Lebanese Catholics discover deep roots in church

COLUMBIA — Catholics who trace their heritage back to the nation of Lebanon in the Middle East have a long and rich history in the Diocese of Charleston.

Lebanese Catholics have played important roles around the state in the founding of parishes and their early days of growth. Today some of their descendants and newer immigrants from Lebanon and other areas of the Middle East carry on the traditions of Middle Eastern Catholicism through worship in the Maronite and Melkite rites. Both rites have roots in ancient Lebanon.

Many Lebanese Catholics moved to the north part of South Carolina in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, according to a history on the subject written by Elizabeth Whitaker, a historian and convert to Catholicism.

She lived for many years in the Upstate and became interested in studying their history after attending St. Rafka, the Maronite mission in Greenville.

Whitaker is currently working on a book about the history of Arab and Middle Eastern Christians in the Southeast.

She said that many of the Lebanese Catholics who came to South Carolina joined the established Roman rite churches because at that time, there were no Maronite or other Eastern rite services available. Through her research, she discovered this pattern in the Upstate, the Columbia area and around the Pee Dee.

Sherrill Howayeck, a Greenville resident and member of St. Rafka Maronite Mission, said her grandparents came to the United States in 1912 from the village of Zghorta in northern Lebanon, a region where many Catholics in the Upstate have roots.

They arrived at Ellis Island, and worked in both Massachusetts and Puerto Rico before moving to Greenville, where her mother was born in 1916.

Howayeck said her grandparents and parents followed the example of other immigrants in Greenville by going into the retail business.

“They owned stores, often groceries and dry goods, and often times the houses were adjacent to the store, or they lived in rooms in back of the store,” she said.

Howayeck’s family was Maronite by origin, but joined St. Mary Church in Greenville because, as Whitaker noted, Maronite rites weren’t available.

“St. Mary’s became their spiritual home, and that was important because sometimes outside church, they experienced prejudice because they were foreigners,” Howayeck said. “Even in my lifetime, I experienced that at some levels. But at St. Mary’s, the Lebanese were embraced by the parishioners and the priests. Lebanese were and are an important part of that church community.”

Howayeck recalled that her grandmother belonged to a group of Lebanese women at St. Mary. They were similar to a ladies’ guild and called themselves “Circle Number 5,” she said.

The group’s name can still be found on a window at the church.

Howayeck grew up in St. Mary parish and is still a member there, but also attends St. Rafka because of her interest in her roots. Her husband, Bob, grew up in the Maronite rite in the northeast, and through him she became more interested in that heritage, she said.

The Howayecks have been involved in St. Rafka since it was founded in 2002 by several Lebanese families from the Upstate and other areas of the diocese.

The Maronite rite has roots in early Christian communities in what is now Syria and Lebanon, and its worship includes sections in Arabic, Syriac and English. The Maronite Church is in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church.

“The Maronite rite is important to me because it allows me to keep close to my heritage,” Howayeck said. “The community is very cohesive and everyone has a very generous spirit.”

Ron Jebaily, an attorney in Florence, said his father moved his family to Lake City in the Pee Dee area in 1962 after spending many years working in manufacturing in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Jebaily said the family quickly became part of a small but cohesive Lebanese community in the Pee Dee that traces its roots back to the early 20th century. His research shows that Lebanese Catholics may have moved to South Carolina as early as 1880.

Many, however, came to the state between the years of 1900 and 1914 as part of a wave of refugees who were fleeing their home country because of war.

Jebaily said many early Lebanese immigrants in South Carolina worked as peddlers.

“There was a big spirit of entrepreneurship and many of the people were into trading,” he said. “They would follow the railroads and sell goods out of carts.” After they became settled, many of the former cart-traders in the Pee Dee opened dry goods stores or other forms of retail.

One group of Lebanese Catholics in the small town of Summerton were instrumental in founding St. Mary-Our Lady of Hope in 1914, he said.

The names of many of the families can still be seen on the church’s stained glass windows.

Jebaily’s family is Maronite Catholic by heritage, but he has been a member of St. Anthony in Florence for many years. He said his family still attends Maronite services in nearby Fayetteville, N.C., when they can, or travels to St. Rafka when possible.

“Lebanese Catholics tend to remember their religious heritage, whether it’s Maronite or Melkite, but many came to attend the Roman church because that was what was available,” Jebaily said. “For a time, there were Lebanese Catholics at just about every small crossroads in parts of this state.”