His Holiness, Pope John Paul II, through the Sacred Oriental Congregation, to establish a Byzantine Catholic diocese for the western United States.
On December 3, 1981, the Holy See responded favorably to the bishops’ request. By papal decree, a new eparchy composed of the states of Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming was created. This new eparchy would be centered in Van Nuys, California, a suburb of Los Angeles, and its cathedral would be at St. Mary’s Church, the first Byzantine Catholic parish formed in the western United States. Named to head the newly created Van Nuys Eparchy was the Most Reverend Thomas Dolinay, the auxiliary bishop of the Passaic Eparchy.
The son of a Byzantine Catholic priest, Thomas Dolinay was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania on July 24, 1923. A product of the Struthers, Ohio and Uniontown public school systems, young Thomas Dolinay graduated in 1941 and entered St. Procopius College in Lisle, Illinois. Upon receiving his decree in 1945, he entered the Benedictine Seminary and completed his theological studies in 1948. On May 16, 1948, Bishop Daniel Ivancho ordained Thomas Dolinay to the priesthood in the chapel of the Motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Basil in Uniontown.
For the next eighteen years, Father Dolinay enjoyed successful pastorates at a number of parishes throughout the Pittsburgh Exarchate and the Passaic Eparchy. In addition to these pastoral assignments, Father Dolinay, who had a longtime interest in journalism, served as the first managing editor of the Byzantine Catholic World and the first editor of the Eastern Catholic Life. In 1966, Father Dolinay was given the honor of the dignity of a papal chamberlain and the title of Monsignor.
On November 23, 1976, Monsignor Dolinay became the first auxiliary bishop of the Passaic Eparchy. His consecration as bishop was held at St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Scranton, Pennsylvania. As an auxiliary to Bishop Dudick, Bishop Dolinay was assigned a number of important administrative tasks for the Eparchy including serving as the Vicar for the churches located in the Anthracite Region of Pennsylvania.
On March 9, 1982, Bishop Dolinay was formally installed as the first bishop of the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Van Nuys by Archbishop Stephen Kocisko. Also attending the impressive ceremonies, which were held in St. Cyril of Alexandria Roman Catholic Church in Encino, California, were Archbishop Pio Laghi, the Apostolic Delegate to the United States, Cardinal Timothy Manning, the Archbishop of Los Angeles, thirty other Latin Rite and Eastern Rite bishops, approximately two hundred priests and over a thousand faithful.
As the new shepherd of a small and far flung flock, Bishop Dolinay faced a enormous job to lay the groundwork for the new Eparchy which would be spiritually strong and materially viable. Despite the long distances between his parishes, Bishop Dolinay set about the task of pulling the Eparchy together with great fervor and enthusiasm. Numbering only about five thousand faithful at the start of his administration, the Van Nuys Eparchy steadily grew under Bishop Dolinay’s leadership. Within eight years, the number of faithful in the Eparchy tripled in size. This growth was spurred in part by the in flux of new parishioners from diverse ethnic backgrounds who found a spiritual home in the churches following the Byzantine Catholic tradition. In total, five missions became full fledged parishes and ten new missions were started under Bishop Dolinay’s episcopate.
In addition to its steady growth, the Van Nuys Eparchy registered a number of firsts under Bishop Dolinay’s stewardship. It became the first Eparchy to publish a financial report. It also became the first Eparchy to sponsor an annual clergy week to draw together all of the priests for continuing education and strengthening unity and fellowship among priests separated by great distances.
Drawing upon his previous experiences, Bishop Dolinay founded the Van Nuys Eparchial Newsletter. This newsletter proved to be invaluable tool in providing information and news about the Eparchy to the bishop’s geographically dispersed faithful.
With the retirement of Archbishop Stephen Kocisko looming, Pope John Paul II relieved Bishop Dolinay of his responsibilities as Bishop of Van Nuys and named him Coadjutor Archbishop of Pittsburgh in 1990. To succeed Bishop Dolinay, the pope appointed the Auxiliary Bishop of Passaic, the Most Reverend George Kuzma.
George Kuzma was born on July 24, 1925 in Windber, Pennsylvania. A veteran of World War II, Bishop Kuzma attended St. Francis College in Loretto, Pennsylvania and St. Procopius College. When Ss. Cyril and Methodius opened, he transferred to and received his collegiate decree from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Upon completion of his theological studies, George Kuzma was ordained a priest by Bishop Nicholas Elko on May 29, 1955. He was consecrated as Auxiliary Bishop of Passaic on February 4, 1987.
Bishop Kuzma was not unfamiliar with the duties and problems facing the fledgling diocese. From 1972 until his elevation to the episcopate, Bishop Kuzma served as the pastor of Annunciation Parish in Anaheim, California. While in Anaheim, he initiated the celebration of the Divine Liturgy in Spanish to better meet the spiritual needs of the growing number of Hispanic members of his parish. In addition to serving at Annunciation Parish, the then Father Kuzma handled a number of important administrative duties in the new Van Nuys Eparchy: Treasurer, Chairman of the Ecumenical, Liturgical and Heritage Committees and member of the Clergy and Seminary Review Board. Thus, the appointment of Bishop Kuzma to head the Van Nuys Eparchy was not an unexpected development. On January 15, 1991, Bishop Kuzma was installed as the second bishop of the Van Nuys Eparchy.
In 1994, Bishop Kuzma was confronted with a natural disaster which greatly affected the Van Nuys Eparchy. A devastating earthquake centered in nearby Northridge, California caused severe damage to the Eparchial Pastoral Center, the bishop’s personal residence and to St. Mary’s Cathedral. In the wake of the earthquake, Bishop Kuzma began a restructuring of the administrative offices of the Eparchy. The Pastoral Center and residence of the bishop were moved to St. Stephen’s Church in Phoenix, Arizona, the largest parish in the Van Nuys Eparchy. The bishop continued the revamping of the administrative structure of the Eparchy by establishing three new regional vicariates.
Under the leadership of Bishop George Kuzma and his small, but dedicated, group of priests and religious, the Eparchy of Van Nuys continues to grow. Today, as in the past, it welcomes into its flock all faith-filled peoples of whatever race or ethnic background who wish to worship God in the Byzantine Catholic tradition.