“Like a wolf who fell upon sheep:” Maronite Priests in America

By Akram F. Khater
Submitted to Session P4730 (Diasporic Devotion: Transnational Religion and Middle East Migrations, 2017 Annual Meeting
The Levant;
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
The migration of one-third of the population of Lebanon to the Americas between 1870 and 1920 was deeply transformative at great many levels. While historians have studied the economic, social and political impact of migration on the Eastern Mediterranean and the secular changes amongst the diasporic communities, changes in religious faith, practice and institutions remain opaque. Yet, these are among the most intimate aspect of the lives transformed, and were in fact the most active fault lines in the Mahjar communities (lands of immigration) and at home.

Based on hundreds of letters sent to Maronite Patriarch Elias Howayek (between 1899 and 1931 by Maronites in the United States, this paper examines some of these fault lines. From anguished calls for spiritual guidance to heated polemics about the corrupt nature of clerics, these letters speak of a religious community in tumult trying to rebuild itself in ways that accommodate the changed circumstances of being in America. Competing faiths and new secular ideas, communal and religious divisions, limited funds and dearth of Maronite priests made this process a struggle. Negotiated across unprecedented distances, with painfully slow letters as the only thread to any semblance of decisive patriarchal authority, the very essence of being a Maronite underwent dramatic changes that not only altered the spiritual and ecclesiastical lives in the Mahjar but also transformed the Maronite church itself.