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Home Away from Home: Maronites in the United States

by Chorbishop Seely Beggiani

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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.

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Tags: Lebanon Cultural Identity Emigration Maronite Church Assimilation