Meet Israel’s Father Elias Odeh

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by Hanne Foighel

Father Maher

Hear how Father Odeh lives his vocation.

Those who know Father Elias Odeh call him Father Elias “the Builder,” and it is no wonder why. Upon ordination in 1970, Father Odeh was assigned to minister to the small Roman Catholic community in the village of Reneh in the Galilee, between Nazareth and Cana. To his surprise, the young priest also learned that, in addition to serving the spiritual needs of Reneh’s Catholics, he would be directing a small, historic school.

An enthusiastic “doer,” Father Odeh, however, never winced. And for the last 40 years, he has committed himself to serving Reneh’s diverse residents and providing their children with a topnotch education.

When Father Odeh first arrived, he discovered an underserved and disparate Catholic community. The Melkite Greek Catholic parish lacked a pastor. Concerned about their spiritual welfare, he immediately undertook the necessary steps to celebrate the sacraments in the Byzantine rite. A short time later, he was ministering to both Reneh’s Latin and Melkite Greek Catholic parishes.

As principal of the Latin Patriarchate School, he transformed a tiny, rundown landmark into a nationally renowned educational institution. Founded in 1878, the original building served as a school for boys. Then in 1928, a second school for girls was built adjacent to it. When Father Odeh took over, the schools combined enrolled no more than 340 students, from first through eighth grades.

Father Odeh took it upon himself to rejuvenate the school, hiring more qualified teachers and raising academic standards. He often taught classes himself. As the student body grew, he began making plans to construct a much larger, modern facility.

“I was even arrested and sentenced to a six month suspended prison term for building this school building without a permit. Had I waited for the permit, there would never have been a school,” laughs the 64-year-old priest.

Today, the Latin school of Reneh enrolls 1,100 students from preschool through the 12th grade. The school ranks among Israel’s top 10 in terms of students’ scores on the country’s standardized high school exit exams. On the students’ scores in chemistry, it ranks fourth.

Father Odeh comes from a pious Christian family and grew up with 5 sisters and 3 brothers in the village of Jifna, north of Ramallah in the West Bank. Inspired by his uncle, a Melkite Greek Catholic priest, he decided he wanted to be a priest at the age of 12. Within a year’s time, he was enrolled at the Latin Patriarchate’s seminary in Beit Jala, near Bethlehem.

In 1995, the Melkite Greek Catholic patriarch named the priest an archimandrite in honor of his decades of service to Reneh’s Melkite Greek Catholic community. Ever since, Father Odeh proudly wears his pectoral cross around his neck.

Father Odeh has also witnessed Reneh blossom from a village of no more than 5,000 residents to a bustling town of 17,000. The town’s demographics have also shifted. When Father Odeh moved to Reneh, 40 percent of the residents were Christian from various denominations, 60 percent were Muslim. Today, only 20 percent is Christian, 80 percent is Muslim. The student makeup at the Latin school reflects the town’s diversity. Some 80 percent of the students are Christian of all denominations, 20 percent are Muslim.

Unchanged in Reneh are the warm relations among its various Christian denominations.

“All marriages here are ‘mixed marriages’ since in all families you have Roman Catholics, Melkites, Greek Orthodox and even Anglicans,” explains Father Odeh.

This school year marked Father’s Odeh’s last at the Latin school, retiring after 39 years of dedicated service. Though, he will continue to lead the students in prayer each morning.

Father Odeh remains intimately involved with the life of his parish. Every day, he celebrates Mass and visits parishioners. Most evenings, he can be found at the church, leading one of the two youth groups he organizes.

“God has his owns way,” says Father Odeh. “I wasn’t the most intelligent nor the most pious, but I was the only one of the 28 seminarians at the seminary who was ordained in 1970.”

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