The Lebanese emigration to Wheeling dates back to 1888. At that early date there were few Lebanese scattered as afar as Clarksburg, Mannington, and Parkersburg, West Virginia. The first settlers in Wheeling came from Southern Lebanon. A Mr. Roger Saad is reputed to be the first to arrive here; although your writer’s father claims that in 1854 an immigrant named Bechalani from Salima settled in Wheeling for awhile before making his home in Zanesville, Ohio. Ten years later, that is 1898-1900 others came from Southern Lebanon. The immigrant tide swelled to a community of 300 Maronites. There were many causes for this immigration; but mainly it was religious as well as economical and political.
This Lebanese land of ancient Phoenician and seafaring merchants – itself is a narrow strip having nothing of the fertility of the low land stretching around it which were once generously in ancient periods. These plains along with those of Syria, Egypt and Mesopotamia furnished an inexhaustible food supply for the Roman Empire. These lands lost nothing of their fertility; all they needed was a strong hand to cultivate them, squeeze the soil and make it yield a hundred-fold.
The Moslem, Arab and Turk were behind time; with ruthlessly stubborn and brutish hand they ruled. Sill believing in fatalism and making it as an excuse to shun modern progress. The Turkish government, directed by these ideals and threatened by Maronite religious and secular initiative, never did try to stimulate individual incentive and thus remained stagnant for centuries. Now add to this the hatred of the Moslem to the Christian cause.
The magic name of America, on the other hand, the country of religious freedom and golden opportunity was seizing and stirring enthusiasm in every soul. In 1900 the immigration started en masse. In 1905 the Lebanese colony in Wheeling was good sized and attracted the attention of the late Bishop P. J. Donahue. Through the influence of the St. Toby (memorial) Society he decided to write to Lebanon for a priest to serve the newcomers in their own language and rite. He wrote twice to His Beatitude the late Elias Hoyek, the Maronite Patriarch of Antioch, who resides in Lebanon to whose jurisdiction the Maronites in the Western Hemisphere belong.
Today in a special way, along with the hearty pioneer souls, we honor the founding shepherd who came to use in the fall of 1906. The Rt. Rev. Paul K. Abraham, humble and saintly priest, was born July 10, 1875 in the District of Batroun, Misreh … Completing his preparatory seminary training at an early age, he began his major theological studies at St. Stephen’s Seminary, Jerusalem where he excelled in Hebrew, Syriac and Near-Eastern studies. On September 29, 1901 he was ordained to the priesthood of the Maronite Antiochene Church at the historic monastery of Qanoubeen.
Father Abraham celebrated his first Mass at the Bishop’s residence on 13th and Byron Street, November 17, 1906. This kindly Bishop, the Most Rev. Patrick J. Donahue, who often affectionately called him his son (“sun”) of the East provided the founding pastor with quarters in what is now called the Formosa Apartments, opposed the Cathedral on Eoff Street. In January 1907 he moved to the Bryan building located at 2269 Market Street. The worshipping community used the entire third floor as church and rectory for the next six years; all the while carrying on feverish fund raising projects for a more permanent location. In August 1912 we were ready to buy a piece of property that would serve as church and school.
The Reister property at 2329 Market Street was acquired. A chapel was erected on the second floor. On the first floor the school for the children of the parish who were growing in numbers was staffed by the Sisters of Divine Providence until 1916. Bishop Donahue watched the growing parish with great interest and personal satisfaction. He didn’t spare himself any sacrifice in doing good to each and every member of our Maronite congregation. His was the ecumenical spirit much ahead of its time … like the true Spirit of the Catholic church which lets no barrier of time and space or race enter her loving embrace.
When the paternal bishop saw many needing to read and write in English, he took that task upon himself. He opened a night school where he taught for over a year until he developed a core of teachers who could help others to communicate sufficiently well in English. The memory of this good deed is still vivid and will remain forever in the hearts of the Lebanese community here.
The Great War, in spite of the apparent prosperity brought great anxieties to Lebanese brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, relatives and friends who were starving overseas. They had no way to escape their plight. Your writer knows personally of a large sum of money sent by Father Abraham to alleviate hunger in various villages in Lebanon.
The time between 1912 and 1922 the parish had enough funds for another projected new church and school. In 1922 we bought the lot where the present Our Lady of Lebanon now stands. The late Bishop Donahue made the largest single contribution. Many of our immigrant Lebanese who were running successful businesses by then donated to our church in one form or another year after year; they never tired of responding.
Our first Bishop and first Father would not live long enough to see the church he helped found, dedicated. The Most Rev. Patrick J. Donahue entered into God’s glory October 9, 1922 – two weeks after the succeeding bishop, the Most Rev. John J. Swint lay the cornerstone.
The church carried a substantial debt at this time, especially during the recessional post war era. The talented pastor, a noted writer published his book, “The Maronites of Lebanon”, from which the income derived helped reduce a staggering mortgage. Something of a playwright, he organized the Syrian-Lebanese dramatic club which in eight successive years produced plays written in Arabic and acted out by parishioners themselves. Income from these plays contributed substantially to reducing the existing debts. The income from this resource was phenomenal for the times; they attracted large Arabic speaking audiences living within a 150 mile radius of the tri-state area.
The second attempt at another school continued until September 1926 when the student body dwindled to a mere 19 students. However, Father Abraham requested Bishop Swint’s help in reopening it. The bishop invited community of nuns from Holland. In September 1929 Sister Frances Teresa and Sister Augusta Maria of the order of the Poor Child Jesus were assigned together with one other lay teacher, Miss Kennedy to Our Lady of Lebanon parochial school. The school continued to flourish until 1946. During those years, under the able and dedicated direction of the Sisters a renewed Catholic life in general and a greater appreciation of our own Eastern Rite in particular was instilled in the parish. The new school was the soul of the parish community during these memorable years.
The great depression was at its height, when the church barely ten years old was destroyed by fire December 1932 … everything was destroyed … everything; that is, except the life sized portrait of Our Lady of Lebanon which had hung over her shrine … A number of local firemen (many of whom are known by the writer) attest to its miraculous preservation as raging flames behind a collapsing wall and gushing water from pressure hoses was diverted from Our Lady’s image … the 5 foot by 7 foot painting in oils and of delicate construction had fallen over 25 feet without damage.
Once again the parish was without a place of worship. The pastor suffering from heart break and extreme anxiety was hospitalized in January 1933. As he recovered from his collapse, he went about the task of reconstruction, convinced it was the wish of the “Sa-idy.” However the entire parish and the bishop had taken a dim view of the rebuilding project. Whatever it was, a sudden change of heart overcame the bishop. More than a pious rumor verifies the fact that the portraiture of Our Lady appeared to him in a vision or dream, just as it hangs above the main altar in the sanctuary today.
While reconstruction was going on, St. Alphonsus Parish responding as a good neighbor would, reserved the side altar for celebration of our Maronite liturgy daily as well as Sunday and provided our pastor with temporary living quarters. By Easter of 1933 the faithful were worshipping in a newly decorated and remodeled church. Bishop Swint himself had taken on the task in its supervision, visiting the construction site daily. Our grateful pastor was moved to comment regarding the Bishop, “He appears to be the foreman in charge of the job!”
As tragic as the fire was, the loss though not completely covered by insurance, reduced the existing mortgage to an amount which various fund raising activities, like annual bazaars, dramatic plays, and mahrajans, made manageable. Around April 1934 the mortgage of $4000 (a staggering sum then) was ceremoniously burned at a banquet held at the Columbia Club. Debt free for the first time the church was rededicated by Bishop Swint on May 20, with the entire parish and school children in attendance. The same day the Bishop confirmed 68 children and 5 adults.
A new era in the history of our parish had begun now, and was marked by what was to become a traditional annual event – beginning in August 1933 00 the MAHRAJAN. Held at site No. 1 in beautiful Oglebay Park, for 37 years this affair, popularly known by all the citizens of Wheeling as the “Syrian Picnic” became our major social and fund raising event of the year, bringing together as many as 5000 Lebanese Americans from all over the United States. Everyone looked forward to this special celebration at the Feast of the Sa-idy (Assumption) which began with an outdoor Mass. It would take several trips in Barkett Coury’s truck to the picnic site. For those without cars, chartered bussing was provided. As early at 7 A.M. approximately 150 parishioners would be gathered in front of the church hoping to be the first ones there.
Everyone had a hand in making the celebration the truly religious, social and financial success it was. Each organization of the parish took charge of specific duties: The P.T.A., BVM Sodality, Altar Society, and Holy Name Society managed general services and refreshments; St. Toby’s provided transportation; the cooking and baking zealously prepared by the St. Joseph’s Women Society; the Syro-Lebanese Club took responsibility for ticket sales and publicity; and of course, the church choir chanting the liturgy added a harmonious note toward the picturesque setting of Oglebay Park.
Wheeling’s popular Mahrajan, like the Near East Haflis, were natural outgrowths of the Lebanese love for congregating and enjoying a few hours together reminiscing of the good old times. Many an evening was spent after work gathering under Sleiman Mussa’s awning or Ghaphrey Bros. Grocery or drinking “Araq” and “Ahwee” outside of Tom Sabahi’s or playing “Imar” in Ayoob’s Coffee House. The younger set’s loafing quarters were either in Past-time, Cater’s, Sass’s Place and in more recent times Sportsman’s or Sasseen’s … The women use to gather on the lot at the rear of the Market Street Church for their “sah-reeyahs”. At these “cultural centers” the Lebanese colony would sing, play Basra and dubki; the fondest memories of their native land return again.
Much of the years between 1939 to 1946, of course, was taken up by World War II. Many of the sons of the parish were summoned to military duty. Not a few families suffered the loss of loved ones.
As the autumn time in the life of the white bearded “Patriarch” arrived, we celebrated with him the Fortieth Anniversary of his ordination (September 28, 1946). Bishop Swint, some 22 priests and over 450 parishioners and friends attended the surprise banquet in Fr. Abraham’s honor; for all feared that he would not see his Golden Jubilee. As it turned out the old Shepherd lived to celebrate in 1951 the Fiftieth Anniversary of his ordination and again in 1956 another celebration to mark his fiftieth year of service to the parish he founded.
The aging priest had already decided during the time of the 40th anniversary that he should consider a successor to his parish. On November 8, 1947 his nephew for whom he had been benefactor, Rev. Paul E. Coury, arrived to assist him. Born in Toula, Lebanon, August 6, 1914, Fr. Paul’s early training was at the Jesuit Seminary in Beirut; and was ordained priest on March 25, 1939. After 4 years of teaching the Classics in French and Arabic in Bagdad he was appointed assistant pastor in Beit Shebab and then pastor in Bik Fayah 1945-47.
During Fr. Paul’s assistantship a location for the rectory was purchased and all religious societies were reorganized. He also established a Lay Advisory Committee in 1948 (long before parish councils were allowed) and by the time of he departure in 1950, the church was repainted, side walk relaid and a memorial to our World War II dead was dedicated.
He accepted a call to be pastor of St. John the Baptist Church in New Castle, Pa. Our church choir still remembers the Sunday in June 1951, at the invitation of the “sentimental” priest to sing the Liturgy in his church. This was carried live and recorded by the local radio station.
Our Lady of Lebanon and Msgr. Abraham needed Fr. Paul. So through the efforts and influence of Bishop Swint the young priest once again returned to us in 1952 and served until 1957 as pastor. During his pastorate in Wheeling the debt incurred by the acquisition of the new rectory was liquidated and at the time of his reassignment the balance sheet showed a substantial surplus. In his period of service the church was refurbished, new gold tabernacle dedicated, electronic organ purchased.
It seemed we were never meant to keep this good priest for too long. Answering a need for a pastor in Waterville, Maine, he was summoned by the Most Rev. Daniel Feeney, Bishop of Portland Church. There since 1957, he has celebrated his Silver Jubilee in the priesthood.
Msgr. Abraham, now Chor-Bishop, (elevated by His Beatitude Anthony Areeda in 1948) was once again without help, at age 82. Requests were made through the local Bishop and the Patriarch; it was answered in the person of Rev. Michael Hitti.
Born in the district of Zahle, Talabaya, Lebanon, 1913, Fr. Hitti was ordained in 1938 by Bishop Abdullah Khoury. He taught French and Arabic at Our Lady of the Apostles College at Kab Elias until 1944; fulfilled other pastoral assignments in Lebanon until he arrived in Wheeling March 1959. On June 1, 1959, the local Bishop, now Archbishop Swint declared Chor-bishop Abraham Pastor Emeritus and named Fr. Michael Hitti pastor. The new pastor, who among many other productive accomplishments painted in oils an excellent likeness of the Maronite monk, Father Sharbel, now Saint. He served our parish until 1968, at which time the Most Rev. Francis M. Zayek, (then Exarch to the U.S.) assigned him to St. Maron’s Church, Minneapolis, Minn. Our parish was blessed with Episcopal visit by Bishop Zayek January 21, 1967 at the invitation of Fr. Hitti.
During the pastorate of Fr. Hitti, sorrow struck the Lebanese community of Wheeling. Chor Bishop Paul K. Abraham – this priest, affectionately loved not only by parishioners but by all throughout the diocese, who at one time passed up the opportunity to chair the department of Near Eastern languages and Philosophy at Catholic University just to shepherd a humble flock. This priest, this shepherd, yes, this father as we truly regarded him, passed away January 30, 1960, amid the same simplicity in which he lived, privately praying the rosary in the company of one dear friend and a nun. Because of its limited capacity he could not be buried out of the church that he served for over fifty years; his remains were transferred to St. Alphonsus where Mass of Requiem in the Maronite Rite was celebrated. Among the many Latin and Maronite clergy present were Archbishop Swint, who administered final absolution; Msgr. Joseph Feghali and Fr. Paul Coury, together with Fr. Hitti concelebrated the funeral liturgy. Chor-Bishop Abraham was laid to rest at Mt. Calvary Cemetery beside his two brothers, Ferris and Nahoum.
The Rev. Namatallah El-Hayek arrived October 5, 1967 from San Antonio, Texas to assume the administration of our parish. Born in Bejje, Gabail District near the ancient city of Byblos, August 31, 1928. Educated at the Patriarchal Seminary, at Ain Wahrah, Fr. Hayek was ordained in June 8, 1952. He served many parishes in and around Beirut itself as well as Baabda and Djunie … August 1965 Fr. Hayek arrived to the U.S. to serve St. Elias church in Roanoke, Va. Early 1967 he was transferred to St. Georges in San Antonio, Texas. During his service here he liquidated all outstanding debts, sold the old rectory, converted the parish school into a new rectory, built a parking lot at the site originally occupied by two church-owned properties, expanded the church hall, built new kitchen and refurbished the church; all the while the parish remains debt free.
While nursing an injured knee, an active assistant to Fr. Hayek in the person of Rev. Joseph Thomas was assigned to the parish. Fr. Thomas was born in Brooklyn, July 27, 1944. After completing his education in parochial schools, he enrolled in St. Basils Melkite Seminary, Methuen, Mass., but transferred to Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Seminary, Washington, D.C. Bishop Zayek ordained Fr. Thomas November 20, 1971. Prior to his temporary assignment here, he had been serving the Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon, North Jackson, Ohio. Our parish was most appreciative of his accomplishments during his short stay.
After Fr. Hayek’s transfer to St. Ann’s, Scranton, Pa. October 1974; Rev. Hares became administrator. Born August 31, 1930 to the late David and Nagiby Zogheib in the town of Zabougha, Lebanon. After his elementary education in his home town, Father Hares entered the Patriarchal Seminary of Ainwarka in 1944; his secondary education, philosophy and theological studies were completed there. Fr. Hares was ordained May 30, 1954.
The young priest was assigned to Annunciation School in Beirut as principal. In 1957-58 he taught in the Diocesan College “LaSagesse” and remained in the teaching field until 1964 while assisting in the parish of St. Michaels Church. From 1964-68 he taught at the French Academy in Paris. Returning to Lebanon Fr. Hares served the same parish of St. Michael in Diocese of Beirut.
Fr. Hares first assignment after his arrival in the U.S. September 13, 1969 was to assist Chor-Bishop Joseph Eid, Fall River, Mass. Before his appointment as pastor to Our Lady of Lebanon here in Wheeling, October 1974 he served St. Elias in Roanoke, Va. For 2 ½ years.
Since his departure from Wheeling after five years of dedicated service, he served Our Lady of Lebanon, Easton, Pa. To January 1980. Fr. Hares is now pastor at St. John the Baptist in New Castle.
Wladimier, son of Stephen and Takle Sakri Akiki was born in Boston May 3, 1911. He enrolled in the Oriental Seminary approximately three years after his return to Kefardebian, Lebanon in 1921. As deacon, he was a missionary assistant serving various areas in North and Southern Syria including Damascus ministering to Moslem villages.
Missing the land of his birth he returned to the U.S. in 1937 – was staffed on the faculty of the University of Detroit. After a business venture at publishing an Arabic newspaper Al-Ittahad failed, Wladimier returned to Lebanon in 1939 teaching in the Seminary of Deir Chir, while continuing theological studies there. He was ordained priest April 24, 1949.
Fr. Akiki served as pastor to the many missions and parishes of Zabbougha, Baktoota, Biskinta, Ain Aboo; and then was assigned as spiritual director to the convent of Antoora.
At the request of the Most Rev. William O’Brady, Archbishop, Diocese of St. Paul, Fr. Akiki was assigned to St. Maron’s of Minnesota, where he was pastor from 1959 until 1968. After this term of service he was transferred to St. George’s of San Antonio, Texas.
Before his retirement to his home village in Lebanon he was administrator of St. George’s in Dover, N. H. Fr. Wladimier Akiki served Our Lady of Lebanon in Wheeling from October 1974 to July 1977.
Joseph our brother was ushered into this world New Year’s Day 1932, Utica, N.Y., the son of Hickel and Louise Shaheen.
After attending the local public schools, Joseph attended LeMoyne College for two years. Finding his call he was admitted to Our Lady of Angels Seminary in Niagara University. He was ordained in St. Louis Ganzaga (Maronite) Church as Latin Rite priest February 21, 1959. For 7 ½ years to Rev. Joseph Shaheen served the Diocese of Buffalo. After the arrival of our own Maronite Bishop Most Rev. Zayek to the U.S.A. Father Joe found a “new call” to serve as an Eastern rite pastor in the Maronite Diocese of St. Maron. Having deep appreciation for the rite of his birth he left U.S. for Lebanon for studies in the Antiochene tradition. It gained for him the qualities to serve as an Eastern rite priest. Fr. Joseph was incardinated into St. Maron’s Diocese in 1967. His first assignment as Maronite priest was assistant to Fr. Elias Abi Nader, St. George’s, Uniontown, Pa.
Previous to his appointment to Our Lady of Lebanon in Wheeling, July 1, 1977, Father Joe served St. Maron’s in Philadelphia, Pa. 1969-1974 and St. Ann’s, Scranton, Pa., 1974-1977 as pastor.
We are indeed fortunate to have such a vigorous and apostolic man of God serving our parish. Since his arrival he accomplished more than material improvements. Fr. has established liturgical committees, a C.C.D. program, revamped the church council and is certainly indefatigable in his efforts at parish renewal.
So ends the story of our past. Now under the ministry of Father Joe we celebrate in a special way the Diamond Anniversary of not an edifice of the brick and mortar enclosure, but of a founding of a community … True monuments are the people who build them not the stone.
We commemorate those early pioneer founders, the succeeding priests, the community who partook of the chalice, in over 30,000 Masses, countless thousands who have dined at the Banquet Table of their Host, our Lord and Redeemer; hundred of souls who were washed by the living waters of Baptism; where over 300 were united in one flesh in Matrimony and where 350 in death were carried through these portals, to their final rest. It is this we commemorate. Yes, this is more than a building.
Thus ends the seventy-five years of this church community dedicated to Our Lady of Lebanon. So today we celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of one of the most proud parishes in the Diocese of St. Maron.
Now we must face the future together with that common experience we share and the tradition of those seventy-five sparkling years behind us. We must take a healthy look at the years ahead and from the hardy pioneers of Our Lady of Lebanon, few whom survive with us today and we honor, to continue to grow with the legacy they left us, that we might build better tomorrows.
Excerpted from original MS: John G. Moses “History of the Maronite Church in W. Va. Since 1900”, July 23, 1972, 66 pp.
from Seventy-fifth Anniversary of Our Lady of Lebanon Church, 1906-1981, Wheeling, West Virginia