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Home Away from Home: Maronites in the United States

A history of the Maronite Church and its North American faithful.

In the last two decades of the 19th century, Maronite Catholics had already established themselves on both coasts of the United States – indeed, throughout the country. Although some had come from Syria and other parts of the Middle East, most Maronites had arrived from Lebanon.

Several factors had influenced their decision to emigrate to the New World. Lebanon in the late 19th century was ruled by pashas appointed by the Ottoman sultan. While some pashas were moderate, the repressive policies of others led to political, economic and religious tensions.

Although deeply attached to their native land, the Maronites had little reason to remain there. Between 1900 and 1914, one-fourth of Lebanon’s population, about 100,000 people, most of them Christian, had emigrated, first to Egypt and later to all parts of the globe. Significant numbers left for Argentina, Australia, Canada, Central America and various parts of the African continent, especially South Africa. The largest number of Lebanese Christians settled in the U.S. and Brazil.

The Maronites, by far the largest Lebanese Christian community, trace their spiritual lineage to St. Maron, a Syrian hermit of the fourth century noted for his spiritual wisdom and his gift of healing. After his death, St. Maron’s followers established a monastery known as “Beit Maron,” the house of Maron. As a result, the faithful who gathered around the monastery became known as Maronites. Their ethos stressed asceticism, community life and communal prayer, as it does today.

The monks of the Monastery of Maron were staunch defenders of the Catholic faith, suffering persecution and martyrdom for their defense of the orthodox Christilogical doctrines declared by the Church Fathers in the fifth and sixth centuries. In the Maronite calendar, 31 July commemorates the massacre of 350 Maronite monks by those Christians who disagreed with these doctrines.

The Muslim invasions of the seventh century forced many Maronites to flee to Mount Lebanon, which provided protection. It was at this time that the Maronite Patriarchate of Antioch was formed.

Life for the Maronites was austere. Following the teachings of the Gospel and as a witness to their faith, clergy and laity lived a life of asceticism and prayer. The patriarchs and bishops lived in cave monasteries; many hermits and contemplatives arose among the people. Near the cedars of Lebanon is a valley known as the Valley of the Saints, which is marked with hundreds of caves where hermits once lived. A modem successor to this tradition, St. Sharbel, was canonized in 1977.

Liturgically, the Maronite tradition is diverse. Maronites are the heirs of the rich Syriac patrimony of the Church of Antioch, as exemplified by St. Ephrem. The arrival of Crusaders in the 11th century, and the arrival of Latin (Roman) Catholic missionaries beginning in the 15th century, have also influenced the development of the Maronite Church.

Maronite liturgical practices underwent a number of latinizations, such as the adoption of Latin vestments and sacramentals. In recent decades, however, considerable reforms have been achieved. The Maronite liturgy once again reflects in its purity the worship of the ancient Church of Antioch.

The first Maronite immigrants to the U.S. accepted whatever work they could find. Some worked in factories that produced textiles in New England, steel in Pittsburgh, Birmingham, Youngstown and Cleveland and Automobiles in Detroit. As a result, Maronite communities sprang up in these areas. Some Lebanese immigrants became peddlers in cities, towns and mining camps. Others opened dry goods stores and groceries. A few quickly became wealthy.

Along with the immigrants came Maronite clergy from Lebanon and the Middle East. Some arrived from Lebanon with their relatives or fellow villagers. Of these, some served for a short time only and then returned. Others, however, were sent as missionaries or came on their own to stay.

Maronite priests were already active in New York City and Boston in 1890 and 1891. The Maronites of Boston had established a permanent church by 1898. The Maronites of Philadelphia were visited by Maronite clergy in 1892 and had a definite parish by 1901. There was already a priest celebrating the liturgy in St. Louis in 1898. The Cathedral of Our Lady of Lebanon in Brooklyn traces its origins as an established parish back to 1902.

The period from 1890 to the beginning of World War I saw a significant growth of the American Maronite population and the establishment of a number of permanent parishes. Maronites had settled in various parts of New England, New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio and were established as far south as Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama and Texas. In the Middle West they stretched from Wheeling to St. Louis and from Detroit to Minneapolis-St. Paul. Maronites were already to be found in California and Oregon. By the beginning of World War I, there were at least 22 permanent Maronite parishes in the U.S. Ten years later, the Maronite presence had grown to 37 churches and 46 priests.

Maronite parishes originated in various ways, with no one pattern predominating. Often it was through the leadership of Maronite clergy. In some areas the laity formed clubs to raise money to purchase a building. In others, Latin bishops offered help. Nor was there a set pattern of building. Often private homes were bought and remodeled into churches. The second floor became the rectory. In other places, Latin Catholic or Protestant churches were bought and converted.

Grade schools were established in Buffalo, St. Louis, Wilkes-Barre, Detroit and later in Waterville, Me., and Olean, N.Y. Parishes also provided facilities to teach the new immigrants English and organizations were formed to help those in need.

Strict quotas imposed by the U.S. government in the 1920s sharply reduced the number of Maronite immigrants, stabilizing the American Maronite community. They sought to preserve their identity in various ways, principally through parish life and worship. The liturgy at this time was celebrated entirely in Syriac and Arabic.

In addition to parish associations and social events, Maronites sought social connections through regional celebrations, sometimes on the occasion of a holy day such as the feast of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary. Many young Maronites met their future spouses at these mahrajans. Maronites also associated themselves with organizations such as the Midwest and Southern Federation of Lebanese and Syrian Clubs, which held annual conventions that were well attended.

At these local, regional and national events, Middle Eastern culture was preserved. Food, music, dance, even poetry and drama, were featured prominently.

In the 1950s groups among the Maronite clergy and laity sought to establish a Maronite seminary in the U.S. Through their efforts and the assistance of the Archbishop of Washington, Patrick Cardinal O’Boyle, Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Seminary was established in Washington, D.C., in 1961. Washington was chosen because of the proximity of the Catholic University of America, which offers pontifical degrees and has a Department of Semitics and Oriental Languages.

In its 35 years of existence, the Maronite seminary has produced 57 priests. As the only diocesan Maronite seminary outside of Lebanon, it has provided an indigenous clergy, as well as clergy who came from Lebanon as seminarians to be trained for service in the U.S. The Maronite seminary has become a center of research and publication in the fields of Maronite history, liturgy, theology and spirituality.

In 1964 the Maronite laity formed the National Association of Maronites, later reconstituted as the National Apostolate of Maronites. Its purposes were to unite the Maronite laity of the U.S. through conventions and other activities, to offer financial and moral support to the seminary and to work for a Maronite bishop in the U.S. The organization continues to grow and remains a unique vehicle for uniting the laity.

Through the efforts of the clergy and laity of Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, a national shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Lebanon and modeled on the famous shrine in Harissa, Lebanon, was established in 1965 in North Jackson, Ohio, near Youngstown. It quickly became a place of pilgrimage for Maronites and other Catholics from the Northeast.

In 1966, Pope Paul VI established the Maronite Apostolic Exarchate for the United States and appointed Bishop Francis Zayek as Exarch, with the exarchial see in Detroit. At the time of the exarchate’s establishment there were 43 Maronite parishes. In 1971 the exarchate was raised to the rank of eparchy and seven years later, in 1978, the see was transferred to Brooklyn. The bishop was honored by Pope John Paul II with the personal rank of archbishop in 1982.

The presence and leadership of Archbishop Zayek had a great impact on the Maronite communities of the U.S. He forged new links between clergy and laity. There was an increase in priestly vocations. Ten new parishes and nine missions were established. New church buildings and halls replaced many of the older ones throughout the country.

To solidify Maronite identity and to respond to the needs of American Maronites, a vast program of liturgical reform and translation was inaugurated. The past three decades have seen the publication in English of a Maronite Lectionary, a Book of Anaphoras (Eucharistic prayers) and several editions of the books of the Divine Liturgy, Ritual and Divine Office. Liturgical music was also reissued in English translations.

Catechetical texts based on the Maronite tradition have been published for all 12 grades. A diocesan newspaper, The Challenge began publishing in 1978 and was succeeded by a monthly journal, The Maronite Voice, in 1994. In 1996, the Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon of Los Angeles began publishing a journal, Maronites Today. Under diocesan sponsorship, books in Maronite liturgy and Eastern canon law have also been produced.

Special programs have been developed for Maronite youth and national youth retreats have been very successful over the last few years. Religious orders and religious communities of men and women have been established. The Order of St. Sharbel, an association of committed laity, was organized to provide financial assistance for the seminary and for retired clergy.

On 1 March 1994, as a sign of the progress of the Maronite Church in the U.S., Pope John Paul II established a second Maronite diocese. The new Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon of Los Angeles incorporates all the territory west of the Ohio-Pennsylvania border. Bishop John Chedid, who had been Auxiliary Bishop of the Eparchy of St. Maron since 1980, was named Eparch of the new jurisdiction. The new eparchy comprises 24 parishes and nine missions; the Eparchy of St. Maron of Brooklyn, 33 parishes and five missions.

It is difficult to estimate the number of Maronites living in the U.S. Maronites live in every state, most in areas where there are no Maronite parishes. An informal census taken in 1961 estimated the number to be 200,000.

With Archbishop Zayek reaching retirement age, the Pope, after consultation with the Patriarchal Synod, has appointed Chorbishop Hector Y. Doueihi as the second Bishop of the Eparchy of St. Maron. Bishop Doueihi, the former Rector of the cathedral, had been responsible for much of the liturgical renewal of recent years.

The Maronites have prospered in the U.S. The original immigrants worked hard to see that their children and grandchildren received the best education available; as a result, prominent Maronites are to be found in all aspects of American life, whether political, professional, commercial or industrial.

The Maronite parishes of today are composed of many different people. There are remnants of the older generations who identify with the tradition of their youth, either in the U.S. or in the Middle East. There are second- and third-generation American Maronites who identify with the American culture but take pride in their Lebanese or Middle Eastern ancestry. Perhaps most unexpected was the large influx of immigrants who emigrated to the U.S. and to other countries since the fighting began in Lebanon in 1976. These new immigrants are a significant presence in a number of parishes, having brought with them contemporary Maronite and Lebanese culture.

Also significant in Maronite parishes today is the large number of Maronites who are not of Lebanese or Middle Eastern origin. Of these, most have become Maronite through marriage. Many are dedicated and active Maronite parishioners. In recent years, a significant number of American Catholics have associated themselves with the Maronite Church because of their attraction to the Maronite liturgy and tradition.

As the Maronite Church looks to its future in the U.S., it is faced with many challenges. It seeks to preserve its identity and its tradition, while trying to resonate with what is good and worthy within our contemporary culture. It strives to share its patrimony and religious insights with other Catholics, Eastern and Latin. As a church with apostolic origins, it is called to preach the Gospel of Christ in whatever place or culture it finds itself and it continues to answer that call.

Chorbishop Beggiani is Rector of Our Lady of Lebanon Seminary in Washington, D.C.

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