Faith from the Mountains

"Yesterday is but today’s memory, tomorrow is todays dream ...

And let today embrace the past with remembrance and the future with longing. "

Kahlil Gibran

Just a few weeks ago Times Square was the site of another New Year being ushered in  with all of its confetti, noise and people; all eager to watch the glittery ball drop. We measure time in minutes, days and years and generally do not think about it until the calendar reminds us of a special mark in time that deserves our attention and commemoration.

So it is that we gather now to recognize our parish of St. Raymond (Mar Romanus) as it marks one hundred years as a place of prayer and faith. The Church is the people. There are so many faces of men and women over the years that seemed to be permanent fixtures in the parish. Some prayed their rosaries quietly in the rear of church; some were ushers, kitchen volunteers and some smoked bad cigars. Most of them always greeted visitors with "Welcome to St. Raymond." If we tried to name each one, invariably, we would be remiss and leave a name out. Instead, we will close our eyes and open our hearts to thank God for each and everyone of them because they are and always will be a part of each of us. In this gathering, bring your own personal memories to the table and allow us to share the following with you;

The earliest record of Lebanese/Syrian immigrants settling in St. Louis dates back to the late 19th century. Many of these early immigrants were from villages such as Batroun and Marjeyourn. Most of them settled along the Mississippi riverfront in tenement homes where six or seven from one family shared a two-room apartment.

The early immigrants had nothing more than what they carried on their backs but one precious treasure they brought with them was their faith – that faith from the mountains. Their first priority was to establish a church. In 1898 St. Anthony the Hermit parish was established near the riverfront and an Antonine monk, Rev. George Emmanuel became its first priest until 1901.

Between 1900 and 1918 more immigrants arrived in St. Louis from a small northern village in the mountains of Lebanon known as Hadchit. As the number of immigrants from Hadchit grew they moved farther from the riverfront to a neighborhood that would eventually become known as "Little Syria" or the "Syrian Ghetto. "

The immigrants from Hadchit had a great devotion to the Blessed Mother and to a martyred deacon from Antioch named St. Raymond. In 1911 the community from Hadchit charged four men with the task of finding a property that would be fit for a church. Just as their St. Raymond parish in Hadchit, the church they built would carry the same name.

In a short span of time Thomas G. Azar, Sorkis Webbe, Peter Azar and Michael Reask purchased a building from the Estate of J.G. Chouteau located at 923-25 LaSalle Street. It was this building that was converted into St. Raymond parish in St. Louis. It was this building that would be their place of worship for the next sixty-four years.

In 1912, Rev. Joseph Karam (affectionately called ABANA) arrived in St. Louis from Hadchit to become the first official pastor of St. Raymond. Abana lived a life of poverty and served as the pastor until his death in 1944. There was no money for a headstone for his burial in Resurrection Cemetery until the Karam family generously provided the funds.

During Abana's time at St. Raymond there was a one-room school established for the purpose of teaching Arabic to the first generation born in the United States. The men from the community also came together and built a beautiful grotto adjacent to the church in honor of the Blessed Mother. The stones were all laid by hand and the grotto included a fountain. It was a frequent place of quiet and prayer.

The community of immigrants continued to thrive, establish families and settle into the United States. The majority of them were uneducated, spoke not a word of English and little material belongings. However, none of that stopped them from obtaining jobs with the City Streets Department, working on Washington Avenue in the factories and haberdasheries or beginning their own businesses. Many of them became very successful peddlers with set routes in the City and in Illinois selling household wares.

St. Anthony the Hermit parish moved three times between 1898 and 1942 when it was torn down to make way for a housing project. At that time, it was located on St. Ange Street. The patrons of St. Anthony's refused to rebuild and refused the invitation from St. Raymond to join their community so many moved out of the area and attended Latin Rite parishes.

The parishioners at St. Raymond considered their patron to be their "doctor." It was traditional that when someone in the family was very ill, a member of the family would humble themselves by going door to door collecting money for the church and asking everyone to pray for their family member. Over the years it would be easier to count the stars in the sky than to count the number of blessed cotton that has stayed on the nightstands of those who are ill or accompanied patients during medical tests.

Some could mock such traditions as superstition - before doing that, remember that these were signs of faith from a humble and hardworking people. These were the people and the faith that built St. Raymond parish.

In the early years, it was the women of the community who became the keepers of the keys and the caretakers of the church. They baked bread and other Lebanese foods that not only provided them with funds to maintain the church and keep the doors open but also put St. Raymond on the map in the St. Louis community. They cooked delicious food while standing on a dirt floor in the basement of the church until they finally had a central kitchen in the parish hall built on 10th street in 1951.

The 1950's saw the second generation born in the United States corning into their adulthood and assimilating into the American culture more than their parents did. Many moved from the neighborhood and married outside of their culture - some found difficulties in that.

By the 1960's just a few Lebanese families remained in the old neighborhood as time took its toll on many of the neighborhood properties. On LaSalle Street there were the Michaels, Mahfood, Rask, Ablan and Azar families. Each month St. Vincent hall was the location for neighborhood meetings where residents discussed the rumors of Ralston Purina expanding south of Chouteau and purchasing some of the LaSalle properties.

With the shift in the neighborhood makeup the attendance at St. Raymond changed as well. While the Archdiocese provided diocesan priests to say Mass at the parish; it was not the same as having their own pastor.

A small but devoted group of parishioners of St. Raymond gathered together to decide how they might secure their own priest for the church. There would not be a Maronite Exarchate in the United States until 1966 when Bishop Francis M. Zayek was enthroned as Bishop to the United States.

Bishop Zayek heard the plea of the parishioners and after several visits to St. Louis, on January 3, 1967 Rev. Robert J. Shaheen came to St. Louis as a temporary administrator. By November of that year Bishop Zayek authorized Rev. Shaheen to be the Pastor of St. Raymond on a more permanent basis.

At some point in time St. Raymond will have two timeframes - the years before "Shaheen" and the years of "Shaheen." Forty-five years after the arrival of the newly ordained Maronite priest who is now a Bishop; he still regards St. Louis and St. Raymond as his "home."

Now he drinks coffee and shares meals with the grandchildren and great nieces or nephews of those who welcomed him in 1967. He remembers the old neighborhood and those hard-working women who built the church and on to those keys as long as they could.

He speaks with pride of the many supporters and benefactors of the parish who made his ideas and dreams a reality. He remembers because he loves St. Raymond and all of those who have passed through its doors.

He pauses .... he thinks .... and as he looks out among the pews where we sit today, he prays that the parish will continue to grow as the baton passes to yet another generation.

He knows this generation has many distractions and as they seek love and attention in cyberspace with a few clicks of a mouse - they could drift farther from their roots and traditions. He wonders will that matter to them.

He prays that each of us will continue to appreciate the treasure we have been entrusted with by those who came before us. He knows that only God will determine the future of St. Raymond long after the buildings erode, the grasses wither and the languages fade. He realizes that we are the "caretakers" of the past and serve as a bridge between the past and the present for the sake of the future.

Consider that the only vision of the past your children will have is the view through your eyes and the only endearment your children will have of their heritage is how you tell the story.

Those poor, uneducated and unsophisticated early immigrants placed God first. Ask yourself where God is on your list of priorities and where He is on your children's.

The rest, as they say; will be history.

(From St. Raymond centennial celebration book)

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