History, Liturgy, and Architecture
By Wesley Ledbetter, Sam Martin, Abigail Stake, and Myles Wynn
Saint Elias Maronite Catholic Church is a spiritual group of believers that is focused around the eucharistic table. It is an inviting place for those who wish to grow spiritually, increase in faith, and to use their gifts in order to share the gospel to the world around them. This church, named after the Old Testament prophet Elijah, is a family of believers who feel connected with each other by their specific spiritual talents, as well as a safe space to learn more about the Christian faith as practiced by Maronites. An international body based in Lebanon, the Maronite Church is a sui juris church in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. St. Elias Maronite Church has a rich local history, inspiring architecture, and a unique liturgy that make it a significant part of Birmingham’s religious life.
Maronite And Roman Catholic Church History
Understanding the Maronite Church’s relation to the Roman Catholic Church can be confusing. According to both groups, due to his profession of faith, “Peter became the head of the ‘college’ of the apostles” (Carmody 1990, 44). Peter was first bishop of Antioch. “It was in Antioch,” the Acts of the Apostles explains, that followers of Jesus “were first called Christians” (Acts 11:26 NAB). Later, Peter left Antioch and became the first bishop of Rome. Peter’s successors at Rome (known as popes) are head of both the Roman Catholic Church and the world-wide college of bishops, But that did not mean that other churches, such as the Church of Antioch became part of the Roman Catholic Church. Instead they continued as churches having their own rights (“sui juris”) while recognizing the pope’s headship of the worldwide communion of churches. The Maronite Church is one of these sui juris churches.
In fact, the Maronite Church is a successor to the Church of Antioch founded by Peter. It takes its name from Saint Maron, “a fifth-century hermit” (Labaki 2014, 72). After he died, his followers built a monastery over his tomb which led to an increase in the number of monasteries in Lebanon named for him (Labaki 2014, 73). In the seventh century, Arab Muslims invaded Syria and Lebanon and the position of bishop (or patriarch) of Antioch became vacant. The Maronite community chose their own new patriarch of Antioch, thus the Maronite Church was born.
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The history of St. Elias Church began in 1910. Mobarek Bellama of the Antonine Order served the Maronite people who immigrated from Lebanon to Birmingham (St. Elias Maronite Church). Prior to 1910, there was no church in which to worship until a brick building was bought on 6th Avenue South between 20th and 21st Streets. It was named for St. Elias because he was a “patron of the villages from which the faithful came” (St. Elias Maronite Church). The building was purchased because the Lebanese population was rapidly growing.
The growth of the church can be seen through the expansion of sacraments of initiation. In 1919, Bishop Edward Patrick Allen administered the first sacrament of confirmation at the church, which granted gifts of the Holy Spirit upon the recipients (St. Elias Maronite Church). On February 28, 1926, the first formal communion ceremony was held for children in the church by Father Joseph Shaboth.
In 1945, the old church building was sold in exchange for a block of land, located at 8th Street and 9th Avenue South. On November 9, 1949, construction of the new St. Elias Church began (St. Elias Maronite Church). The building was completed in 1950 and hosted its first Divine Liturgy on Christmas Day. This is the same building that the church still uses to this day (St. Elias Maronite Church).
The Maronite Catholic tradition is well renowned for its stained-glass windows, statues, and symbols. Vividly depicting the Maronite faith through architecture, St. Elias Maronite Church serves as a prime example of Maronite tradition to the local community. One example of the unique elements of architecture in St. Elias Maronite Catholic Church are its eighteen stained glass windows. These widows include representations of St. John Maron (628-707 C.E.), St. Rafka (1832-1914 C.E.), and St. Elias (900-849 B.C.E.).
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One other consequential symbol and architectural element on St. Elias’ campus is the Maronite statue and shrine located behind their sanctuary entitled “Our Lady of Lebanon.” The shrine and statue at St. Elias is similar to the larger construction of Our Lady of Lebanon, which towers upon Mount Harissais in Harissa Lebanon. These statues depict the Virgin Mary.
Maronite Ritual, Worship, and Liturgy
Seeking right standing with God and purification before Christ’s second coming is central to Maronite worship. Like the Roman Catholic Church, Maronites have great respect for the authority of the church and bishops (Bilaniuk 2013). The Maronite church strongly emphasizes the communal aspect of worship, involving the congregation in liturgical practices. As Margaret Ghosn explains, “there is a significant participative role for the laity not only in the responses but also in the role of cantor, reader, choir member, and in the taking up of the offertory” (Ghosn, 2009). According to a representative at St. Joseph Maronite Catholic Church, Christians “are saved through and with others… Attending the Sunday Liturgy is not merely a question of obligation, but is the very life and heart of the Christian community” (St. Joseph Maronite Catholic Church 2019).
A typical service consists of prayers, scripture readings, incensation, hymns, the creed, the giving of gifts, and the acceptance of offerings. There are three distinct parts of the Maronite mass, the first being the preparation of the faithful and the offering. This includes the purification of the priest, incensation, offering of opening prayers, recitation of the creed, and the reading of scripture.
The service’s second part is the consecration of the bread and wine, which includes the anaphora (also known as the eucharistic prayer), the transfer of the offering from the main altar, and the kiss of peace. The anaphora is very important. It includes thanking the Father, remembering the Son and His work on the cross, and invoking the Holy Spirit. Like Roman Catholics, Maronites believe that the bread and wine during communion is literally transformed into the body and blood of Christ (St. Joseph Maronite Catholic Church 2019). The physical properties of bread and wine remain, but they have changed their substance and what they fundamentally are through the power of the Holy Spirit. In communion the total and real presence of Jesus Christ is received in what looks and tastes like bread and wine (Ward 2021).
The last part is communion. The consecrated host is broken and mixed with the consecrated Blood of Christ. The “Our Father” (Lord’s Prayer) is prayed and people are invited to come forward to share in the Body and Blood of Christ (St. Joseph Maronite Catholic Church 2019)
Due to its origin story, local history, architecture, and liturgy, the St. Elias Maronite Catholic Church is a very valuable addition to the Birmingham area. Founded by Lebanese immigrants during the period of iron industry, St. Elias is also unique due to the fact that there are few Maronite churches in the United States. Particularly as a minority, St. Elias is instrumental in fostering a sense of community and helping its members grow in their Maronite faith. They have many similarities and differences with the Roman Catholic Church in terms of scripture, history, and ritual.
St. Elias Maronite Catholic Church
Location: 836 8th St S Birmingham, AL 35205
Affiliation: Maronite Catholic
Date Established: 1910
Building Erected: November 9, 1949
Building Completed: December 31, 1950
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Wesley Ledbetter ‘24, Sam Martin ‘25, Abigail Stake ‘25, and Myles Winn ‘25 are students in Introduction to World Religions in Samford University’s Department of Biblical and Religious Studies in fall 2021.