Father Jonathan Decker, or "Abouna," as his parishioners know him, has left the parish, called to be a full-time monk.
Father Jonathan Decker, or "Abouna," as his parishioners know him, has left the parish, called to be a full-time monk.
Father Jonathan Decker, known as Abouna (Arabic for Father) among his flock, left St. Sharbel Parish in Southeast Portland last month.

Father Decker, a Maronite Catholic priest, founded a community of monks in 2011 and will now work on raising funds to build a monastery on 65 acres of donated land near Castle Rock, Wash.

For now, the handful of Maronite Monks of Jesus, Mary and Joseph continue to live in close quarters in a home on a Beaverton cul de sac.

“We are not parish priests any more,” Father Decker says. “We are full time monastics, which is what we should be.”

Maronites make up one of the dozens of rites that formed in ancient Christianity in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Adherents keep their ancient liturgical practices, which differ from the predominant Roman Rite, but are in communion with the pope.

Father Decker serves as spiritual director for many Portland Catholics, including clergy and religious. He has long said that Maronite Catholicism’s gift to the church is a sense of the depth of mystery.

Maronite monks seek to enter into the life of the Trinity. They begin prayer at 3 a.m. and the day runs to a rhythm of prayer, silence, work and study.  

“The Monks of Jesus, Mary and Joseph live to pray, and indeed, pray to live,” the monks’ website says.  

At the farewell Mass for Father Decker, he deferred from presiding and said he did not know what all the fuss was about.

“That’s just like Abouna,” said Father Anthony Joseph Alles, one of monks.

Father Decker, pastor for 26 years, has seen St. Sharbel Parish through five archbishops, from Archbishop Cornelius Power to Archbishop Alexander Sample.

“I don’t like masalaams,” Father Decker told parishioners the Sunday before that final Mass — masalaam means “peace be with you,” or “good-bye,” in Arabic. “God knows we’ll see each other again.”

Parishioners at St. Sharbel had been preparing for Father Decker’s departure for some time.

“It’s been hard, but that’s his calling,” says parishioner Eva Bekahi. “And we’ve been blessed by him being here all these years. We’re sad but happy for him all at the same time.”

“He is a very holy man, and God has given him a calling,” says David Torker.

“We’re going to lose a good priest,” says Gus Bekahi, Eva’s husband. “We always had the feeling that Abouna was called to be a monk.”

“It’s God’s call,” agrees Joan Pfaltzgraff.

Masses at St. Sharbel have long had the sense of monastery life. At the penultimate Mass that Father Decker was present for there were 15 acolytes, priests, and deacons processing to their seats, both behind a screen and around the altar.

Those servers were representative of Father Decker’s charisma. The parish sent five young men to Quo Vadis days this summer, the camp where young Catholic men can learn more about the priesthood, deepen their faith and better discern God’s call in their lives.

Mass-goers at St. Sharbel, even the many children, generally wear their best, with little girls in pretty dresses and boys in button-down shirts. Many of the women, especially the younger women, wear lacy mantillas or silky scarves covering their heads.

St. Sharbel, a Maronite Catholic Church, traces its roots back to one of the earliest Christian churches: the church in Antioch. The early Antioch liturgy became the Maronite liturgy of today. While much is the same, there are rich differences as well between the Maronite Rite and the Latin Rite. At the sign of peace, for instance, a priest kisses the altar, places his hands on the chalice, then passes the sign of peace to the deacon, who then hands it to the acolyte, who passes it to the first person in each pew, who passes it to the next person and so on to the last person.

Father Decker’s successor is Father Assad Saad, who comes from Rome. Father Saad speaks, in addition to English, Arabic, Spanish and French.