Dreams do come true, especially when God is with those who dream.
In the late 1800s, Maronite Catholic families from the Middle East -- primarily Lebanon and Syria - -migrated to the Greenville, South Carolina area drawn by the prospect of finding work, primarily in the textile industry. Although there was no Maronite church, there was a Catholic church, Saint Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, and it is there that these Maronite Catholics worshipped and came to know each other. Saint Mary’s became not only a place to worship God and thank Him, but a place to connect with a goodly number of people who shared similar customs, languages, and food, a place to feel at home away from home.
In the late 1940’s, there was an effort to establish a Maronite Church by several of the local Maronite families, but the Bishop of Charleston would not permit this. Again, In the 1970s, the Maronites in Greenville again envisioned having their own church. Under the leadership of Bill Bouharoun and others, Father Joseph Thomas made many trips to the area from Fayetteville, NC to celebrate Masses with the local community. However, their attempts to establish a Maronite church were unsuccessful. By the late 1990s, the Catholic Maronites in and around Greenville once again envisioned having their own church. But before they could hope to do so, they needed to establish themselves as a Maronite mission. For two years Marlene Saad had petitioned Bishop Hector Doueihi of the Eparchy of Saint Maron of Brooklyn to provide a Maronite priest/presence for all the Maronite Lebanese in the Greenville/Spartanburg area but nothing materialized. Many Maronite priests with whom Marlene consulted at the various NAM (National Apostolate of Maronites) conventions tried to convince her to give up the quest to form a new mission, that no Maronite priest would be willing to go to the “deep” South to live.
In 1998 Marlene Saad spoke with the bishop’s vicar, Chorbishop Joseph Kaddo, who advised her to compile a list of names of Maronites in the South Carolina area. Chorbishop Kaddo instructed her about what was entailed in the process and told her to send the list to the Chancery. The 700 households listed came from Charleston, Columbia, Spartanburg and Greenville, the latter boasting the largest numbers. In February of 1999, Marlene sent two copies of this list, one to the bishop and one to Ed Shiner, Executive Director of NAM, along with a letter indicating the community’s desire to become an established entity within the Maronite Church. Ed Shiner had requested the list so that he could give everyone on that list a free one-year membership to NAM.
Meanwhile, Bishop Doueihi was away in Florida dedicating another of the seven missions. On the return trip he looked over the area of South Carolina and realized that although there were Maronite missions and churches in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina, there was nothing in South Carolina. Upon this realization, Bishop Doueihi prayed for a miracle, for he knew many of the Lebanese in Greenville and knew of their unsuccessful efforts thirty years ago to establish a Maronite church.
When Bishop Doueihi returned to his office, on his desk he found the South Carolina list of Maronites that Marlene Saad had compiled. He praised and thanked God that his prayers had been answered. In March of 1999 the bishop called Marlene Saad to tell her that Monsignor Ron Beshara would be in touch with her soon concerning the possibility of establishing a Maronite mission in the Upstate and that Ron Jebaily was interested in the mission as well. Monsignor Beshara called and instructed Marlene to hold a local meeting at Saint Mary’s Catholic Church or at her home. She held several meetings, one at her home and one in 2000 at Saint Mary’s Catholic Church where twenty people were present.
By mid June, 1999, Marlene Saad had received an updated list of Lebanese families in the Greenville area and held a meeting in her home to form the “first” core group, consisting of the Hages, the Sawdas, Gabby Abilhalid and the Howayecks. At this meeting it was announced that Marlene Saad would be the pastoral leader and that Monsignor Ron Beshara of West Palm Beach, Florida, would be the Maronite Outreach Director. Following this meeting, Marlene Saad sent a letter to area Lebanese families indicating that requisite to participation in this Outreach program, she needed ten families/people to volunteer to form the core group. In August 1999 Marlene Saad mailed out guidelines for the upcoming first of such events, a Maronite Tradition Day (Liturgy and Hospitality). In early October in Columbia, South Carolina, Ron Jebaily chaired a State Input Meeting for the Maronite Outreach Community. Here, with the urging of the Eparchy, the decision was made that the best site for the first Maronite Tradition Day would be the Upstate, Greenville, with subsequent MTDs being held in Charleston and Columbia. What an honor! Thus, Marlene Saad sent letters to those on the “list” inviting them to attend the first Maronite Tradition Day to be held at Saint Mary’s Catholic Church on October 31, 1999, at 3:00 PM. She also placed ads in the New Catholic Miscellany and in every Roman Catholic Church bulletin in Greenville, Spartanburg and Gaffney, hoping to draw Latin Catholics in the area who might wish to experience the “rich heritage of the Maronite Divine Liturgy.” In attendance were 300 people. Monsignor Beshara celebrated the mass followed by a beautiful reception, consisting of traditional Middle Eastern food, organized by the women of the core group.
The New Catholic Miscellany included a front-page article on November 18, 1999, entitled “Maronites Reunited with Their Culture.” And in early December The Maronite Voice published two articles entitled “Greenville, South Carolina, Celebrates Maronite Tradition Day” and South Carolina Maronites React to Tradition Day.” Nine days later the first Ramsho was held at St. Mary’s, attended by 22 people and led by Subdeacon Roger Daniels.
In 2000 several banner events occurred: In January the first mailing of Mary, Mother of the Life Good News Messenger and the celebration of the second Maronite Tradition Day at St. Mary’s with over 200 people attending. By February the progress of the Maronite community in the Upstate was being celebrated in The Maronite Voice in an article entitled “The Maronite Community of South Carolina Makes a Steady Progress.” Also in February Mary, Mother of the Life Good News Messenger distributed a flyer outlining the coming events in the Maronite community, one of them being the celebration of Ash Monday Ramsho at St. Mary’s Church to be held on March 6, at which Deacon Frank Farina presided. By April 20, South Carolina Maronites received a letter from Monsignor Beshara naming Marlene Saad as Pastoral Team Leader. Ten days later, April 30, the first Maronite Picnic was held at the East Riverside Park in Greer, South Carolina. At this point Mary, Mother of the Life Good News Messenger was being mailed on a regular basis during 2000: Issue 3 (May), Issue 4 (July), Issue 5 (September) and Issue 6 (December) being mailed to all in the Maronite community. May 28, 2000, saw a glorious third Maronite Tradition Day, celebrated by Monsignor Beshara, again at Saint Mary’s Catholic Church.
September 16, 2000, was a most memorable date because it was the first visit to Greenville and South Carolina by Bishop Hector Doueihi and the first Evening Gala (Hafli) held at the Hilton Hotel. On the next day, Bishop Doueihi celebrated the Maronite liturgy at Saint Mary’s Catholic Church. The fourth Maronite Tradition Day was held on November 12, 2000, but at a new location, Blessed Trinity Catholic Church in Greer, South Carolina, where masses would be held for almost two years.
February of 2001 brought a dinner dance to Saint Mary Magdalene Hall in Simpsonville, South Carolina, attended by approximately 175 people, followed the next day by the celebration of a Maronite mass by Monsignor Ron Beshara with the first community baptism and chrismation for Josephine Elaine Abikhaled. Meanwhile, mailings of Mary, Mother of the Life Good News Messenger continued into 2001: March (issue 7) May (issues 8 & 9) and August (issue 10). On May 20 of 2001, the second Maronite Picnic (referred to at this point as the Family Picnic) and the Maronite Tradition Day were celebrated at Blessed Trinity Catholic Church in Greer, South Carolina, as was a subsequent Maronite Tradition Day soon after on July 28, 2001, at the same location.
Strides were definitely being made when in August of 2001 several meetings of the South Carolina Maronite Community were held: one to discuss the upcoming visit of
Bishop Robert Baker, the bishop of the Diocese of Charleston, and the hafli as well as an emergency meeting to discuss the upcoming Hafli Anniversary Celebration. September brought yet another South Carolina Maronite Community meeting to discuss the upcoming visit of Bishop Baker.
At the beginning of 2002, the Eparchy sent Monsignor George Sebaali in February and Father Paul Damien in April to fill in for Monsignor Ron Beshara for the Maronite Tradition Days at Blessed Trinity Catholic Church. And it was a red-letter day when finally at the 2002 NAM Convention in Brooklyn, New York, Bishop Doueihi presented Marlene Saad with the official document that would declare on August 15 a new mission, appointing Father David Michael as Parochial Vicar of the newly named Saint Rafka Maronite Mission.
Father David Michael was to reside at the Our Risen Savior Catholic Church in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Meanwhile, mailings of Mary, Mother of the Life Good News Messenger continued, the 16th issue mailed on August 21. On September 29 the Saint Rafka Maronite Mission’s Divine Liturgy was celebrated at a new location, the Risen Savior Catholic Church. Toward the end of 2002, on November 3, the Saint Rafka Mission held its first monthly Middle Eastern lunch following Divine Liturgy.
Unfortunately, in 2004 Father David Michael left Saint Rafka Mission. He is now serving in the Latin Church in the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina. Once again without a permanent pastor, Saint Rafka Mission continued on with Monsignor Beshara, Monsignor Sebaali and Father Damien, rotating and filling in on a quarterly basis. Bishop Doueihi asked Marlene Saad to be patient, said that newly ordained priests from Lebanon were waiting to receive their visas to come to the United States. Meanwhile, Bishop Doueihi asked Marlene what type of priest she thought would fit the Saint Rafka community. Her response was, “Any priest that would spiritually inspire us with a traditional Maronite Divine Liturgy.”
It is interesting to note that Saint Rafka Maronite Mission had a group of musicians who added beauty to each liturgy. Antoine Sleiman, violinist and director of the choir, Adib Chebli, player of the ude, and his teenage son, Ramsy, organist/pianist-- created beautiful music for the liturgy. Pat Bouharoun loyally served as pianist later in the mission’s evolution.
As 2003 geared up, the Mary, Mother of the Life Good News Messenger was mailed out on the first of January. And on February 3 Saint Rafka Maronite Mission held its Annual Hafli at the Embassy Suites in Greenville. In May Monsignor Beshara visited Saint Rafka Maronite Mission. The third annual Parish Picnic was held at Brushy Creek Park in Greer following celebration of the Divine Liturgy at the Monastery of Saint Clare.
But 2003 brought a momentous change to Saint Rafka Maronite Mission. After a hiatus of a year without a priest of its own, Saint Rafka Mission was blessed by receiving a new priest, Bartholomew Leon. Marlene Saad said she was ecstatic to learn that the new priest was Father Leon. She had met him at a NAM convention in 1998 in Pittsburgh, had visited his parish in Dover, New Hampshire, had been greatly impressed by his liturgy and cantoring and knew that he was the right pastor for Saint Rafka Maronite Mission. Father Leon was usually addressed by his parishioners as Father Bart or Abouna.
Father Bartholomew Leon was installed on November 30, 2003, as the new pastor of Saint Rafka Maronite Mission during a mass at Saint Mary’s Catholic Church, where this mission had its roots. It was decided Father Leon would reside at Saint Mary’s rectory and that he would celebrate Saint Rafka Mission’s liturgy at Saint Mary’s at 1: 00 PM each Sunday. Because not many people attended so late on a Sunday, Saint Rafka Mission moved its liturgy to the Monastery of Saint Clare on Saturday evening. With this new venue, more people did attend. Early in 2004, January 4 to be exact, Saint Rafka Maronite Mission held a special potluck Middle Eastern meal after Divine Liturgy to honor and introduce its new pastor. On February 14, 2004, Valentine’s Day, the Saint Maron Annual Hafli was held at the Marriott Hotel.
Because Bishop Hector Doueihi was retiring at seventy-five years of age on March 2 of 2004, Bishop Gregory Mansour was ordained in Lebanon, and on April 27 of that year he was installed as Bishop of the Eparchy of Saint Maron of Brooklyn in New York.
Saint Rafka Maronite Mission, meanwhile, continued to build tradition by having a luncheon on April 4, 2004, Shaneenee (Palm) Sunday, after the Divine Liturgy. And yet another hafli was held at the Embassy Suites Hotel on May 22, 2004. Not a month later, June, 6, 2004, the Saint Rafka Mission liturgy moved to Gallivan Hall on the campus of Saint Mary’s Catholic Church. But after approximately eight months as the St. Rafka Maronite Mission’s pastor, Father Bartholomew Leon was transferred to become the pastor of two parishes in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, saying his final liturgy at Saint Rafka Maronite Mission on July 10, 2004.
At this point Bishop Gregory asked Marlene Saad to continue to keep the community together with events and such. Before a month had elapsed, Father Peter Boulos was appointed by the Eparchy as Proto-presbyter of the Far South Region that included Saint Rafka Maronite Mission.
On August 14, 2004, Father Boulos started
celebrating masses for Saint Rafka’s Mission on Saturday evenings at the Monastery
of Saint Clare and did so for about a year. Right before the end of December, 2004,
Bishop Gregory came to visit the Saint Rafka Maronite Mission to encourage the
community to stay together, to persevere.
Ever persistent and under the leadership of Marlene Saad, St. Rafka Maronite Mission began 2005 optimistically by holding a hafli at St. Mary Magdalene Hall in Simpsonville on January 22. The members of Saint Rafka Mission had held masses and social functions in numerous churches and venues in the area but were thankful for the helping hands offered by the various Catholic churches in the Upstate.
January 6, 2006, was a day to remember and cherish because Father Bartholomew Leon, who had been assigned to return to Greenville’s Saint Rafka Maronite Mission, offered mass at the Monastery of Saint Clare. He would also serve as an assistant priest at Saint Mary’s Catholic Church. Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Simpsonville was the site of the next hafli, graciously allowing the Saint Rafka Mission to hold its Feast of Saint Maron Hafli there.
By July of 2006, Saint Rafka Mission’s Sunday 11:00 AM Divine Liturgies were resumed at Gallivan Hall at Saint Mary’s Catholic Church. The pastor, Father Jay Scott Newman, has been ever helpful, even going so far as to allow the priests serving at St. Mary’s to substitute when Father Bart -- who also says mass and hears confessions at St. Mary’s -- needs to be away. Father Dwight Longenecker and Father Christopher Smith, before he was reassigned and when he visits, have both celebrated or concelebrated the liturgy at Saint Rafka Maronite Mission, no mean feat since the liturgy is very different from the Latin or Roman rite. With the blessing of Father Newman, St. Mary’s deacons -- John Karandisevsky, John Heuser and George Tierney-- also have served at Saint Rafka Maronite Mission. Now that Saint Rafka Mission has its own church, Deacon Dick Murtaugh has been regularly assisting Father Leon.
In 2008 Father Bart asked the congregation of St. Rafka Mission to submit names of those who could serve on either the Pastor’s Advisory Council (seven positions) and the Finance Committee (six positions). The parishioners voted in most of the council and committee members, with Father Leon having the option of appointing two people to each group.
An important occasion was the Pastoral Visit of Chorbishop Michael G. Thomas on December 1, 2008. He assessed the viability of the mission and concurred that significant growth had occurred in the intervening years since 1999. While Chorbishop Thomas visited, he, Father Bart, the Pastor’s Advisory Council and the Finance Committee looked at a possible property that St. Rafka Mission might consider purchasing, but all concurred that the property needed far too much renovation to be a viable consideration. Still, the hunt for a home was set in motion. The search for a home continued, but one property after another was assessed as unsuitable for varying valid reasons.
Meanwhile, Father Bart sent out a survey to all registered parishioners of Saint Rafka Maronite Mission to determine the level of interest in seeking a permanent home for the mission. Breaking the surrounding area into quadrants on a map, he asked members to indicate in what area a church property would best serve each family. He also inquired as to how many members were willing to make a sacrificial pledge to purchase a church property. The response was positive. The members of St. Rafka Maronite Mission were ready and willing to purchase a property of their own.
One day in early October of 2009, Heather Sijon passed a Church of Christ property in Greer, the area where she lived, and saw that it was for sale. She alerted Father Bart, who asked Richard Sleiman and Richard Wickett, whoever was free to go there, to assess the property’s possibilities. From a cursory visit, Richard Wickett thought the buildings looked in quite good shape. The property, consisting of two buildings, a shed, and over two acres of land, held promise also as a place where large gatherings, such as fairs and haflis, could be accommodated on the grounds. However, at the moment Richard was there reveling in the possibilities of the property, Father Bart, having called to inquire about the property, was being informed that Saint John Baptist Church had already taken a contract on it. Crestfallen, Father Bart nevertheless asked that he be contacted should the contract happen to fall through. And that the contract did fall through seemed Divine Providence. Now, Father Bart felt that God was speaking and that he and the members of Saint Rafka Maronite Mission needed to listen. Father Bart asked that Saint Rafka Mission parishioners visit the property that had become available in Greer to give him their opinion about the possibility of making it the mission’s home. On October 18, 2009, Father Bart and 56 mission parishioners gathered at the church property in Greer to formally discuss the pros and cons of purchasing it, to learn the details of what the Eparchy would require. After leading the group in a pray for guidance, Father took a vote. Only one person voted to remain at Saint Mary’s; 55 voted to make the move to the Greer property. As Father Bart wrote in the bulletin of October 25, 2009, “It was one of the most moving days of my life as it was done with such gentleness and calm.”
November of 2009 brought another red-letter day to St. Rafka’s. Marlene Saad was installed as a Lady of the Order of St. Gregory the Great, in Brooklyn, New York, by Bishop Gregory Mansour. Marlene’s family and Father Bart attended the glorious occasion. This Papal Honor was bestowed on a woman who not only worked tirelessly to insure that a Maronite mission would be established in the Upstate, but who served in successive offices on the NAM Board until she reached the office of President, a position she held for two years. As Father Leon wrote concerning Marlene Saad in the November 8, 2009 bulletin, “Thank you, Marlene, for your tireless efforts on behalf of the Church and Saint Rafka Mission! Your Work is bearing fruit!”
Once the decision was made to purchase the Greer property, Father Leon sent all details to the Eparchy. Liking what they saw and realizing that St. Rafka Maronite Mission was coming into its own, Chorbishop Michael Thomas called on behalf of Bishop Gregory and the Eparchy on December 9 to give permission to proceed with the purchase but with one stipulation: Bishop Gregory required Saint Rafka Maronite Mission to raise $100,000 as a cushion to make sure that mortgage and renovation costs could be met. That stipulation was met through a fund-raising campaign which included not only raising additional money for the building fund but offering the purchase of $1000 bonds, 17 of which were purchased. After many years of hoping to purchase its own church property, St. Rafka Mission was on its way to having a place of its own in which to hold the liturgy and mission-related functions.
When Chorbishop Michael Thomas visited again in December of 2009, it was to celebrate the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception at a Pontifical Divine Liturgy on December 7th at Gallivan Hall. On December 8th, Chorbishop Thomas viewed the Greer property that St. Rafka had hopes of purchasing and gave sound advice about how Saint Rafka Mission could proceed with fund-raising activities. His positive attitude gave us comfort and inspiration.
Work began on purchasing the complex from the Church of Christ through Chuck Langston of Langston Black Real Estate, Inc. Richard Wickett, being recently retired, agreed to help Father Bart with all phases of the endeavor: finding an attorney to handle all transactions; bidding out the mortgage to four banks; getting the required inspections; securing an architectural firm; finding contractors to renovate the education and the church buildings. The Bank of Travelers Rest provided the best terms, including interest rate. Tommy Dugas, a parishioner at Saint Mary’s Catholic Church, served as St. Rafka’s attorney, gratis. The architectural firm, Pazdan-Smith Group, brought Fr. Bart’s vision of the altar area to life, gratis, with Jeannine Rogers revising the plans several times to make the vision perfect. Freewood Construction was hired to do the renovation in both church complex buildings; Elie Alam, manager of ValuFlor, arranged for that flooring company to transform the carpeted church and altar into lovely wood flooring and removed much of the carpet in the education building, replacing it with attractive tile. The cost of all renovations came well under the architect’s budget: $30,000 under.
The property at 1215 South Highway 14 in Greer, South Carolina, officially became the property of St. Rafka’s Mission, well, strictly speaking of the Eparchy, on January 7, 2010. Renovation and construction of the two buildings was officially completed on March 26, 2010, one week before Easter. Many parishioners--far too many to name them all--helped with the process of moving into the new facility. One person who must be named is Phil George who faithfully takes care of keeping the extensive lawn cut and trimmed. Richard Sleiman, David Fiorini, James Ross and Richard Wickett helped with getting the church ready for the first liturgy to be celebrated on Easter Sunday.
On Easter Sunday, April 4, 2010, Father Bartholomew Leon celebrated that first liturgy in the St. Rafka Maronite Mission’s new church, with 204 people attending the 11:00 AM liturgy, a record crowd. Father Bart also held at 7:00 that evening the first Sunday evening liturgy which he called the “last chance mass” because it is the last Catholic Mass or liturgy on Sunday in the area. That Mass is attracting many people from the area and the numbers continue to grow. Father Bart immediately instituted a weekly Wednesday liturgy beginning at 7:00 PM before which he hears confessions.
At the Easter Liturgy Father Bart announced that the dining room area would be known as The Saad Room in honor of Marlene Saad, “who has been the true spearhead of the mission over the past 10 years.” The hall building has been named Wickett Hall in honor of the “great and varied” work that Richard for the church.
Icons that parishioner and artist extraordinaire James Ross has created grace Saint Rafka Maronite Mission. James Ross, a convert to Catholicism, was previously a priest in the Russian Orthodox Church and thus is affectionately referred to as “Abouna James.” The design of each icon created by James Ross was sent to Bishop Gregory for his official permission to install it. Marlene Saad donated the first icon, that of St. Rafka, which was unveiled and blessed on April 11, 2010, in memory of her deceased husband, Oscar C. Saad, who always encouraged her to continue her quest to form a Maronite mission in the Upstate. The Icon of Christ Crucified, placed on a plain wooden cross, was donated by Richard and Linda Wickett, and was unveiled and blessed on May 23, 2010. Other Icons will be mentioned further on in the Program Book.
First Holy Communion was administered on April 18, 2010, for the first time at the new church so recently occupied by Saint Rafka Maronite Mission. Elie Alam, Director of Religious Education, prepared Isabel Chebeir, Leia Kanaan, Zaid Kaseer and Tara Kaseer to receive this blessed and holy sacrament. For Saint Rafka’s Mission, four children receiving First Holy Communion at one time was a record number.
The first Baptism/Chrismation celebrated at the new church of Saint Rafka Maronite Mission was on May 2, 2010: Gabriel Anthony Sijon, son of David and Heather Sijon, was baptized a Maronite Catholic, thus becoming an important part of Saint Rafka Maronite Mission’s history.
On May 9, 2010, Saint Rafka Maronite Mission celebrated once again the Liturgy of Baptism, Confirmation and First Communion but one that was beautifully unique. Together, Ramsy Chebli and his baby son Joseph were baptized and confirmed and then Ramsy received his First Communion.
To everyone’s relief by May 9, 2010, the Saint Rafka Maronite Mission church became a cooler and less expensive place to worship thanks to the efforts of seamstress Houda Yacu and her team from Laura’s. The well-made drapes are the exact color of the interior wooden trim and block the sun that was blazing through the windows. Jack and Maureen Yacu assisted with the hanging of these beautiful and functional drapes.
And on June 6 the parishioners of Saint Rafka Maronite Mission celebrated in advance Father Bart’s Silver Jubilee, the date on which 25 years before, June 8, 1985, he was ordained a priest at Saint John of the Cross Church in Orange Grove, Texas. Father Leon announced that we were all invited to a celebration on June 12 of his Silver Jubilee at Saint Mary’s Catholic Church, where Father Jay Scott Newman would be the homilist, with a reception for Father Leon following.
So much history has led to a very important event that has yet to take place but is soon to come. On this day, September 19, 2010, at 3:00 PM, Bishop Gregory Mansour of the Eparchy of Saint Maron of Brooklyn will dedicate the new church occupied by Saint Rafka Maronite Mission during the Consecration Liturgy, after which a catered dinner will follow. For Saint Rafka Maronite Mission to have become a reality and to have purchased its own church is a dream come true for so many people, a dream that took root and grew through hope and faith, a dream nurtured by the sheer determination of people like Oscar and Marlene Saad, Bishop Hector Doueihi, Monsignor Ron Beshara, our own Father Bartholomew Leon, Chorbishop Michael Thomas and Bishop Gregory Mansour.
At the time of the publication of this book, the first funeral was held in the new Church for Sami Butros Ghannam, on Monday, September 6, Labor Day, 2010. The cycle of life, celebration of the Mysteries and death is a part of the life of the community of Saint Rafka. For all that has been, we say “thanks!”. For all that will be, we say “yes!”.