The History of the Maronites
The Maronite Patriarchal Synod held between 2003 and 2006 in Lebanon defines the Maronite Church as an Antiochene Syriac Church with a special liturgical heritage, in full union with the Holy See and the pope, and embodied in her Lebanese and Eastern environment, and the Countries of Expansion.
The origins of the Maronite Church date back to the 4th and 5th centuries to a monk by the name of Maron who lived on the mountains of Cyrrhus in northern Syria and was followed by several men and women who adopted his lifestyle of living in the open air (Daou, 1984).
Early Maronites settled heavily in Syria, especially in the valley of the Orontes and Apamea where they built their monastery and called it “The House of Maron,” as well as in Antioch and Edessa in modern day Turkey. Missionary activities led many Maronites monks to arrive in Lebanon. These monks settled in Lebanon and evangelized the region turning pagan temples into churches (Tayah, 1987).
The Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD that defined the dual nature of Christ as both human and divine led to a split in the church between the Chalcedonians—Western Church, Byzantine, Melkites, and Maronites—who accepted the teachings of the council and the Non-Chalcedonians known as Monophysites. This split resulted in persecutions; 350 monks were killed and the monastery on the Orontes River was burnt.
Many Maronites fled to Lebanon escaping the persecutions. The conflict between the Arabs and the Byzantine as well as the Islamic conquest of the area led many Maronites to immigrate to Lebanon as well. The major resettlement of Maronites took place in the Lebanese mountains and valleys where they took refuge and practiced their religion freely (Harb, 2001).
After the Crusades the Maronites found their way towards the islands of the Mediterranean and toward the end of the 13th century they founded their largest settlement in the Northeastern part of the island of Cyprus (Tayah, 1987). In the middle of the 16th century, Pope Gregory XIII sent a delegation to Lebanon to choose young men to study the catholic doctrine in Rome. In 1584 the Maronite School of Rome was founded. Many Maronite clergy travelled from Lebanon to study in Rome (Harb, 2001; Tabar, 2010). Maronites immigrated also to the surrounding Arab and Middle Eastern countries, especially Syria and Palestine. Maronites who immigrated to Egypt played a significant role in the social and political life of the Egyptian society. Many Maronite priests and monks immigrated to Egypt in the beginning of the 18th century to serve the Maronite community there (Maronite Patriarchal Synod, 2008).
Maronites were part of the immigration waves of the Lebanese immigration that started at the end of the 19th century. Their destination was South and North America, Australia, and South Africa. They settled in major cities where they established their own businesses and social clubs before the church could send clergy to serve them. Toward the middle of the 20th century, Maronites immigrated to Europe seeking work and educational opportunities (Maronite Patriarchal Synod, 2008).
The majority of Maronite immigrants to the United States came in waves from Lebanon. Their situation in the United States was different from those in other parts of the world where they immigrated. As soon as they settled they sent letters asking for priests to serve them (Labaki, 1993). The church sent many clerics and missionaries in the beginnings of the 20th century to establish churches and parishes and serve the needs of the faithful supporting them and safeguarding their ethnic, religious, and cultural identities. Maronite churches were under the jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic bishops (Maronite Patriarchal Synod, 2008). Fr. Peter Korkomaz established the first Maronite mission in 1890 and in 1924 the number of Maronite churches reached 37 (Labaki, 1993).
Maronites started their own churches wherever they landed in the United States, a sign of their attachment to their ethnic and religious identities. However, this was not an easy task. Churches were established usually when the number of immigrants reached 50 families or more. Most communities were served by priests who were relatives to someone in the community or from their hometown. Community leaders as well as ethnic clubs and organizations played an important role in establishing these churches by hosting dinners, bake sales, raffles, and many other activities. Once the funds were available, a house was purchased and remodeled as a church. In many cases, the building would serve as a church, rectory, and a guest house. After a while, Maronites built their own new churches and named them after the patron saint of their home village or that of a major donor (Labaki, 1993).
In 1961 the dedication of the Maronite seminary in Washington, DC, from which several American born Maronite priests graduated was a step forward in the progress of the Maronite Church in the United States. Students who joined the seminary were offered special courses in Maronite history, spirituality, and traditions, as well as classes in Syriac and Arabic languages (Tayah, 1987; Labaki, 1993). In 1963 a group of dedicated Maronites gathered in Washington, DC, and founded the National Apostolate of Maronites, known as NAM, an organization whose goal is to unite the Maronites in the United States and keep their heritage, tradition, and culture alive (Saade, 2012). In 1965 Maronites from around the nation participated in the dedication of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon in North Jackson, OH, modeled after the original shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon in Harissa, Lebanon. It was a place of pilgrimage where they could visit and pray.
By the 1960s most Maronites were on their way to assimilation in the American Church. The need for a single authority and spiritual direction was urgent. In 1966 the first Maronite exarchate (apostolic vicariate) in the United States was established by Pope Paul VI and it became an eparchy (diocese) in 1971 under the name of the Eparchy of Saint Maron. The first Bishop to be appointed was Bishop Francis M. Zayek who established his see in Detroit, MI, and then moved to Brooklyn, NY, in 1977 (Labaki, 1993). In 1994 Pope John-Paul II established a second eparchy for the Maronite in the United States, that of Our Lady of Lebanon. Bishop John Chedid was the first bishop and he established his see in Los Angeles, CA, (Saade, 2012). The Maronite Church is an independent Eastern Catholic church that is in communion with the Roman Church. According the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, the establishment of an eparchy and the appointment of eparchial bishops outside of the patriarchal territory is a right reserved to the pope. A patriarchal territory is defined by the area where the patriarch, head of the patriarchal church, has jurisdiction, in the case of the Maronite Church, the patriarchal territory is Lebanon and the Middle East (Faris, 1992).