A One- Hundred-Year History of St. Joseph Maronite Catholic Church, 1911-2011
A Dream Becomes a Reality
by Marie T. DiPaola
One hundred years ago, in 1911, in the city of Atlanta, a dream became a reality for a group of Maronite lay people. Finally, these dedicated and determined individuals had succeeded in establishing a rudimentary church of their own. Now they would be able to continue to practice their ancient Maronite rite. It was definitely a momentous occasion, for all concerned. But, how did this all come about?
One has to look back to the late 1890’s, when Maronites first settled in Atlanta. They had been attending the Church of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Atlanta and were most grateful to be able to continue to practice their Catholic faith.. However, a strong desire to have a Maronite priest of their own, still persisted deep in their hearts. One of the Maronite laymen, Thomas Najjar, whose descendants can still be found as parishioners at St. Joseph Church, wrote a letter to the then Bishop of Savannah-Atlanta, Rt. Reverend, Benjamin J. Keiley, initiating such a request. It was also providential that, when Bishop Keiley was a young man finishing his theological studies in Rome, Italy, he and a young Syrian were college-mates. The young man, later, Father Paul Azar, was selected by Bishop Keiley to become the first Maronite priest to serve the community in Atlanta. With no money to purchase a church, they converted a room over a store on Butler Street near Decatur into a temporary chapel. This, historically, was our first “home”. Father Azar served as pastor for five years, from 1911 to 1916, when he was called by his superiors, to return to his native Lebanon.
Fortunately for the group, a successor to Father Azar, Rev. NaimtallahAttalah was soon installed to minister to their spiritual needs. This time, however, they were able to purchase a home at 291 Hunter Street which they converted into a combination church and rectory. For almost nine years, Father Naimtallah not only took care of his Atlanta flock, but traveled to different towns to administer the sacraments and celebrate the Maronite Liturgy in people’s homes. It was a difficult situation especially from the point of view of travel, but it was most gratifying to priest and lay people alike.
In the late twenties, Georgia was still “Mission Country”. Latin Rite churches were few and far between. It was a miracle that a Maronite church would even exist. Itinerant priests were the order of the day. When the Maronites found themselves without a priest, they would meet in each other’s homes, pray the Rosary, say the Stations of the Cross or recite the Litanies. The first quarter of the 20th century saw the fledgling Maronite community struggling to hold its own, but hold its own it did. In 1925, with the help of the new Georgia Bishop, Michael J. Keyes, who had replaced Bishop Keileythree years earlier, a third Maronite priest was secured in the person ofRev. Joseph Kadaaof Aleppo. He served as pastor for three years until his death in 1928.
A succession of priests followed. Space does not allow for an account of their accomplishments. We do know that diocesan priests served the community from 1929 to 1931 when Rev. Paul Rizk became pastor and served until 1948. Diocesan priests again served the community until 1949 when Rev. Joseph Rizk became pastor and served for two years. Unfortunately, the Maronite community found itself without the services of a Maronite priest for a period of seven years from 1951-1958. This is when the Marist Fathers of the Church of the Sacred Heart in Atlanta came to their rescue. The Most Rev. Gerald P. O’Hara served as Bishop at the time.
Undaunted, and without a Maronite priest to serve them, the Maronite laity sought to purchase the present church and property at 502 Seminole Avenue in 1955. A description of the transaction can be found inA History of The Church of the Epiphany (the previous owners) by Thomas G. Mundy, Jr. which was published in 1988. The price was $43,000.00 . The entire proceeds were to be paid in six months. Many at the Church of the Epiphany thought they should have held out for $75,000.00, but this original asking price was to include the rectory next door also. However, St. Joseph was interested in buying just the building. The price included the pews, nothing more. The two signatories representing St. Joseph on the contract dated August 24, 1955, were two laymen, Maurice Najjar and Khalil Najjar. Relatives and a few parishioners today fondly remember these two gentlemen whom they affectionately addressed as “Uncle Maurice” and “Uncle Khalil”.
In 1958, three years after the purchase of the present property, a Maronite priest, Rev. Joseph Abi-Nader, was installed as pastor of St. Joseph Maronite Catholic Church by Bishop Francis E. Hyland. It was a first for both clergymen. Father Abi-Nader was the first priest to serve St. Joseph in the present building and Bishop Hyland was the first Bishop of Atlanta when the diocese of Savannah-Atlanta was divided into two separate entities in 1956.
Renovations of the present building began in earnest. Stained glass windows, Stations of the Cross, a new Altar, lighting and a parish hall were added. Most of the work was done while Father Abi-Nader was pastor. He served sevenyears before being transferred to Detroit, which was where the Maronite Eparchy was located at the time, under Bishop Francis Zayek. It is interesting to note, that St. Joseph Church has never been without a pastor since Father Abi-Nader began to serve as pastor in 1958.
Some of our present parishioners can recall a major event that occurred during Father Abi-Nader‘s tenure as pastor. St. Joseph Church was to celebrate its 50th year or Golden Jubilee. The year was 1962, one year later than the actual anniversary, but that was just a minor technicality in the overall scheme of things. The emphasis was not to be on a date, but on the accomplishments that all the parishioners themselves had achieved along with their loyal and faithful priests. This was also a time that called for celebration and a time to look forward to what could be done in the future. Many had worked long and hard hours to make the Jubilee a success. And a huge success it was! One of the more memorable moments, of course, was the visit from the Most Reverend Paul Peter Meouchi, the Maronite Patriarch of Antioch and All the East. What an inspiration it was to have him as our honored guest in our modest little church in Atlanta, Georgia!
Two years after the Golden Jubilee, in June of 1964, Father Joseph Abi-Nader invited Bishop Francis Zayek to visit St. Joseph Church. At the time, Bishop Zayek was the spiritual leader of some 250,000 Maronite Catholics in Brazil. He had just presided at the National Apostolate ofMaronites Convention in Washington, D.C. where he had also ordained Robert Shaheen the first Maronite priest to be wholly educated at Catholic University who currently resides as Bishop of the Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon. Bishop Zayek was to become the first bishop of the Maronite rite in the United States in 1966. He was later elevated to Archbishop by Pope John Paul II. He again visited St. Joseph Church when Monsignor Joseph Bistany was pastor. Our little parish of 70 families was greatly honored by his visits.
The first fifty years of St. Joseph’s existence were not without problems, especially concerning the small number of families which constituted its congregation. Times were difficult, especially from a financial point of view. But, somehow we managed. What we lacked in money and material things, we made up for in the strength of our moral and spiritual values.
In the middle sixties we were embarking on the second half of our “journey” at St. Joseph. On September 16, 1965, we were blessed with the arrival of one of our most beloved priests, Monsignor Joseph Bistany. He touched us all with his compassion and concern. His homilies were straight from the heart. He impressed us with his deep love for Maronite traditions and taught us more by his actions than by his words. He spent nearly a quarter of a century guiding us with his simple ways, the longest time spent as a pastor of St. Joseph. He died in his native Lebanon on August 5, 2000.
One of the most remarkable events of the 20th century occurred while Monsignor Bistany was pastor at St. Joseph Church.. Blessed SharbelMakhlouf was to be canonized a saint in 1977. Monsignor left no stone unturned in planning for the celebration. The beautiful stained glass panel depicting the humble Lebanese hermit was commissioned by the Azarfamily in memory of Annie Simon Azar. A dedication ceremony was held and the families involved in the purchase of the stained glass panel, marched in procession into the church from the vestibule where it had been placed. The organist at the time, Barbara Merritt, had composed two beautiful hymns. The stone statue of St. Sharbel was clothed in a white garment trimmed with gold which a female soldier, Diane Law, stationed at Fort Mac had designed and sewn specifically for the occasion. As mementos, parishioners were given pressed flowers that made up the original fresh bouquets. All in all. It was truly a memorable occasion befitting the canonization of the first Lebanese saint of the 20th century.
Four years later, in 1981, a special honor was bestowed upon one of our female parishioners, Rosa Kaliphy Salome. She was awarded the title of “Lady of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher, by the then Grand Master, Cardinal Maximilian de Furstenberg.Ladies were first accepted into the Order in 1888, earning the award by “having served the Church with particular merit.”Rosa was also awarded a medal to accompany the certificate of membership. Those of us who have had the good fortune of knowing her, remember what a dynamic woman she was. Upon her death, a former deacon at St. Joseph, and now Chorbishop Michael G. Thomas, extolled her many virtues in a letter he wrote from Rome, Italy on October 20, 1994. In it he said:“Rosa was a formidable woman! Some women today look for power and strength by impressing on society that these are the nineties. Let them rather look to the past and see how someone like Rosa raised her family, worked hard both in and out of the home, and was a pillar of the Church. It is clear that she always kept her eye on her family constantly praying for them. She kept her other eye on the Church doing whatever possible to ensure and maintain a Maronite Catholic presence in Atlanta. If that meant working day and night, if it meant giving the Ladies’ or the Men’s clubs some strong direction or giving the priest a bit of wise advice, she remained strong and steady and everyone knew that she did all of this out of love. Love for her children and grandchildren, her family and friends, her heritage and her Church. Rosa was naturally talented, naturally intelligent, and naturally a woman of faith. In fact, some of the qualities attributed to the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, in the Litany of Loretto, I believe can also be attributed to Rosa: Comfort of the Afflicted; Help of Christians; Tower of Ivory; Cedar of Lebanon.”
Almost twenty years from the time since Msgr. Joseph Bistany had become pastor, another remarkable event occurred. This time it involved another of our parishioners, Samuel A. Najjar, who as a young boy had served as an altar boy not only at our former church on Hunter Street, but also at our present church on Seminole Avenue. This young man was to become the first to be ordained a Maronite priest in the state of Georgia. He had graduated from St. Pius High School, had served in the army in Vietnam, had pursued the study of law at John Marshall University Law School and, at age 38, had entered the Maronite Seminary of Our Lady of Lebanon. After completing three years of study at Catholic University of America in the Pontifical Program, he could now look forward to his ordination to the priesthood. On September 15, 1984, Samuel A. Najjar was ordained a priest by Bishop Francis M. Zayek at the Church of the Sacred Heart on Peachtree Street in the heart of downtown Atlanta. This church was chosen because it could accommodate more people. Eight years earlier, in 1976, it had been placed on the National Registry of Historic Places by the United States Department of the Interior and in 2010 was elevated to the dignity of Basilica by His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI.. This majestic and awe-inspiring basilica was the setting for our dear parishioner’s ordination to the priesthood.
Father Samuel Najjar’s first Mass was celebrated at St. Joseph Church where many relatives, friends and parishioners were blessed to receive the Body and Blood of Christ from his newly consecrated priestly hands. After the Mass, St Joseph held a special luncheon in his honor.At present, Father Sam is pastor of St. Michael the Archangel Maronite Catholic Church in Fayetteville, NC. He recently celebrated his Silver Jubilee, 25 years of service in the priesthood. From time to time, we are graced with visits from him and especially enjoy the personal touches he adds to his edifying homilies.
The history of St. Joseph Church is finely woven with the simple, everyday acts of service and love demonstrated by so many of its parishioners. However, if one were to attempt to single out a truly humble, generous and faithful servant, one to whom the very existence of St. Joseph meant everything, one would have to consider Mr. Michael Mansour. He had devoted more than forty years of his life in service to our church. It was most fitting then, that the title “Sir Knight Commander “ of the order of St. Gregory, should be bestowed upon him. This honor, in olden times, was given mainly to those who fought and died for the Faith, but, in modern times it is given to one who performs difficult or heroic work on behalf of the church. Msgr. Joseph Bistany had submitted Michael Mansour’s name for this recognition, first to Archbishop Francis Zayek who approved the nomination, then to the American Bishops’ Association and subsequently, to Rome for approval from the Vatican.A special Mass presided over by Archbishop Zayek and Msgr. Bistany, was celebrated circa 1986. Monsignor told the congregation that there were many times when he felt that St. Joseph was in danger of being shut down, but Michael always came to the rescue.Archbishop Zayek remarked that Michael Mansour was only the 7th American Catholic to receivethis honor. One year later, in 1987, Michael died at the age of 74. His final words were “Mar Yousif” (St. Joseph). He was buried in his Sir Knight Commander uniform.
Returning to the sequence of major events in the history of St. Joseph, in July of 1987, we welcomed to Atlanta over eight hundred Maronites from all over the United States, by hosting the annual convention of the National Apostolate of Maronites (NAM). This was a wonderful four-day event that allowed us to showcase what is meant by “southern hospitality.”
We now focus our attention on the last twenty-five years since Monsignor Joseph Bistany’sretirement in 1988. . Fourpriests have served this parish since then. They are, in chronological order, Rev. Elias Abi- Sarkis, Rev. Georges El-Kahlli, Rev. Peter E. Boulos and, presently, Rev. Dominique Hanna.
Rev. Georges El-Kahlli earned the love and respect of his parishioners. At his farewell in 1996, parishioners remarked, “You will always be in our hearts and prayers and we know you feel the same way towards us and our beloved church. May this warmth of our love melt the Buffalo ice before each of your footsteps.”
Thirteen of these last twenty-five years St. Joseph had the extremely good fortune of being led by a young priest with tremendous organizational and technological skills. He arrived in 1996 and soon found himself leading not the tiny parish that comprised the old St. Joseph Church, but a rapidly growing group of people especially younger families with children. These are they who represent the future of St. Joseph Church and the opportunities for even greater growth. This young priest was to face many challenges. He is none other than Rev. Peter E. Boulos who quickly immersed himself in the work that lay ahead. Under his leadership, St. Joseph has grown at a much faster pace than at first was thought possible. [Father Peter died in Tampa, Florida, at his new parish, in 2013.]
During Father Peter’s pastorate, we were blessed to witness the ordination in 1999 of Leo Shababywho was elevated to the order of subdeacon by Bishop Stephen Hector Doueihi, then Bishop of the Eparchy of St. Maron of Brooklyn. During the ceremony, the bishop vested Leo with the alb and stole and handed him the book of the Acts of the Apostles. Leo was then led in procession inside the church. He extinguished and relit the lamps of the church. As he reached the back of the church, he opened and closed the door. He also rang a bell. The bishop handed Leo a lighted candle. At this point, Leo, as the new subdeacon, announced while raising the candle, “I am the blessed olive in the house of God for the peace and up building of the holy church.” Bishop Doueihi then communicated Leo with the mysteries. The hymn “Bread of Life” was sung. It was an unforgettable day for Leo, his family and his many parishioner friends.
Every twenty-five years, a Jubilee Year is declared throughout the entire Catholic world by the Pope. The year 2000, the Year of the Holy Door, was no exception. Catholics from all over the world would descend upon Rome for the occasion. Maronites from Lebanon and other countries, including the United States, would go in pilgrimage during this holy year. Our Patriarch, Peter Cardinal Sfeirarranged to have February 9, 2000, in honor of the feast of St. Maron, declared an official event on the Jubilee calendar. As a result, many Maronites were able to participate in the beautiful Maronite Liturgy celebrated in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Our Patriarch had also arranged for us to meet with His Holiness, Pope John Paul II in a private salon in the Vatican.
A moving account of this journey, entitled Miracle at the Vatican, was made by one of our dear, departed parishioners, George Aseff, as told to Robert Hartle, Sr. Despite tremendous odds in dealing with serious health issues, George Aseff, a pilgrim in Rome, was determined to hold on fast in hopes of fulfilling the purpose for his trip. He was anxiously looking forward to the audience with Pope John Paul II and our Patriarch, Nasrallah Peter Cardinal Sfeir. George prayed fervently and incessantly that this would happen. By the grace of God, it did. George felt an immediate change in his health upon receiving a blessing from the saintly Pope. All the pain and suffering he had undergone disappeared, and, that night, he slept peacefully and soundly for the first time since his arrival in Rome.Upon his return to Atlanta, two cardiologists agreed that “It was a miracle that you are alive and were able to get back to Atlanta.” They both confirmed that George had suffered a massive heart attack while in Rome.George felt that his story needed to be told, “not out of pride, but to tell the story of the miracle of God’s great love and the loving power of His Holiness, John Paul II.”
In our 100 year existence, we have had the distinct honor and pleasure of being visited by Paul Peter Meouchi, Patriarch of Antioch and All the East and by three different bishops; Archbishop Francis M. Zayek, Bishop Stephen Hector Doueihi and our present Bishop, Gregory J. Mansour. We have already alluded to Archbishop Zayek’s and BishopDoueihi’s visits to St. Joseph. Now, we recall the wonderful visit paid by Bishop Gregory who had quickly endeared himself to us all in meeting with the members of various organizations and also reaching out to the children in our parish. Who can forget this humble bishop who preferred to address us wearing the simple monk’s hood rather than the more formal and official bishop‘s mitre?
We, at St. Joseph, have also been favored with a visit by our Chorbishop Michael Thomas, who served as a deacon for us the summer before his ordination and by Sister Marla Marie Lucas, superior and founder along with Bishop Gregory of the first order of Maronite nuns in the United States, Maronite Servants of Christ the Light. Speaking of nuns, we were privileged to have as our parishioners, Sister Rose Salome and Lucy Najjar known by her religious name, Mary Carmel. Both became Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. The former joined the congregation in 1941, and the latter, Father Sam Najjar’s aunt, in 1954. At present, and for a number of years, we have also been truly blessed to have the faithful services of our deacon, Robert Calabrese, who came to us from our sister parish in Danbury, CT, our subdeacon, Leo Shababy, our sub-deacon David Nasser, and our sub-deacon Michel Bassil.
Today, as we look around, we can see the many transformations that have taken place since our humble beginnings. We now have a beautiful, remodeled church, a more up-to-the -minute office and conference room, a lovely outdoor shrine to Mary, improved landscaping and resurfaced parking areas. These are the tangibles. However, one cannot adequately measure the intangibles. Suffice to say that spiritual growth is evident in many of our organizations and programs such as the Maronite Youth Organization (MYO), the Maronite Young Adults (MYA), Maronite Catholic Formation (MCF) classes, Altar Boy Training Program, Adult Bible Study, Ladies Altar and Rosary Society, The Order of St. Sharbel, The Good Samaritan Fund, the Lenten Charity Drive, the Annual Christmas Toy and Gift Drive for Children‘s Hospital at Egleston, Benediction of The Blessed Sacrament every first Friday of the month, Choir Membership, Lenten and Christmas Devotions and Novenas, Spiritual Retreats and Talks, National Apostolate of Maronites (NAM), newly initiated Men’s Club, Annual Festivals and Breakfasts and other activities that nourish the soul as well as the body. These are all ongoing projects and programs that strengthen the bonds among parishioners. St. Joseph is truly blessed to have men and women who work willingly and hard to improve conditions. We are especiallyindebted to those who serve on our Pastoral and Stewardship Councils and to members of our Building Committee. Last, but not least, we thank our lay lectors and our ushers for their invaluable service.
We now have reached a milestone in our history, one hundred fruitful years. As we look back to the very beginning, we recall and give thanks to those men and women whom we did not have the pleasure of knowing, but whom we honor today for their having had theforesight and determination to establish the first and only Maronite church not just in Atlanta, but in all of Georgia as well.. They never gave up despite all manner of difficulties. They serve as true models not only for us today, but for future generations of Maronites as well.
Just two years ago, in 2009, we met our present Administrator, Rev. Dominique Hanna a young and energetic priest. He has already established a wonderful rapport with us, his parishioners. We are truly blessed to be led by one more of God’s holy priests.
The history of St. Joseph Church does not end here. It is a continuum. What does the future hold for our beloved church as we journey on towards the second centennial? The answers lie principally in the efforts of our people. We entrust this journey with all its possibilities, events, ramifications and especially its people, young, old,and yet-to-be, to our patron, Saint Joseph, foster father of Jesus. One of the glorious titles he bears is that of “The Just Man.” Biblically, “the just man shall flourish like the palm tree, like the cedar of Lebanon shall he grow.” Under St. Joseph’s watchful care, we can work and pray that our church, named in his honor, will also flourish like the palm tree and like the cedar of Lebanon shall it grow.