As new altar is consecrated at destroyed Iraq church, former parishioner recalls ‘wonderful days’

Mosul Chaldean Patriarch Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako presides over the dedication ceremony of the altar of the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Mosul, Iraq. April 5, 2024. | Credit: Fadi Dinkha/ACI Mena

When the altar of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Chaldean Catholic Church was consecrated earlier this month in Mosul, Iraq, a former parishioner now living in the United States said she was moved to tears.

“My eyes were filled with tears as I watched my church and my school return to the beautiful picture engraved in my memory,” said Georgena Habbaba, who used to attend the parish and study at the parish school with her brothers. Her own children studied there, too, before the family had to flee Mosul amid worsening violence in 2007. (Note: Habbaba also writes for ACI Mena, CNA’s Arabic-language news partner.)

“I remembered the wonderful days I spent studying at this school and praying in this church. Very close to my family’s house,” she told CNA.

Georgena Habbaba pictured circa 1985 in the front kneeling, third from the right with her school scout team at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Chaldean Catholic School in Mosul, Iraq. Habbaba, who now lives in the United States, said her memories of her childhood days at the school and parish are "wonderful." Credit: Photo courtesy of Georgena Habbaba
Georgena Habbaba pictured circa 1985 in the front kneeling, third from the right with her school scout team at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Chaldean Catholic School in Mosul, Iraq. Habbaba, who now lives in the United States, said her memories of her childhood days at the school and parish are "wonderful." Credit: Photo courtesy of Georgena Habbaba

Habbaba remembers how all the statues as well as the altar and everything in the church were destroyed by ISIS. “I especially missed the statue of Our Lady of Perpetual Help above the altar,” she said.

On April 5, Chaldean patriarch Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako presided at a Mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help and consecrated the altar, expressing his happiness at its reconstruction. He said it “gives hope for a safe and better future for the people of this city.”

“It is a distinguished achievement that may encourage Christians to return to their dear city and contribute to building confidence, promoting harmonious coexistence, and preserving the fabric of Mosul,” he added.

In his comments, Sako also recalled when the foundation stone for the church was laid in 1944 and the construction of the school was finished in 1946.

“It is a great spiritual and cultural joy that we celebrate today the restoration of the opening of this great religious and educational edifice,” he told ACI Mena, CNA’s Arabic-language news partner. The school has also been completely reconstructed.

Habbaba recalled that when the school first opened, it was directed by Chaldean nuns. “The school and the church owe a lot to the nuns,” she said.

A photo of a Chaldean Catholic nun with school children circa 1973. Credit: Photo courtesy of Georgena Habbaba
A photo of a Chaldean Catholic nun with school children circa 1973. Credit: Photo courtesy of Georgena Habbaba

Habbaba also recalled that the school was a mixture of Christians and Muslims without discrimination, ”although the numbers of Christians decreased beginning in 2003 until the school in its last days before the occupation of ISIS in 2014 was almost free of Christian students.”

Before 2003, Christians in Iraq numbered nearly 2 million. Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq, had nearly half a million Christians. Today, Iraqi Christians number fewer than 200,000, though a lack of official statistics makes it difficult to know for sure. Christians are returning to Mosul but so far in small numbers. 

Georgena Habbaba on her wedding day in Our Lady of Perpetual Help Chaldean Catholic Church in Mosul, Iraq, on Oct. 14, 1998. Habbaba, who now lives in the United States, said her eyes filled with tears when she recently saw photos of her home parish and school rebuilt and consecrated. Credit: Photo courtesy of Georgena Habbaba
Georgena Habbaba on her wedding day in Our Lady of Perpetual Help Chaldean Catholic Church in Mosul, Iraq, on Oct. 14, 1998. Habbaba, who now lives in the United States, said her eyes filled with tears when she recently saw photos of her home parish and school rebuilt and consecrated. Credit: Photo courtesy of Georgena Habbaba

The most prominent pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help was Father Faraj Rahho, who became the archbishop of Mosul and was kidnapped and martyred by terrorists in 2008. Sako, the current patriarch, also spent 15 years as pastor of the parish.

Also present at the special Mass on April 5 was Bishop Najib Mikhail, the pastor of the Chaldean Diocese of Mosul, who thanked the French donors, the SOS organization, and all those responsible for accomplishing the restoration work. The church was rebuilt according to its original architecture and building materials, despite difficult circumstances. 

Earlier this year, ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language partner, reported on another Catholic church in Mosul that was recently restored. The Dominican Church of Our Lady of the Hour was completely restored after destruction by Islamic State terrorists 10 years ago.

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ACI Mena, CNA's Arabic-language news partner, contributed to this story.

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