It would be very difficult, if not impossible, to find an individual at St. Mary who is more widely beloved than Deacon Nabil Halaby.
As he stood in the church narthex on a Wednesday evening answering questions for this article, not a single person passed by who didn’t embrace him or express grief at his then-upcoming departure after thirteen years of touching hearts and lives in Mokena.
One man, holding back the tears beginning to glisten in his eyes bewailed, “I’m going to miss you, old friend!” Another woman hugged the deacon before uttering her words of farewell.
“The support has been amazing,” said Deacon Nabil, who explained how several parishioners were volunteering their time to help him pack before the big move.
When you look at Deacon Nabil’s gentle face and warm, grandfatherly expression, you find no evidence of the many hardships and sacrifices he has endured. In fact, the deacon recalled jokingly telling a young St. Mary student that he was her grandpa.
“She went home and asked her parents if I was really her grandpa,” he chuckled. “Later, I told her that I can be her third grandpa. I always loved children, and they seemed to like me too,” he beamed.
Of course, Deacon Nabil is now the real grandpa to twin boys who were recently born to his daughter in Florida, which is the reason for his departure. His wife Cookie, also an active member of St. Mary for many years, already moved earlier this year.
Moving is nothing new for Deacon Nabil. He has done it several times, and some of those times have been for mere survival. His story is one of tribulation and suffering, but also one of great joy and love.
A Wandering Youth
Nabil Halaby was born in 1943 in what was then Palestine. His family was Christian, part of a small minority community living alongside the much larger Muslim population. As a boy, many of his playmates were Muslim, and everybody generally lived in peace.
Nabil’s first big move came in 1948 when the state of Israel was formed. “They forced Arabic-speaking people like myself and my family, whether they were Christian or Muslim, to leave the country,” he explained. His family moved to Jordan, where they lived for 14 years.
In Jordan, Nabil witnessed religious persecution for the first time. “The Jordanians would not allow new Christian churches to be built and didn’t let Christians into high positions,” he recalled. This level of persecution was mild compared to what Nabil would later encounter.
After graduating from high school, Nabil moved again, this time to meet his two older brothers in Kuwait. He would work in Kuwait as a construction surveyor for the next few years, saving up money for his biggest move to date: attending college in the United States.
Love and Learning in America
Nabil arrived in the United States in 1965 as a young student at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. After taking several English courses to learn the language, he decided to major in political science. He worked his way through school by taking a wide assortment of jobs–everything from janitor to mailman, research assistant to waiter.
College is also where Nabil met and fell in love with his wife, Cookie. “We went to the same church and had classes together,” he recalled. The two met in 1966 and were married in 1970.
Eventually, Nabil decided that his best chance at supporting a family would not be in the U.S., but rather back home in Kuwait. He also wanted to introduce Cookie to his family. Both of them worked for Wrigley in Chicago for a year to save money before moving to the middle east.
Once in Kuwait, Nabil got a construction job for the same company he had worked for after high school and was transferred to Saudi Arabia. The job paid very well, and he needed the money to support his first child, who was on the way. Cookie stayed in Kuwait as Nabil traveled back and forth.
Unfortunately, the job came at great cost. Even today, Saudi Arabia’s official state religion is Islam, and Christianity is outlawed. “The punishment for getting caught practicing Christianity ranged from jail, to whippings, to deportation,” said Nabil. “I had a Christian friend who got caught praying and was deported.”
Forced to pray in private, Nabil went to great lengths to find fellow Christians who were worshipping underground. “I often traveled 60 miles one way just to find a Christian community,” he remembered. Priests would visit these communities undercover and train certain individuals to be liturgical ministers. Nabil was one of those trained, and he admitted this was an early step on his long road to becoming a deacon.
“I often traveled 60 miles one way just to find a Christian community.”
Such was life for almost 20 years until 1990, when the scourge of war devoured Kuwait. Saddam Hussein invaded the small nation, sparking the Gulf War, which would eventually involve the United States.
The grim reality of war forced Nabil and Cookie to make a very difficult decision: Cookie would go with the children to the states, while Nabil would continue working in Saudi Arabia.
For the next 16 years, the family was separated. Nabil would visit the U.S. every three or four months for a few weeks. “I had to do it to support my family and send my kids to college,” he explained. “Only because of that was I able to get five kids through school.”
Tragedy and Transformation
In November 2000, Nabil was involved in a devastating car accident while driving in Saudi Arabia. He was transported to a special military hospital in Bahrain with broken ribs and a ruptured aorta. He was bleeding profusely.
“God was not ready for you; He still wants you to do something before you die.”
Nabil underwent two intense surgeries to save his life. Tragically, during the repair of his aorta, one of his vocal cords was paralyzed, which has made it difficult for him to speak ever since. “It was a miracle I survived,” he said. He recovered in the hospital for a month.
After his recovery, Nabil was talking about his accident at a business dinner when one of the guests prophetically told him, “God was not ready for you; He still wants you to do something before you die.”
Those words seemed to reach into Nabil’s very soul. “This sentence really struck me, and made me strongly consider becoming a deacon,” he explained. He already had experience being a liturgical minister from all those years ago and decided the diaconate was a natural next step.
After retiring from his company, Nabil permanently moved back to the United States in 2006 to rejoin his family. He became a St. Mary Mokena parishioner that same year. One year later, under then-pastor Father James Dvorscak, Nabil officially began his diaconate schooling for St. Mary.
The Man They Call Deacon
Nabil was ordained a deacon in August 2011. St. Mary wasted no time tasking him with a wide breadth of ministries. He became involved in Communion services, Benediction, Adoration, Baptisms, funerals, weddings, blessing homes, witnessing weddings, visiting the sick, and training lectors, among other roles, including that of Liturgy Director.
Of all his ministries at St. Mary, Deacon Nabil enjoyed baptizing children the most. “The great thing about Baptisms is that the babies bring their entire families to church,” he beamed. “I enjoy everyone’s smiles during Baptisms. It brings me great joy.” He remembered that in one year he baptized 80 children, and in another, he baptized 85.
His other gift was comforting people during funerals. “During the wake and funeral process, I would get to establish a relationship with the family and comfort them during their difficult time,” he recalled.
For most parishioners at St. Mary, Deacon Nabil has become, simply, Deacon, especially for children. “They call me Deacon,” he said. “Every time I saw a child, they would say, ‘Hi, Deacon!'”
“The people are the Church. You have to be welcoming….Let them know you care.”
Children loved him back. When Deacon underwent open-heart surgery in 2018, he said he received many get-well cards from St. Mary schoolchildren. “One child wrote, ‘I will play in a soccer game for you,'” he remembered. “Another one wrote, ‘Deacon, I know how you feel because I had an operation as a baby.'”
It’s Deacon Nabil’s warm, welcoming nature that has doubtless influenced many people to keep returning to St. Mary. He maintains that this is the key to bringing people back to the church in this troublesome era. “The people are the Church,” he said. “You have to be welcoming. Get to know people. Let them know you care.”
Indeed, everyone who met or has worked with Deacon Nabil appreciated him. “Deacon Nabil is the most generous man I have worked with!” exclaimed Father Dindo Billote. “He is always saying yes to serving God!”
Father Raed Bader echoed the sentiment. “My experience with Deacon Nabil is that he is always willing to help others,” he stated.
The Next Chapter
The thought of Deacon Nabil leaving St. Mary brings tears to the eyes of everyone who knows him, but he is ready for the next chapter of his life.
In addition to spending time with his grandchildren, Deacon Nabil plans to join Holy Cross Church in Orlando, Florida. There, he hopes to create as many smiles as he did here in Mokena. He intends to visit his wife’s family in the Chicago area now and then, so he may be spotted again sometime.
Meanwhile, back at St. Mary, Deacon Nabil will be remembered for years and decades to come as someone who made a serious positive impact on the parish and touched the lives of so many parishioners.
Thank you, Deacon.
Here is a special goodbye message from Deacon: