ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

The Webwide Journeys of St. George

An icon of a dragon slayer revitalizes a community of Lebanese immigrants in Wisconsin.

Enshrined in Milwaukee’s small Greek-Melkite church of St. George, there is a darkened yet revered icon of the world’s most famous dragon-slayer. Masked beneath a century of incense residue, scorched by thousands of candles, St. George appears as an innocent, a mere babe going forth on a white steed to battle evil.

An icon in the Eastern Christian tradition is more than a picture, it is a vehicle for prayer. For Milwaukee’s Greek-Melkite community this special icon of St. George represents over 100 years of hope and faith. The image, crafted of prayerfully applied layers of pigment on a wooden panel, has traveled from the Old World to the New, and now the parishioners of St. George are sending their “Glorious Martyr” into cyberspace. This 19th-century, Byzantine-style icon has gone on an electric voyage with its own site on the Internet.

In the late 1880s American agents for the World’s Columbian Exposition traveled the routes of the medieval crusaders, looking for exotic sights to reproduce on the “Midway Plaisance of Nations.”

Deep in the Bekaa Valley, in the shadow of Mount Lebanon, the American agents stumbled upon an immense wilderness of stone, wildflowers and weeds – the Greco-Roman city of Baalbek. A major trading center in ancient times, Baalbek had since declined to little more than a few hundred houses. Only 54 smashed columns remained of the Temple of Jupiter. The fourth-century Christian basilica of Theodosius had been dismantled by Ottoman authorities; its stone had been used for paving block.

Just “a cigarette’s walk from Baalbek,” as the agents described it, the Americans rested in the tiny Christian hamlet of Ain Bourdai. The village consisted of 28 mud-brick huts, a public well and a Catholic church dedicated to the “defender of the poor,” St. George. Although modest, the village was precisely the scene the exposition’s sponsors wanted to display on the midway.

The agents offered a trip to the New World and two years’ work for any villager willing to travel to Chicago, the site of the fair. To honor the American visitors and their request, the villagers held a hafli, or feast, with dancing and the exotic music of the oud and derbeke. The finest food the village had to offer was prepared and shared with the guests.

After the celebration, the parish priest called together his tiny congregation to pray for guidance. Although the elderly feared for the lives of their loved ones, a number of villagers took up the offer and soon set sail for the New World.

The Columbian Exposition was larger than anyone from Ain Bourdai could have imagined. More than 60,000 people could sit down for lunch in a single hour. Every hour 150,000 people moved about the park on electric boats, steam launches, intramural railway cars, sedan chairs and a moving sidewalk. And passengers spun 250 feet in the air on the world’s first Ferris wheel. In the shadow below, the villagers of Ain Bourdai were finding a new life.

For two years they worked the exposition, displaying Arabic horsemanship skills and demonstrating traditional Middle Eastern dances. They also crafted some of the fair’s most treasured souvenirs: necklaces of amber and wooden boxes made from the cedars of Lebanon.

The majority of the villagers returned to the valley of their birth. They told unbelievable stories of electricity, skyscrapers, streetcars, hot and cold running water and the opportunity for every man to make a fortune. Eventually, almost half of the village left for the New World, settling in Milwaukee’s old Third Ward.

No one knows for certain who from Ain Bourdai first traveled to Milwaukee, but it may well have been Dahir Herro. The exposition’s employees rarely had free time, but one day Dahir purchased a one-dollar excursion fare to travel, by boat, to southeastern Wisconsin. After seeing the summer resort areas on the shores of Lake Michigan, he said to his companions, “this is heaven on earth; let’s settle here.”

Dahir Herro and his eight sons were joined by numerous cousins, in-laws and other relatives and friends.

They arrived in this country almost penniless, with little or no education. Father Anthony Aneed, the community’s first pastor, described his flock as a “robust and vivacious class of people…only lacking the opportunity to show their mettle.”

Many of the earliest immigrants were street merchants, who lived out of suitcases while selling produce. The women embroidered linens and made soaps, which were sold door-to-door. Carrying shoulder boxes covered in oilcloth, the women also sold shoestrings, silk, woolen goods and precious gold thread.

The former villagers of Ain Bourdai were soon joined by emigrants from the town of Zahleh. Other Lebanese, fleeing forced conscription into the Ottoman army during World War I, arrived wearing the money belts their mothers had sewn into the seams of their clothing. Many of the family names in the current parish directory – Arrieh, Frenn, Herro, Metrey, Nicholas and Trad – date to this period.

The links with the past have not been forgotten, for, as Jim Trad remembers, “they were hard workers who believed in a strong family unit.” Even the first Lebanese settler in Milwaukee is remembered:

“Dahir Herro was always called Gidda, (grandfather),” says his 87-year-old granddaughter Emily Herro. “He was the oldest man I ever knew.”

Life for the new immigrants was peaceful and profitable, but something fundamentally important was missing – the faith of their ancestors.

A 12-year-old immigrant girl brought them a symbol of that faith. Carrying a pair of rolled carpets, Mariam Herro trembled before the officials at Ellis Island. Buried within the tattered, older rug was an icon of St. George. The priest from Ain Bourdai had entrusted her with the image, promising that “so long as St. George went before them, no harm would ever befall them.”

Mariam was relieved when the customs official confiscated the newer rug, ignoring the tattered roll that concealed the patronal icon of her community.

The image, uniting the Greek-Melkite communities of Ain Bourdai and Milwaukee, was housed in the home of yet another of Dahir’s grandchildren, Eva Nabkey. When a family member was homesick, a child fell ill, or when there was no work to be had, the faithful would gather to pray before the image of the dragon-slayer.

In 1911, Milwaukee’s Greek-Melkite community was estimated at 250 souls, just large enough to sustain a mission. With the blessing of the local Latin (Roman) Catholic ordinary, Archbishop Sebastian Gebhard Messmer, the Greek-Melkite community leased a former Pabst Beer saloon. For six years the Divine Liturgy was celebrated in a building where dance-hall decorations remained intact. This ceased when the community, with the personal financial support of the Archbishop, built a church.

Father Aneed explained his parish’s endurance, calling the church “a testimonial of our faith, hopes and fears, and our charities…a monument to tireless fidelity to our purpose. It is therefore the real expression of our innermost hearts.”

In a solemn ceremony in 1976, the patronal icon of St. George was transferred to the parish church, where today the modest image is a principal focal point for the community. Alongside the supplicants who have recently emigrated from Palestine and Syria, another grandchild of Dahir, 80-year-old Baraket Herro, tells his grandchildren of the intercessory power of St. George.

One hundred years after the first voyage, the icon of St. George will once again travel to a new world – the electronic world of the Internet. The story of the lovely little image with its baby-faced saint, his church in the Bekaa Valley and the people who brought him here, has been placed on its own World Wide Web page.

It is estimated that worldwide, as many as 30 million people have access to this icon of St. George today. The Milwaukee parish established the first Eastern Catholic presence on the Internet and now it wants St. George to travel before them into the information age. And so, from the little church on State Street, across the millions of wires that constitute the information superhighway, the Troparion of St. George may be uttered:

O great among the saints, Glorious Martyr George,
Since you are a deliverer of captives and a defender of the poor,
A doctor for the sick and a noble attendant to kings,
Intercede with Christ, our God, that he may save our souls.

Paul Douglas Stamm writes from Milwaukee. Shatzi Duffy also contributed to this article.

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