Maronites in America – Continuing the Legacy


Address Given by Chorbishop Seely Beggiani, S.T.D., to the Joint Clergy Meeting, Cleveland, Ohio, June 30, 2015. The following first appeared in the Maronite Voice September 2015 issue.

Chorbishop Seely BegginaiThe Maronites in the United States during the past 135 years have not only survived but have grown and prospered. Beginning especially in the 1880s, Maronites emigrated in large numbers from Lebanon and Syria to many parts of the world. There were various reasons for leaving. While religious issues may have been a factor, the principal causes were a lack of economic opportunities and lack of living space. Significant numbers settled in North and South America, Australia and parts of Africa. But it was only in the United States that numerous parishes were established. This may be due to the fact that the United States was already becoming a very prosperous country with advanced means of transportation and communication. However, we should also recognize the strong faith, efforts and generosity of the Maronite clergy and laity of the early decades.

The first part of this presentation will chronicle and analyze the major events of the Maronite experience in the United States. The second part will be devoted to continuing this legacy.

Part I – Maronites in America

In the 1880s, if not sooner, significant numbers of Maronites began emigrating to the United States. They came through all ports of entry, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, New Orleans, the Mexican and Canadian borders, and the West Coast. By 1900, Maronite communities were to be found in New England, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, the rest of the South, Ohio, West Virginia, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, California and Oregon.

Like other immigrants, Maronites congregated where opportunities for work or business were available. These would have included the textile mills of New England and the Carolinas, the steel mills of Pittsburgh, Birmingham and Youngstown, and the auto factories of Detroit. They worked the coal mines of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. They congregated at the Great Lakes ports of Cleveland and Buffalo, and the river port of St. Louis. Maronite entrepreneurs opened stores and sold their wares, wherever there was an opportunity for business. With the exception of the Carolinas, most of the above places, among others, had parish meeting places and pastors before the beginning of World War I in 1914.

It is important to note that it was the laity who took the initiative to petition the Maronite Patriarch and the Sacred Congregation of the Propagation of the Faith to send them pastors. The Patriarchs responded and did send clergy. However, there does not seem to have been a plan on how an organized missionary activity would take place. Other clergy also arrived to visit relatives or fellow townspeople living in the United States, but only on a temporary basis.

It should be kept in mind that the first generation of Maronites came to the United States with the intention of making money and returning to their homeland. However, as time went on and with the coming of World War I and the Great Depression, and with established families, the idea of returning home slowly faded for most.

The first churches were often large houses or other buildings which were purchased and remodeled. The first floor would become the church or chapel and the second floor, the rectory. As time went on, the Maronites either bought existing churches or built their own.

The First Parishes

In response to a petition from the Maronites living in lower Manhattan and forwarded to the Patriarch by Cardinal Michael Corrigan of New York, Patriarch John Hajj responded in 1890 by sending Father Peter Korkemaz, who came with his cousin, Joseph Yazbek, a seminarian in minor orders.

St. Joseph Church in Manhattan was dedicated in 1891 with over 200 Maronites in attendance. During this time other parishes were being established in Boston, Philadelphia, and shortly thereafter in St. Louis and Brooklyn among other cities.

Father Joseph Yazbek was ordained a Maronite deacon and priest in New York by Cardinal Corrigan at the request of Patriarch Hajj in 1891. He was the first Maronite priest ordained in the United States. This event was reported in several newspapers in the United States.

Father Yazbek was sent to Boston, but also began his missionary activity by conducting a tour to many cities in 1891. He reports that he traveled to Providence, Fall River, Worcester, Buffalo, Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, Milwaukee, St. Paul, Minneapolis, Madison, Omaha, Kansas City, St. Louis, Louisville, Cincinnati, Rochester and Syriacuse. He stayed at each place from three to ten days, where he met with groups of Maronites, distributed the sacrament, and preached retreats.

What is noteworthy of Father Yazbek’s travels is that they give evidence of the expansion of the Maronites throughout a large area of the United States by 1891. It is also interesting that Father Yazbek had knowledge of where Maronite communities were to be found.

By the beginning of World War I, there were at least twenty-two established parishes in the United States. During and after the War, seven additional parishes were founded.

In the early years of immigration, a number of Maronite parishes would hold classes either to teach English for those seeking work or to teach Arabic to the children. Parish schools were established in Wheeling, Wilkes-Barre, Waterville, and Buffalo. Others were found in Boston, Olean and Detroit. Organizations were established to help people in need.

Besides parish organizations, Maronites extended their social ties beyond the parish in the form of Lebanese/Syrian clubs or clubs from the same town or village. Parishes in different parts of the country organized “mahrajans” or celebrations in conjunction with religious feasts or national holidays.

The 1920s to the 1960s

In 1920 Archbishop Chukrallah Khouri came to the United States on an official visit to determine the situation of the Maronites in the United States. He traveled throughout the country and conducted a personal census. He held meetings including an assembly of many of the Maronite clergy. He concluded that there was a need for a Maronite hierarchy and also for American vocations to the priesthood. Unfortunately, nothing appears to have resulted from his mission.

In 1924 the United States sharply restricted immigration quotas into the country. This situation continued for many decades. As a result, the growth of Maronites in the country was significantly slowed. Nevertheless, the arrival of new Maronite priests continued, and the number of Maronite parishes grew to over forty before the arrival of the first Maronite bishop.

Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Seminary

Before 1960, only a few American-born Maronites became Maronite priests. A large number became Latin-rite priests. There has not been a study of why this occurred, but probably a major reason was that Maronite seminaries were only in Lebanon. Many young men were reluctant to spend a number of years away from home and perhaps felt it was too great a challenge to learn Arabic and Syriac well. Only five Maronite Americans priests had studied in Lebanon.

In the late 1950s, and again due to the initiative of the laity and some clergy, especially a group known as The Maronite League, a concerted effort was made to establish a Maronite seminary in the United States. With the fundraising efforts of the Maronite clergy and laity, Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Seminary was established in Washington, D.C., in 1961.

The coming of the Seminary was a sign of the permanence of the Maronites in the United States. It not only served as a place of formation of future priests, but as a center of Maronite studies. Much of the early publications in Maronite liturgy, history and catechetics originated from the Seminary. Its focus was on how the Maronite tradition is to be perpetuated in the American culture. Its hope was to develop enduring fraternal bonds among future priests. Since its inception, more than eighty men have been ordained to the priesthood.

National Association of Maronites/ National Apostolate of Maronites

NAM was founded in 1963 as a lay organization to support the Seminary and to work for a Maronite bishop for the United States. In 1969 it was transformed by Archbishop Zayek into the National Apostolate of Maronites to give a more accurate representation of its mission and of its relationship with the hierarchy. It serves a very important and unique role of uniting Maronite laity from across the United States especially in national and regional meetings. Such an organization is rarely found in western Catholic dioceses.

Establishment of the Maronite Apostolic Exarchate (1966) and the Eparchy of Saint Maron (1971)

In 1966 Archbishop Francis Zayek was appointed as Bishop of the Maronite Apostolic Exarchate which became the Eparchy of St. Maron in 1971. The situation of the Maronites in the United States had changed considerably in the intervening 85 years. The Maronites were no longer poor immigrants but primarily part of the middle class. Many laity of the first and second generation were successful in business and the professions. Many marriages involved spouses of non-Maronite backgrounds. Many of the younger Maronites no longer knew Arabic. Some Maronites had already drifted away from the local Maronite church for a variety of reasons. The eagerness of Maronite parents to send their children to Catholic schools was often a mixed blessing. Many pastors of these schools asked that they support the local Latin parish, thereby forcing some families to choose which parish to support. Also, some families found it more convenient to go to the local Latin church than to travel to the Maronite church. Maronites in cities and areas in which no Maronite church had been established were lost to the Maronite church.

The canonical establishment of the Maronite Church with its own bishop marks a new chapter for the Maronite presence in the United States. The various parishes throughout the country now had a leader and a center of unity. Joint action could be taken to address the various challenges facing the Maronites and other Catholic dioceses in the United States.

Archbishop Zayek established a number of new parishes and missions. In the area of liturgy, there was a need to provide texts in English. An extensive Lectionary was published, as well as a Book of Anaphoras and a Book of Feasts. Translations of the Divine Office, the Mysteries (sacraments), and Maronite liturgical hymns were made available. A complete series of catechetical texts grounded in Maronite tradition and culture was published. Local and national Maronite Youth and later Maronite Young Adult Organizations were established. A diocesan newspaper was published. The Order of St. Sharbel was formed to provide financial help to the Seminary and for retired clergy.

Demographic Changes From 1975 to the Present

The conflict in Lebanon from 1975 to 1990 and its aftermath produced a large emigration of Maronites to the United States and many other countries. This has had a large impact on a number, but not all, of the Maronite parishes in this country. These new Maronites ended up becoming the majority in some parishes. They also accounted for the establishment of new parishes and missions in various states, especially in Florida, the Southwest and California. Besides the influx of laity, a significant number of seminarians and clergy have also immigrated.

The Two Eparchies (1994) Eparchy of Saint Maron of Brooklyn and the Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon of Los Angeles

The growth of the Maronite presence in the United State necessitated the formation of two eparchies. Archbishop Zayek remained as the Bishop of the Eparchy of Saint Maron and Bishop John Chedid was named first Bishop of the Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon. Archbishop Zayek was succeeded by Bishop Stephen Hector Doueihi and Bishop Gregory Mansour. Bishop Chedid was followed by Bishop Robert Shaheen and Bishop Abdallah Elias Zaidan. The successive bishops have shepherded the continued growth of their Eparchies.

The Present Situation

At the present time there are more than eighty Maronite parishes and missions in the United States. More than two-thirds of the Maronite clergy serving them were born outside the United States. Among the Maronite laity, hardly any of the third and fourth generation Lebanese and Syrian Americans have any knowledge of Arabic. The number of non-Lebanese spouses who attend Maronite parishes has significantly increased. The number of parishioners who have non-Maronite backgrounds is slowly increasing. Among the recent immigrants, we now have first generation Lebanese Americans.

The new Maronite Missal printed in both Arabic and English and with singable hymns has been well received. More parishes are using the Faith of the Mountain catechetical texts. National and regional meetings of the MYO and MYA are showing some progress.

Part II – Continuing the Legacy

Our legacy is the reality that on any given Sunday throughout the United States, a vibrant community of Maronite parishes is joyfully living the Maronite liturgical year with its various rituals. It cherishes the popular celebrations of Christmas, Epiphany, Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Resurrection. Its emphasis is on family and the extended family. It practices universal hospitality and exhibits a joie de vivre.

Strengthening our Resources

If we are to continue our growth in the future we must continue to adapt and to innovate. While our new Missal incorporates hymns that can be chanted in English using Syriac tones, in order to relate to the present and coming generations we should consider adapting our hymns to musical forms that are in the spirit of the Syriac but are fused with the contemporary. This challenge requires persons who are knowledgeable of both Syriac and contemporary music. Hopefully, in future revisions of the Missal, the poetry and the original Syriac flavor of some of the prayers will be restored.

We need to organize programs to acculturate foreign clergy to the American scene and acculturate American born clergy to Middle Eastern culture. We should strengthen the effort of teacher training and certification of our religious education teachers, while realizing that they are volunteer teachers with many commitments on their time. To perpetuate our Maronite tradition, we should develop adult education programs. There is a need to give priority to forming MYO and MYA groups in all of our parishes. New programs should be directed to the needs of young families.

The Challenge of Assimilation

Besides the present challenges of secularism, post-modernism, and relativism facing religion in the United States, minority Eastern churches are tempted to assimilate to the larger Catholic culture. This is especially true of the Maronites in regard to the Latin Church. For centuries, the Maronites of the Middle East have developed a great affinity for the Catholics of the West. Many western religious orders have established schools and adjoining parishes there. Therefore, for many Maronites in the United States there can be the temptation to attend the Catholic parish that is most convenient. The challenge is to educate Maronites as to their distinct identity and its richness. This identity is much more than being similar to that of a “national church.” There is no doubt that the Maronite church has incorporated many liturgical elements, especially in music and paraliturgical services from its life in Lebanon for 1500 years. However, these are only a part of the larger Maronite tradition.

Maronite Identity According to the Maronite Patriarchal Synod

The first five chapters of the Maronite Patriarchal Synod (2003-6) treated the question of identity, vocation and mission of the Maronite Church. The first characteristic of Maronite identity is that the Maronite Church is a Syriac Antiochene Church with a special liturgical heritage. The Maronite Church perpetuates the tradition of the great Apostolic Church of Antioch. It is important to remember that the church of Antioch was founded by St. Peter before he went to Rome. Responding to the preaching of Sts. Peter and Paul it developed its own liturgy and theology. The church of Antioch also conducted missionary activity to the East and therefore incorporated two cultures, the Hellenic culture and the Syriac culture, especially the writings of St. Ephrem (d. 373) and Jacob of Serug (d. 521). These writers expressed the faith within a Semitic biblical culture and represented the world-view of early Judeo-Christianity. Maronites are heirs of that Syriac Antiochene tradition.

Secondly, the Maronites are a Chalcedonian Church. What this means is that they adhere to the teaching of the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451) which declared that Christ was both fully divine and full human. This is especially important because Maronites believe that the whole of humanity was joined to the divine, without loss of its human nature. Believers are united to the divine through union with Christ, while retaining their free will.

Thirdly, the Maronite Church is a patriarchal church with monastic and ascetic features. It was founded on a monastery and was spread by monks. It maintains an ascetic world-view by teaching true repentance for the sake of the kingdom, developing a state of spiritual vigilance, relying on hope, and awaiting the second coming of Christ.

Fourth, the Maronite church is in full communion with the Roman Apostolic See. For Maronites, schism in the Church of Christ is not an option. To paraphrase an ancient saying: “Their faith is the faith of Peter.” Being in union with the Holy Father, Maronites can serve an ecumenical role between Rome and separated churches.

Fifth, the Maronite Church is incarnated in its Lebanese and Eastern environment and in the countries of the Expansion. The Maronite church has a universal mission to preach the Gospel to the whole world. Maronites are called to share the riches of their Syriac and Antiochene heritage wherever they find themselves.

Maronite Legacy According to Maronite Liturgical Theology

In the East, the liturgy plays a paramount role in the expression of faith and is the vehicle of theology. For the believer, theology is important because it tries to explain the ramifications of faith to fellow believers and to others. While faith is one in its truth, it can be explained in different ways. This does not confuse but enhances faith, because faith’s richness is not exhausted by only one form of explanation. In the Catholic Church there can be a pluralism of theologies. The Maronite liturgy, strongly influenced by St. Ephrem and Jacob of Serug provides a distinct and rich theological explanation of the faith.

For these Syriac Fathers, God is unto Himself. By his nature, he is ungraspable and elusive. St. Ephrem in his writings respects God’s mystery by using variations of the Syriac term for “being,” which corresponds to the Hebrew term “YHWH.” In these cases the “beingness” of God is translated into terms such as “divinity,” “godhead,” and “self-existent.” Therefore, our Maronite liturgy is consistent in presuming the “unknowability” of God. On the other hand, creation, being an expression of God’s love, reflects the image of its Creator. While the Old Testament speaks of God with different names, it provides only distant intimations. It is Christ who reveals to us that He is the Word of God made flesh and that God is His Father. By being united with Christ, God is not only our Father, but can be prayed to as “Abba.”

Syriac-Maronite theology reasons that human beings are created not only in the image and likeness of God, but in the image of the pre-existent future Christ. What this means is that it was always God’s plan from the beginning of creation that human beings are called to transcend their natural birth and be reborn into a spiritual beings through the spiritual womb of Baptism. The Maronite ritual for Baptism describes this teaching beautifully. It is in this context that we can appreciate the prayer in the Divine Liturgy, that the incarnate Christ has “united his divinity with our humanity and our humanity with his divinity.” As the Epistle of St. Peter tells us we are called to be partakers of what is of God. The Gospels teach us that we are called to be members of the divine family and are constituted as heirs. The Maronite liturgy refers often to Christians as God’s inheritance.

Our Maronite liturgy teaches us that Christ’s work of redemption not only serves to reunite humans and creation with the Father, but also by entering the world of the dead, Christ destroys the power of evil and death itself. Our Maronite liturgy also declares that the Cross of Christ is not an instrument of death but the re-emergence of the “Tree of Life” of the Garden of Eden. From the blood and water that flowed from side of Christ is born the Church as the New Eve, just as the old Eve was born from the side of Adam. The Church forms it members with the water of Baptism and nourishes them with the Body and Blood of the Eucharist. The union of Christ and the Church as His Bride at the Cross is the foundation of the mystery of Marriage.

In using the term “mystery” for “sacrament,” the Maronite Church wishes to emphasize that God’s creation both hides and reveals the holy. It is already holy because God in his love poured his presence into creation. God’s power is hidden, but through the words of the Church becomes unveiled in the seven mysteries/sacraments. Christ himself, by his earthly action at the first Epiphany when he was baptized by John, sanctified all the rivers and waters of the world as our Maronite liturgy for Epiphany describes. Christ’s action over the bread and wine at the Last Supper manifests that created bread and wine can indeed become His Body and Blood.

Our Blessed Mother is not only the mother of Christ, but his first disciple, and his companion through his whole life and death, a witness of his Ascension, and the coming of His Spirit on Pentecost. She is indeed the mother of all who are united with his humanity. Her dormition is commemorated by the ancient Maronite Anaphora of Sharar.

The Maronite legacy and its continuation provides a rich insight into how the Gospel of Christ was received, celebrated, reflected upon, and handed down over the centuries by believers belonging to highly developed Eastern cultures. This treasure belongs to Maronites of the future and can serve to offer other believers a fuller understanding of God’s revelation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s