The congregation of St. Sharbel Maronite Catholic Mission of Louisiana is so small it doesn’t even have its own place of worship or a full-time priest, but they’re praying that will soon change.
The Most Rev. A. Elias Zaidan, bishop of the Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon, eparchy.org, headquartered in St. Louis and one of only two U.S. dioceses, will be here on Sunday, Oct. 19, to celebrate the 36th annual St. Sharbel Maronite Mass at 3 p.m., at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church, 445 Marquette Ave.
The Maronite Catholic Church, an Eastern Catholic Church, is named after St. Maron, a Syrian hermit priest who lived in the fourth century. The Eastern Catholic Church dates to the first century church established by the apostles in Antioch, and other cities of Syria and Lebanon, according to the Eparchy’s website.
The local mission is named after St. Sharbel Makhlouf, also a hermit priest and monk who lived high in the snow-covered mountains of Lebanon from 1828-1898. Parts of the Maronite rite are chanted in Syriac, an ancient dialect of Aramaic, the language that many believe was spoken by Jesus Christ when he walked the roads of Israel and into southern Lebanon.
“Louisiana is one of only four states that do not have a Maronite church,” said Charbel Harb, a local businessman who has taken a leadership role for many years. “We are sheep without a shepherd.”
“We are at the top of the (bishop’s) list to get a priest,” Harb said. “Our hope is to eventually have a living church here that caters to the needs of the Maronite community in Baton Rouge.”
Harb estimated there are several hundred Maronite/Lebanese families in the Baton Rouge and New Orleans areas who are now attending Roman Catholic Churches. The local congregation, of between 30 to 40 families, usually meets at St. Agnes Catholic Church once a month but someday hopes to meet at their own church, Harb said.
Last year the congregation purchased an old house on 1.4 acres along Antioch Road they hope to demolish and replace with a church.
The purchase was a divine event, Harb said during a visit to the property, because “it took a miracle to buy it,” during a last-minute, Christmas season fund drive.
“We are on Antioch Road, and we are an Antiochene church,” Harb said.
Pointing to some giant pine trees, he added, “we have pine trees here and Lebanon is full of beautiful pine and cedar trees.”
He even appreciated the arches of the derelict home’s front porch “which symbolize the Oriental style.”
Elias Henri Hage, a church member for 19 years, a director and photographer who posts church news on their Facebook page, said they appreciate the Diocese of Baton Rouge and Bishop Robert Muench’s cooperation over the years, but having a place of their own would “unite our people.”
“It would be a place for all of us to meet like everyone else is doing,” Hage said. “Some of our people, who have been here (in America) for two or three generations, want to know more about their heritage.”
Alex Harb, 24, son of Charbel Harb, grew up in this congregation and is now a seminarian at the Eparchy and is serving a pastoral internship in St. Louis.
He will accompany Bishop Zaidan to Baton Rouge and is looking forward to the service.
“The Mass is performed primarily in English,” Alex Harb said, “but there is some chanting in Syriac to simple melodies with very vivid imagery based on the traditions of Maronite and Syriac poetry. They have an almost operatic quality to them.”
Syriac, he added, is an almost forgotten language that is now only spoken in very remote rural areas of Lebanon.
For more information call Charbel Harb at (225) 413-5239.