History of St. Elias Maronite Church

Contributed by Loretta Saleeba Jolley

From tiny seedlings tucked in cedar cones, mighty Cedars of Lebanon grow, and so it is with St. Elias Maronite Catholic Church.

When Lebanon was under Turkish rule, life for its people was a harsh existence. Those who desired freedom fled their homeland by any means that they could. Some were literally smuggled out of Lebanon. The need for a new and better life was stronger than any risk they took. Making the journey to the United States meant “freedom” in so many ways.

In the late 1800s, some individuals coming to the United States from Lebanon came to Roanoke, Virginia. These were the first Lebanese settlers in the valley. For these early immigrants, choosing Roanoke was not a matter of firsthand knowledge of the area, but rather was based on the advice of the officials at Ellis Island Port of Entry. At that time, all immigrants coming into the United States entered through Ellis Island. If the people entering the United States did not have a definite destination, they were advised about areas where railroads, shipping ports, or industry existed, so they could find jobs and means of support.

Early Lebanese immigrants brought excellent work ethics with them to the United States. Some continued working as they did in their homeland, while others diversified. They were peddlers, taking their wares to outlying areas; they also opened dry good stores, and confectioneries. Some took jobs in industry. They worked and lived close, each being supportive of the other. These were our forefathers. They sent money home to their families in Lebanon. Soon, they brought their other family members to the United States. They passed word back to the “old country” that Roanoke was a good place to have a business, make a home, and raise a family, and with its gentle mountains and valleys, it looked like home Lebanon. This, in turn, encouraged many more settlers from Lebanon to come to the area.

Language was a problem for the forefathers. In most cases, they were able to learn just enough English to do business and “get by.” It was a different story with their children. The first generation of children grew up speaking both English and Arabic, the language of their parents.

Father Rabil, a missionary priest, made his first appearance in Roanoke prior to 1913. St. Andrew’s Catholic Church has records of baptisms performed and written in Arabic by Father Rabil in 1913. At this time, the Lebanese community in Roanoke numbered about 250 Maronite Catholics, and during these early years of settlement, the Lebanese people attended Liturgies at St. Andrew’s.

Father Rabil was born in Hammana, Lebanon on July 1, 1884. He was ordained as a priest on November 5, 1907. When he first came to the United States, he was assigned to Goldsboro, North Carolina. When Father Rabil made his “rounds” as a missionary priest and was in Roanoke, he celebrated Liturgies at St. Andrew’s. In 1916, His Excellency Bishop Dennis O’Connell asked Father Rabil to establish a Maronite Catholic Church in Roanoke. Liturgies for the Lebanese people were celebrated at St. Andrew’s in what was called the “little school” at the foot of the hill until a suitable location could be found.

Soon, a location was found on Salem Avenue. The building had previously been a Brethren Church. Renovations began. Bob Angell designed the main altar. It was carved from wood and patterned after the main altar at St. Andrew’s. On either side of the main altar were two smaller altars-one on the left with a statue of Christ entombed beneath it, and one on the right with the Nativity beneath it. Both were enclosed in glass.

The year was 1917; Woodrow Wilson was President; the Pope was Benedict XV; the United States entered World War I, and on December 23, His Excellency Bishop Dennis O’Connell dedicated St. Elias Maronite Catholic Church. St. Elias Church on Salem Avenue opened its doors, debt free, and the little cedar suddenly began to grow. By 1920, the membership was approximately 300. The Sisters of Charity from Our Lady of Nazareth Catholic Church began religious education classes and organized a choir.

Father Rabil was promoted to Monsignor after returning to Lebanon in 1927. More significant was his eventual elevation to Chorbishop. This allowed Monsignor Rabil, with permission from the Bishop of the Richmond Diocese, to wear the vestments and cross of Bishop twice a year and to celebrate a Pontifical Liturgy at Easter and Christmas. For many years, St. Elias was the only Catholic Church in Roanoke to celebrate a midnight Liturgy at Easter.

Membership at St. Elias grew as the Lebanese population in the Roanoke Valley continued to grow. His Excellency Bishop Joseph Hodges said in his speech at St. Elias’ 50th anniversary celebration in 1967, “Your religion was an essential part of your life. You were loyal to the Pope and Patriarch. Whatever your concerns for your native land, Lebanon, you could be counted upon as patriotic American citizens.”

His Excellency Bishop Hodges’ statements could not have been more true than during World War II, when 100 young Lebanese men from Roanoke area served in the United States Military. Two of St. Elias’ parishioners, Everett Rice and William (Willie) George, did not come home. They gave their lives for their country. Their names are engraved on the Roanoke War Memorial at Lee Plaza in downtown Roanoke. It is also with great pride and honor that St. Elias remembers another parishioner, the late Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Andrew Moses, Virginia’s most decorated soldier of World War II and the thirteenth most decorated soldier in the nation.

In 1957, St. Elias hosted the celebration of Monsignor Rabil’s 50th anniversary as a priest. Bishops and priests from surrounding regions attended.

Monsignor Rabil was very aware that many youth were attending other parishes and losing touch with the Arabic language. Thus, he began celebrating two Liturgies-one in Arabic and one in English. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, membership at St. Elias dropped to 500 or less. English became the dominant language of the Liturgy after Vatican II, rather than Aramaic (the language of Christ). However, the Consecration remained in Aramaic.

On February 19, 1964, Monsignor Rabil passed away. His Excellency Bishop John Russell celebrated a Pontifical Liturgy for Monsignor Rabil and soon after announced the closing of St. Elias Church. A committee quickly formed to represent St. Elias and went to Richmond to plead its case with His Excellency Bishop Russell. He agreed to leave St. Elias open. In 1964, Father Bernard Krimm, C.S.S.R. was appointed Administrator of St. Elias and served in this position until 1965. Subsequently, Father Nemetallah Hayek became St. Elias’ pastor.

In 1965, a fire destroyed the main altar and the painting of St. Elias which hung above it. The altar was replaced with a liturgical altar, and a reproduction of the St. Elias painting was created. For a few weeks during the restorations, Liturgies were held at Our Lady of Nazareth Catholic Church.

Father Hayek was transferred in 1966, and Father Assad Awad became St. Elias’ new pastor. On June 11, 1966, His Holiness Pope Paul VI established the Diocese of Saint Maron in the United States with the See being located in Detroit, Michigan. His Excellency the Most Reverend Francis M. Zayek became the Diocese’s first Bishop.
On the weekend of November 11, 1967, St. Elias celebrated its Golden Jubilee. The parish has hosted many Haflis (Lebanese dances and formal evening banquets), pageants, festivals, picnics, mini-conventions of the National Apostolate of Maronites (NAM), etc… Over the years, a variety of clubs and organizations have been formed by the Lebanese people-some affiliated with St. Elias and some purely social.

Father Nemetallah Akouri became pastor in 1969 when Father Awad was transferred. In 1970, Father Hares Zogheib became St. Elias’ pastor. Then in 1972, Father Awad returned to Roanoke and to St. Elias.

In the words of Kahlil Gibran, “Yesterday is but today’s memory and tomorrow is today’s dream.” Such words held true for St. Elias Church, as the little cedar continued to grow.

A rectory on Brandon Avenue was purchased in 1974. The following year, St. Elias purchased the property on Cove Road. The ground breaking for the present parish social hall occurred n 1977. His Excellency The Most Reverend Francis M. Zayek celebrated a Pontifical High Liturgy on August 27, 1978 to dedicate the St. Elias Parish Hall. Meanwhile, construction continued over the next few years on the church and offices.

On Sunday, December 22, 1984 the Bishop celebrated the first Liturgy in the new St. Elias Church. He also announced the elevation of Father Awad to Monsignor. The educational rooms and offices were completed in 1987, and the church dedication occurred on October 4, 1987. Each stage in the growth of St. Elias, in the tradition of its forefathers, has been debt free upon completion.

In 1997, Monsignor Awad was reassigned. Father George Sebaali was appointed Administrator and Father Rodolph Wakim appointed Parochial Vicar at St. Elias.

So much has transpired over the years at St. Elias, including the actual birth of a parish, which will be 81 years “young” December of 1998. There has been joy and sadness, but through it all, St. Elias had been a parish devoted to living in imitation of and loving our Lord Jesus Christ, a community rich with Maronite traditions and Lebanese heritage, and a home.

We, the parishioners of St. Elias, thank our forefathers for the birth of a glorious church. Individuals like Joseph Moses, Joseph Murray, Michael Ellis, Charles Aesy, and John Thomas are the shoulders St. Elias parishioners stand on now to see the future. These were the pioneers of the Lebanese people in the Roanoke Valley, the George Washington’s and Thomas Jefferson’s of St. Elias. Their hardships in immigrating to the United States were as difficult as those faced by the first settlers of this great country. They shared much in building a life here, and the one common denominator was their faith.

The Maronites suffered in defending their faith, and it is no wonder that they became strong, their faith steadfast, and that their perseverance would bring St. Elias to this day and beyond. The little cedar, not so small anymore, continues to grow.