A glimpse of heaven.
That’s how Bishop Albert Bahhuth described the experience of being elevated, along with three other Los Angeles priests, to new auxiliary bishop at his Ordination Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels on Sept. 26.
The appointment capped a remarkable journey that has taken Bishop Bahhuth — the youngest of seven children — from his native Lebanon to the U.S., first as a chemical engineer student, then later area manager for the Stop-N-Go convenience store chain, and finally as co-owner of two Subway sandwich franchises before, after a spiritual awakening, he entered St. John’s Seminary in 1991.
Ordained in 1996, Bahhuth’s first assignment was at St. Gregory the Great Church in Whittier. He then served at Holy Family Church in Glendale for two years.
Before being appointed auxiliary bishop, he was pastor for 11 years at St. Finbar Church in Burbank, then pastor at St. Kateri Tekakwitha Church in Santa Clarita for two years. He served as vicar general of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles from 2015 to 2020.
Several family members attended Bahhuth’s ordination, including two brothers and their wives, a sister, and a handful of nieces and nephews.
“I felt that the whole body of Christ was present there,” Bahhuth said. “Religious and seminarians, deacons, priests, bishops, the archbishop, and the cardinals were all gathered praising God and reciting prayers and songs for his blessings upon all of us, and I could feel the love — it was like a glimpse of heaven.
“I think that’s what heaven will be like, where all the members of the body of Christ are gathered together to praise God.”
Bahhuth views his business background as being valuable in carrying out his new duties as the auxiliary bishop overseeing the San Fernando Pastoral Region.
“Running a small business,” he said, “you deal with budgets and bank accounts, and having that kind of experience prepared me to be able to be a better pastor. I understand budgets and financial reports and marketing and customer service.”
How he came to be a businessman — much less a priest — after leaving war-torn Lebanon and studying to become a chemical engineer is a story in itself.
Bahhuth worked for one year as a chemical engineer professor at the University of Wyoming. Then he moved to Los Angeles, where he worked at Stop-N-Go for four years — eventually moving up from graveyard shift cashier to, eventually, area sales manager.
“When I saw him, I was really taken aback,” said his sister-in-law, Claude Bahhuth. “What are you doing? You have your Ph.D. in chemical engineering and you’re working the graveyard shift at a convenience store. What’s that about? Better for you to go back home. He said, ‘No, this is not going to be forever. I have to do what I have to do.’
“He’s very determined. He’s not afraid. He will do whatever it takes.”
After that, he and his brother purchased two Subway shops.
All the while, his faith grew.
“I wanted to be more involved in my church and my faith and that’s why I decided to purchase the Subway franchises,” Bahhuth said. “To have my own business and have more control over my hours. I had more time to be in church.”
After his sister-in-law got a job at St. John Vianney Church in Hacienda Heights, Bahhuth became an active parishioner, helping to open the parish’s first food bank and catching the attention of Msgr. Joe Shea, who became his vocation director when Bahhuth was considering becoming a priest.
Shea attended Bahhuth’s ordination and later worked with him at Holy Family in Glendale for two years when Shea was the pastor there.
“He’s a man of God and a great teacher and preacher,” Shea said of Bahhuth. “He has a heart of compassion. He is visionary and creative. He’s an excellent administrator and organizer. He’s kind, but not a pushover — he’s unflappable when it comes to addressing problems.”
But the business aspect is only a small part of the job. Bahhuth knows what the most important is.
“In running churches, we need to understand who and where our people are and how can we attract them to come to Jesus,” Bahhuth said. “How can we sell Jesus to them with all the other things that are competing for their attention and efforts? That’s the challenging part.”
Praying for priests
Bishop Bahhuth is eager to dive into his new duties.
“My main role will be to care for the priests of the archdiocese because they’re the ones who are in the parishes and they’re the ones on the front lines of our faith,” he said, adding:
“If we want to evangelize and stoke the fires of faith in people’s hearts, it’s got to start with our priests. If they’re not on fire, they’re not going to get anyone else on fire.”
Bahhuth said being a priest or pastor isn’t especially easy these days.
“There’s a lot of responsibility and administrative work, and none of us became priests to do that, but still, we must deal with it in addition to focusing on the people and administering the sacraments and preaching the good news.
“That’s why I see my role as telling priests how much we appreciate their work and supporting them in any way — and obviously praying for them and the people of God in my region.”
Bahhuth never planned on rising this high in the archdiocese.
“Why did God choose me from among many others?” he said. “People ask me, ‘Could you have said no?’ And yes, I could have. But to me, how could I say no?
“This is not something I wanted or something I worked for, so I must believe it’s something that was God’s will for me. And how can I say no to that?”