Our Lady of Lebanon, Pray For Us

The Lebanese Catholic diaspora has long found a home in the United States and worldwide.

The Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon in Harissa, Lebanon.
The Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon in Harissa, Lebanon. (photo: Serge Melki/CC BY 2.0/Wikimedia Commons)

Growing up in Niagara Falls, New York, my parish church was named Our Lady of Lebanon. This never struck me as a strange or out of the ordinary name. One of my best friends was 100% Lebanese (as was his large extended family), and in one of those quirks, the Church happened to be built across the street from my mother’s house, so it was her territorial parish.

But it wasn’t meant to be — at least not in the beginning.

Originally, Our Lady of Lebanon in Niagara Falls was founded as a Maronite Church and staffed by a priest of that rite. However, once this priest died, another could not be found and the church — a solid, sand-brick building sporting 12 striking stained glassed windows (one for each apostle) in a quickly deteriorating area of the city — was in danger of being left empty.

The Vincentians, who had staffed Niagara University since its founding in 1848, were asked by the Diocese of Buffalo to step into the breach and keep this still-vibrant parish going, and this they did right up until it was closed (with more than half of the other churches in Niagara Falls) in 2007.

As one friend told me, “Lebanon in general, and its capital Beirut, have always been upstaged by Jerusalem — kind of like Philadelphia is by New York. Lebanese-Christians don’t really mind this — in fact, it may help account for why we are such overachievers and staunch believers!”

There’s no arguing this point: Danny Thomas — whose real name was Amos Muzyad Yakhoob Kairouz — supposedly made a promise to St. Jude that if he became successful, he would found a free children’s hospital. When he later became wildly successful he kept his promise to St. Jude; the hospital that bears his name opened in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1962. Everyone knows about St. Jude’s Hospital for Children now, even if almost no one knows it was founded by a Lebanese-American Catholic.

This is a point worth noting: when I asked where my cousin’s husband, Henry Kahwaty, got his first name, he said, “From my dad. His name was Henry — and he was named after Henry Ford. My great aunt Gloria, was named after the American actress Gloria Swanson.”

To a degree we did this as Italians: my great-aunt Assunta was always called “Sue.” My great-grandfather, Tomaso, went by Thomas; and, as if to put an exclamation point on it, my uncle Frank goes always and only by the name of “Skip.”

However, while the Irish have St. Patrick’s Day and the Italians have both St. Joseph’s and Columbus Day, Lebanese-American Catholics don’t have any holiday set aside for their culture to celebrate.

“That’s okay,” one Lebanese businessman told me, “we generally make up for it all-year-round!”

The more I looked into it, there seemed more and more successful Lebanese Catholics than I’d ever imagined. Paul Snyder III, is not only an extremely successful businessman in Buffalo — and scion to the founder of Freezer-Queen, the Buffalo Braves and Darien Lake Amusement Park — but is a deacon in the Catholic Church as well.

And it’s not just in the United States that the Lebanese have found a home. The world’s richest man, Carlos Slim, is Lebanese and a practicing Maronite Rite Catholic and has supported Catholic causes in his adopted home of Mexico.

But to return to Our Lady of Lebanon in Niagara Falls: it was truly a tragedy that a parish that was founded by Maronites and saved by a religious order was simply shuttered in the end, even though it had no debt. One priest suggested that the diocese give the parish back over to the Maronite Eparchy, but he was quietly sent away while the church was closed and turned into a candy factory.

Still, I’m proud that Our Lady of Lebanon was my family’s parish and that my friends — and now many members of my family — are Lebanese. When I asked one of them what their secret of success was he answered simply, “Well, we’ve been trading rugs and haggling over prices for about 4,000 years, so I guess it’s just in our blood.” As is their unshakable faith!