By Chorbishop Seely Beggiani
The Period Before World War I
It is difficult to pinpoint when the first Maronites arrived in the United States. With their entrepreneurial spirit, it would not be surprising if Maronites would have ventured forth to the “New World” as soon as it was known that it was being colonized. However, Maronites from Lebanon and Syria began immigrating in substantial numbers beginning in the 1880s and 1890s. Prior to this time, Maronites had immigrated to Egypt and other countries of the Middle East and the Mediterranean.
There were various reasons for leaving Lebanon. While religious issues might have been a factor, the principal causes were lack of economic opportunities and lack of living space. Life in the mountains of Lebanon was austere, and the land area of Mount Lebanon prior to 1920 was very constricted.
In the latter part of the 19th century, Lebanon was ruled by pashas appointed by the Ottoman sultan. While some pashas were moderate, others were repressive in their policy leading to political oppression and religious tension. Between 1900-1914, the population of Lebanon decreased by 100,000, or one-fourth. Besides coming to the United States, Maronites immigrated in significant numbers to Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Central America, Argentina, Australia and various parts of the African continent.
The early Maronite immigrants to the United States accepted whatever work they could find. Some worked in factories which produced textiles, steel, or automobiles; thus, Maronite communities sprung up all over New England, in Pittsburgh, PA, Birmingham, AL, Youngstown, OH, Cleveland and Detroit.
Being descendants of ancient traders, some Lebanese immigrants became peddlers in cities, towns and mining camps. Others opened dry goods stores and groceries. A few quickly became wealthy merchants.
Before 1914, Maronite communities were to be found all over the United States. Besides the places mentioned above, they were located all over the South, in Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas. In the Midwest, Maronite presence extended from Wheeling, WV. to St. Louis, MO. and from Detroit, MI to St. Paul and Minneapolis in Minnesota. In the Far West, Maronites were already to be found in California and Oregon.
These early Maronite immigrants identified strongly with their religious heritage. Although they attended the local Roman Catholic churches at first, they were anxious to preserve their own tradition. Very quickly, they petitioned the Patriarch to send them priests. Many worthy priests were sent over as missionaries and were instrumental in founding a number of churches. Other Maronite priests came to visit their relatives in various American cities and took the opportunity to celebrate the Divine Liturgy and administer the mysteries, at least on a temporary basis. Maronite priests were already active in New York City, Boston and Philadelphia in 1890 and 1891. The Divine Liturgy was being celebrated at an early date in St. Louis.
The origins of the local parishes happened in a variety of ways. At times, leadership was provided by Maronite clergy. In some areas, the laity took the initiative, usually by forming clubs, primarily to raise enough money to purchase a building. In some places, the Latin bishops offered financial and material help. The first church buildings were often large houses which were purchased and remodeled, where the first floor would be the church and the second floor the rectory. At times, Protestant churches were bought and renovated.
By the beginning of World War I, there were already, at least twenty-two permanent Maronite parishes in the United States. At least four more parishes had permanent places of worship before the end of the war. Parochial schools were established in Buffalo, NY, in Wilkes-Barre, PA and, soon after, in Detroit, MI. Parishes were provided facilities to teach the new immigrants English, and organizations were formed to help those in need.
Post-World War I to the Establishment of the Maronite Exarchate
The period during and after World War I was a time of consolidation of the old parishes and the establishment of new ones. A substantial number of Maronite immigrants from Lebanon and the Middle East came to the United States after the war. However, the United States government imposed strict immigration quotas soon after that.
During this time, many of the parishes already in existence sought either new or larger facilities, and many churches were built. In the 1920s, at least seven new permanent churches were established, and at least two more were added in the 1930s. Parochial schools were started in Waterville, ME. and later in Olean, NY.
Maronites in the United States sought to preserve their identity in various ways. The principal vehicle was parish life and worship. The tendency among the first immigrants and their children was to preserve, almost untouched and unchanged, Maronite practice as it was when they had left the Middle East. Depending on the leadership and the abilities of the various priests who came from Lebanon through the years, changes were introduced in music and ritual as they were developed in Lebanon. Devotions and music were also sometimes borrowed from the Latin churches.
For these first and second generation Maronites, the Maronite tradition was the source not only of their religious, but also of their national and social identity. They cherished the cycle of religious feasts and practices. Many knew Arabic, the vernacular in Lebanon and Syria of the Maronite Church, and some laity even knew Syriac, the ancient liturgical language. The Maronite Church served as an agent of acculturation into the American way of life for recent immigrants.
Recent generations of American Maronites have related to their Maronite tradition in differing ways. The backbone of most parishes consists of those who seek to perpetuate the heritage handed down to them from their parents and grandparents. Among this group are those who strive to learn more about the spirit and essence of the Maronite tradition through books and other resources that have become available in recent decades.
Unfortunately, a large number of American Maronites have abandoned the Maronite tradition almost entirely. For some, this is due to their being in areas where there are no Maronite churches or organizations. Others who have married non-Maronites have found it convenient to attend the church of their spouse. In the early years, some Maronites sought to be completely assimilated into American society by joining the Latin Church, which they identified as American. On the other hand, the Maronite Church in the United States has been blessed by the addition of many non-Maronites, through marriage who have become very active and dedicated to their parishes. In recent years, a good number of non-Maronites have joined the Maronite Church, attracted to the power of its spirituality and the richness of its liturgy.
There were other factors that preserved the social bonds among Maronites and other peoples of the Middle East in the United States in the early decades. In many areas, social clubs were formed either as “Lebanese/Syrian Clubs” or named after the village from whence significant groups had immigrated. Later, many of these clubs were organized on a regional level, such as the Midwest and Southern Federation of Lebanese and Syrian Clubs. Similarly, parishes in different areas of the country organized mahrajans (local and regional celebrations) in conjunction with certain religious feasts, such as the Dormition [Assumption] of Mary, or with seasonal secular holidays. At these events on the parish, regional and national levels, Middle Eastern culture was preserved through the celebration of food, music, dance and sometimes even poetry and drama. Many young Maronites met their future spouses at these Federation conventions and parish mahrajans.
The Maronite Seminary
In the 1950s, some Maronite clergy and laity, among them the Maronite League, began to work actively for the establishment of a Maronite Seminary in the United States. In 1959, the Sacred Congregation for the Oriental Churches formed a committee of Maronite priests in the United States to collect funds for a seminary to be established in Washington, D.C. In addition to being the nation’s capital, Washington was chosen especially to take advantage of the facilities of the Catholic University of America and its ability to grant pontifical degrees in theology and canon law. The University is also known for its department of Semitic and Oriental languages. Archbishop (later Cardinal) Patrick O’Boyle of Washington was asked to take responsibility for the seminary’s establishment, and Chorbishop Mansour Stephan of Brooklyn was appointed as National Chairman of the building fund.
In June, 1960, Archbishop O’Boyle called the Maronite clergy of the United States to a meeting in Washington, where a goal of $500,000 was set as a minimum to be raised from among the Maronite faithful in the United States. This meeting was attended by twenty-four Maronite priests. In July, 1961, Archbishop O’Boyle, with the approval of the Maronite clergy, purchased a house on Alaska Avenue, N.W. The house was renovated, and a chapel, bedrooms and a recreation room were added. In 1964, the building next door was purchased and used for seminary bedrooms and a library.
Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Seminary opened its doors on September 24, 1961. Its first rector was Reverend Elias el-Hayek, and the prefect of studies was Fr. Seely Beggiani. Fr. Beggiani was subsequently named rector in 1968.
The seminary held an open house for the Maronites living in the Washington area on St. Maron’s Day, 1962, and this event marked the beginning of a Maronite parish community in Washington.
Patriarch Paul Cardinal Meouchi formally dedicated the seminary in 1962. Over two thousand Maronite clergy and laity, as well as nine Latin rite bishops, joined in the celebration at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The nationally known television speaker, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, preached the homily. Cardinal Meouchi was accompanied by the future Patriarch and Cardinal Antoine Khoraiche.
In its 36 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 come from Lebanon as seminarians to be trained and serve in the United States. The alumni of the seminary have been active in establishing new missions and churches. The Maronite seminary has become a center of research and publication in the fields of Maronite history, liturgy, theology and spirituality.
The National Apostolate of Maronites
In 1963, a group of Maronite laity in the United States formed what was then known as the National Association of Maronites. The purpose of the organization was to unite Maronite laity throughout the United States and to perpetuate the Maronite tradition. At the beginning, its immediate goals were to support the Maronite seminary and to work for the coming of a bishop to serve the Maronite people of the United States.
In 1968, Archbishop Francis Zayek reconstituted NAM as the National Apostolate of Maronites. Thus, it became the official lay apostolate of the Maronite Eparchies in the United States. As the years have progressed, NAM has increased its involvement and support in many areas, including youth, religious education, vocation awareness and recognition of the work of individual laity on the parish and eparchial levels. NAM’s annual national and regional conventions have served to continue to strengthen the religious, cultural and social bonds of Maronite laity throughout the United States. While similar events are held by other Eastern Churches, the Latin dioceses have nothing to compare with these lay assemblies.
The National Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon
In the early 1960s under the leadership of Msgr. Peter Eid of Youngstown, OH, and through the efforts of clergy and laity in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, a national shrine in honor of Our Lady of Lebanon was established in North Jackson, OH. It was formally dedicated in 1965, and was modeled on the famous shrine at Harrissa in Lebanon. It quickly became a popular place of pilgrimage for Maronites and other Catholics of the Eastern and Midwestern United States. In 1987, an impressive chapel dedicated to Christ the King was dedicated by Archbishop Zayek at the National Shrine.
During the early 1960s attempts were made to estimate the number of Maronites residing in the United States. This project proved to be near impossible because the majority of Maronites were to be found in states in which there were no established parishes. Also, through marriage and other types of assimilation one did not even know what family names to look for. After contracting clergy and lay leaders throughout the country, an estimate of 200,000 Maronites was made. This figure is probably extremely low. The task of estimating the number of Maronites today is even more difficult.
(Reprinted with permission.)