With great pleasure and interest we look back to our origins to write some timeline that will guide us to commemorate those who preceded us and who had set foot unto this blessed land. The sources of this article are: the historical notes of the New York Melkite Community that were written by Most Reverend Nicholas Samra and Exarch Elias Skaff, the archives of the Archdiocese of New York and of the Diocese of Brooklyn, and the archive of Deir El-Mukhallas, St. Savior, Lebanon.
The history of our community is both sad and glorious at the same time: sad, because of the war-ridden history of our Middle East that forced some of our parents and grandparents to leave their country and to find refuge from persecution in the United States and other countries. Glorious because of their determination and hard work in establishing a successful social and spiritual community that guaranteed the continuance of their Melkite heritage and faith.
The more than 100 years of our existence as a Melkite Greek-Catholic community in the City of New York embraces the history of our first church, St. George in Manhattan, and the present community of the Church of the Virgin Mary in Brooklyn.
The first Melkite priest, Father Ibrahim Beshawate, from the Basilian Salvatorian Order in Saida, Lebanon, arrived to New York at the end of 1889 and "celebrated his first Liturgy on Christmas Day in the basement of St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church, on Barcley Street, NYC. The first Melkite Community was called St. Peter's Syrian Roman Catholic Church. Before purchasing a building in 1914, which was converted in 1916 to become St. George Church, Fr. Beshawate served his community at St. Peter's Church from 1889 to 1916.
Fr. Beshawate was the first permanent priest in the United States from the Middle East among the Melkite, Maronite, and Orthodox Churches. According to the Arab historian, Philip Hitte, "The honor of having sent the first Syrian missionary to the United States belongs to the Greek Catholic (Melkite) Church." Before the arrival of Fr. Beshawate, the Melkite community in New York had requested him from the Archbishop of New York with these expressions: "We the Syrians pray and beseech you to permit us a Syrian priest as a shepherd, a preacher to preach the gospel for us and to lead us into the truth. We are about 2,000 persons living without a priest and very few of us understand English [ ... ] Now we are very eager to have a Syrian priest who is able to understand our language, so that we may confess ours sins, and have prayer, meetings, baptism, etc. We know a Syrian priest who is pious and who can understand our language, whose name is Rev. Ibrahim Beshawate in Rome now and very fit for us all […] do please and permit him to come here for God's sake [...] " Fr. Beshawate was sent by His Beatitude, Gregory II Youssef (Sayour), who said, "Father Ibrahim Beshawate is going to the United States to serve our children who left the Middle East for a better life. They are deprived of their spiritual services. This Father will remind them of their religious obligations and keep them attached to their Melkite Rite. We appoint him as a Melkite priest."
In an effort to serve parishioners who had moved to the borough of Brooklyn, Father Beshawate, in 1908, bought a parcel of land in Brooklyn for $25,000 with a down payment of $5,876 in order to build a church. In addition, he had requested a new priest to serve those parishioners who had moved to Brooklyn. As a result, Fr. Paul Sanky arrived in 19 10 to serve and lead the Melkite community of Brooklyn.
On February 10, 1913, Fr. Beshawate was granted the honorary title and dignity of Grand Economos by Archbishop Athanasius Sawaya of Beirut, In 1916, Fr. Beshawate, with the help of his Melkite community in Manhattan and the generosity of the Bardwill family, purchased a property on Washington Street in Lower Manhattan which became their place of worship under the new patron, St. George Syrian Melkite Catholic Church.
Father Beshawate served as Patriarchal Vicar in the United States and was instrumental in bringing other clergy from the Middle East to serve various communities in America. He traveled to various part of the country outside New York to serve the needs of other Melkites and was instrumental in the formation of other parishes. Faculties were granted to him from many Roman Catholic Bishops: Chicago, IL-1892; Brooklyn, NY-1892; Philadelphia, PA-1893; Boston, MA-1893; Washington, DC-1894; Newark, NJ-1896.
When Fr. Beshawate became ill, he requested on several occasions for assistance in his work. In the early 1920's, it happened that a Father Theophile Khalaf, who had spent a year in New York, assisted him. Knowing his health condition, the Superior General Basil Chahade of the Basilian Salvatorian Order mandated Father Beshawate to leave New York and to go back to Lebanon, but Father Beshawate explained that he is sick and does not have the stamina to travel by sea, and asked his permission to instead stay with his brother in Clovis/Fresno, California. Subsequently, for health reasons, on February 9, 1923, he requested permission from the Archbishop of New York, Hayes to retire.
Father Beshawate died on October 10, 1923 of apoplexy at the age of 67. He was buried from St. John Cathedral in Fresno, California on Tuesday, October 16, 1923, and laid to rest at the Holy Cross Cemetery, Clovis/Fresno, CA. The executors of the last will and testament of Father Beshawate were John Oussani and Edward (Wadie) Ash.
Father Bernard Ghosn was born in Damascus, Syria on July 14, 1878, and was ordained a priest on June 29, 1900, He was a priest of the Basilian Chouerite Order from the monastery of St. John the Baptist in Khonshara (Choueir), Lebanon. He had a Doctorate in Theology and Canon Law and a Bachelor in Philosophy. He was appointed the pastor of St. George Syrian Roman Catholic Church on December 19, 1924.
Father Ghosn's appointed destination was not New York. He was initially appointed by His Beatitude, Dimitrios Cadi, to Birmingham Alabama. During the last year of Fr. Beshawate's illness, Fr. Theophile Khalaf came to NY and spent one year there. After the death of Fr. Beshawate, Fr. Khalaf was ordered by his superior to return back to Lebanon. A Fr. Kandalaft, from the Basilian Salvatorian Order, was appointed as the successor of Fr. Beshawate, and he arrived to NY on April 9, 1924. He was not well received by the New York community because of their endearment to Fr. Khalaf. When Fr. Ghosn arrived to NY on November 2, 1924, the Archbishop of New York, Patrick Cardinal Hayes, took the opportunity to resolve the community's discontentions by appointing Fr. Ghosn as Pastor of St. George, instead of the church in Birmingham, Al. By doing this the Archbishop hoped to obtain the church property of St. George from the leading parishioners in the congregation. According to the Archbishop, Fr. Kandalaft was simply a victim of circumstances over which he had no control, and Fr. Ghosn never asked to be appointed to NY. The Patriarch and the sacred congregation approved the decision of the Archbishop of NY to appoint Fr. Ghosn, who received the necessary permission from the Sacred Congregation of the Oriental Churches on the First of May 1925, # 149338-25.
On March 12, 1927, Fr. Ghosn reported to his superiors that he had 100 families in his parish, and that there were 48 baptisms, 8 marriages, and 4 deaths since his appointment to St. George.
Fr. Ghosn's services were highly appreciated by the parishioners and the Archdiocese of New York. For that reason, the Sacred Congregation of the Oriental Church conferred upon Rev. Ghosn the title of Archimandrite. He was a noted preacher and was invited by many Melkite parishes in the USA to give missions and retreats. In 1933, he was the president and organizer of a committee for the Golden Jubilee Celebration of Priesthood of Patriarch Cyril IX Moghabghab.
Msgr. Ghosn fell ill in the later part of 1955, and after 10 days of hospitalization he died on September 9, 1955 at the age of 77. Msgr. Ghosn's funeral Liturgy was celebrated at St. Patrick Cathedral by Exarch Elias Skaff with Archbishop Basil Khoury of Saida, Lebanon, presiding. At the time, Archbishop Khoury was accompanying Patriarch Maximos IV Sayegh on a pastoral visit to the different Melkite Communities in the USA Msgr. Ghosn was buried at the Calvary Cemetery in New York.
After the death of Msgr. Ghosn, the Archdiocese of New York decided to close St. George on the ground that, as there were no more Melkites living in the area, the church was mainly serving Latins; but because of the intervention of Msgr. Mc Mahon of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, his eminence Cardinal Spellman agreed to keep it open, and entrusted St. George to Fr. Allen Maloof in 1952. However, the Archbishop o f New York in 1957 released Fr. Maloof from his duties, and he was reassigned to the Church of the Virgin Mary, Brooklyn, NY. St. George was entrusted to a Latin priest.
Three years later the Archdiocese of New York closed the church. When Archbishop Tawil was installed as the Head of the Melkite Church in the United States, the Late Cardinal Cooke returned the church to the Melkite Diocese. A few years later, Archbishop Tawil sold St. George Church, which is now a restaurant that still exhibits the beautiful facade of the sculpture of St. George with the inscription St. George Syrian Church.
THE CHURCH OF THE VIRGIN MARY
Fr. Beshawate, after observing a wave of Melkite immigrants settling in Brooklyn, had intended to build a church there. The Bishop of Brooklyn, Charles McDonnell, his Vicar general Patrick J. McNamara and Fr. Ibrahim Beshawate, along with his trustees Najib S. Maloof and Nadre J. Geha, applied their intentions with the State of New York on December 11, 1908, to incorporate and build the Church of the Virgin Mary, Greek Melkite Rite.
In response to Fr. Beshawate's request, the Bishop of Brooklyn asked Cardinal Gotti, Prefect of the Propaganda, and the Melkite Patriarch to send a new Melkite priest to serve the new congregation in Brooklyn. Fr. Paul Sanky, who was born in Damascus, Syria, on June 9, 1877 and ordained in Jerusalem on July 20, 1905, was sent to Brooklyn to serve and lead the congregation there. Since the congregation did not have their own church, Fr. Sanky presided Liturgies in the lower Church of St. Paul on Court Street. He was assisted by Fr. Nicholas Araktingi. The congregation that gathered here was in essence the first parish of the Church of the Virgin Mary.
In 1922, two adjacent houses on the corner of Amity and Clinton Streets that were purchased under Fr. Beshawate's administration, were allocated to build a basement church. This church served as the new home for the parish of the Virgin Mary for the next 29 years. During this time, many of the parishioners moved to Park Slope and Bay Ridge, and as a result, the project of expanding the church by adding an upper level was abandoned.
At the death of Archimandrite Sanky in 1939, Rev. Nicholas Araktingi became administrator of the Parish. In 1947, at the request of Fr. Araktingi, the Rt. Rev. Archimandrite Elias Skaff, then Rector of the St. Julien le Pauvre Melkite Church in Paris, France, was appointed to the Brooklyn church.
In 1950, after much indecision by the trustees of the Parish to build a church in Bay Ridge, Fr. Araktingi, with the approval of Bishop Thomas Molloy, purchased the Park Slope Congregational Church Eighth Avenue and Second Street for $55,000.00. A drive for funds was immediately begun under Archimandrite Elias Skaff. With the help of the trustees of the Church, Elias Sayour and Benjamin Mazloom, and along with a committee headed by John Matouk, funds to remodel the Church were raised. On September 10, 1951. After 15 months of remodeling and decorating, the new Church of the Virgin Mary was regally dedicated on December 21, 1952 by Bishop Thomas Molloy.
After the Church dedication in 1952, Fr. Araktingi, though the pastor of the new church, preferred to stay in his rented apartment in Amity Street and continued to celebrate the Liturgy in the downtown Church. In 1960, Fr. Araktingi retired because of illness and decided to spend his remaining years of life in Lebanon, at Jesus the King's residence for priests. There he died on July 9, 1973.
When Fr. Araktingi retired, Archimandrite Skaff, who for more than ten years was still legally considered by the Latin Church authorities to be a visiting priest, was officially
appointed Pastor of the Virgin Mary Church, He was assisted by Fr. Allen Maloof, Fr. Maximos Mardelli, Fr. Paul Frechette, Fr. Basil Parent, and Fr. Romanos Russo.
Since its dedication, the Church of the Virgin Mary continues to be a radiant liturgical center from which our spiritual heritage grows and transpires unto each new generation of parishioners.
The Church grew by purchasing the Tracey House on 216 Eighth Avenue for a price of $44,000.00 which became the Rectory. On April 1972, the basement church on Amity and Clinton Streets was sold and in its place a new property was bought on 220 77th. Street, and 'in 1974 a vacant lot on Eighth Avenue and Fifth Street was purchased for 25,000 to serve as a parking lot. In 1990, another property on 232 77th Street was purchased. In order to create a warm and comfortable gathering hall that would serve the many religious and social functions of the Church, a major renovation and remodeling project was performed on the church's basement in 1984. The end result being the St. Elias Church Hall.
Exarch Elias Skaff retired on September 1, 1994. Bishop John Elya, with the agreement of the Superior General of the Basilian Salvatorian Order, appointed Fr. John Faraj to succeed Exarch Elias Skaff after 45 years of services. He arrived on May 17, 1994 to acquaint himself with the Parish. On September 1, 1994, he took the torch, as Pastor, to serve the Church of the Virgin Mary. This service is a great challenge for him. Since his arrival, he had to deal with the many renovations concerning & Church, Rectory, and properties of the Church, as well as, the challenges at the spiritual level.
This short survey of our history demonstrates the determination of our priests and Church Committees to conserve the heritage so that their Parish may progress and grow. The many difficulties and hard times that they confronted did not reduce their enthusiasm, but with faith and hope they built, day by day, this beautiful Community that we are proud of All these generous, devoted priests and parishioners will forever be remembered as we enjoy the fruits of their labor. "The just shall be remembered for ever."
Already, we are in the Second Centennial and our greatest challenge is to keep our Church prospering for the many generations to come.