HISTORY OF ST. ANTHONY CHURCH

WILKES-BARRE, PENNSYLVANIA

 

 

The First Arrival

 

The exact date of the first arrival of the Maronite pioneers in the Wyoming Valley area is difficult to determine. The earliest specific references to them are two bleak items in the Wilkes-Barre Almanacs for 1897 and 1898. Under "fires" occurring in 1896, we read, "May 15: House of Arabians, Hazle Street; damage slight", and for 1897 under "fires", we find, "October 6: House of Arabians, corner of Wood and Railroad Streets; damage slight." These references place the beginning of the Maronite colony in the 14tli Ward in Wilkes-Barre; later the colony became identified with the Rolling Mill  Hill section of that ward. Oral tradition, based on interviews made at various times by those compiling historical sketches of the Maronites, adds some interesting details of the early days of the pioneers. The first band was composed solely of the men folk, married and bachelors, who were forced by poverty to leave their kinfolk behind in the old country. The story is that they were 19 in number; all from the village of Hardin, in the county of Batroun in Lebanon.

 

Hard Beginning

 

Arriving by ship at the port of New York, they gathered at the immigration center. By accident, they came to Wilkes-Barre. When they brought their train tickets, they only had enough money among them to go as far as Wilkes-Barre. Arriving at the station here, their first move was to rent one house in which they all lived. During these lean years, they were forced to live 20 to 30 people in one rented house.         Conditions were so meager that it was a common practice for them to find sleeping space on the floor. Be. cause of such overcrowding, they found it difficult to open the doors inward, and so the carpenters among them reset the hinges of the doors to open outward.

 

Rapid Success

 

In spite of such incredible hardships in the beginning, they soon adapted themselves to their new environment. In amazingly short time, they became well, to-do upper middle class families in the valley. Their rapid rise on the economic scale is recorded in their listings in the annual record almanacs. From peddlers to hucksters they became small dry goods and shoe shop owners. In their obituary notices some decades later, they are described as prominent local merchants, etc.

 

The First Parish

 

By 191 1, as a result of being financially able to bring over their families, which they left behind, they were in a position to organize a church of their own rite. With the knowledge and approval of the Maronite Patriarch and Bishop Hoban of Scranton, Rev. Paul Rizk, a missionary priest was as. signed to the new Maronite congregation.

 

The Purchase of the Church's Site

 

Under the guidance of Father Rizk, meetings were held. An association was formed to raise money and purchase a site for their new church. According to the record in the Deed Book of Luzerne County, the Right Rev. Michael J. Hoban, Bishop of Scranton, purchased from Charles Maurer, prominent local grocer, and his wife, Louisa, a piece of property on the northwest corner of Park Avenue and Dana Street, to be held in trust for the St. Anthony Maronite Catholic Congregation of Wilkes-Barre. The price for the premises and the residence was $5,200. The date of the sale was December 15, 1911. Mr. Joseph Ferris is said to have made a large loan for the purpose of expediting the purchase. For two years, the families joined together and worked diligently to fulfill their individual pledges to complete the amount of the loan.

 

The Chapel

 

Part of the house was renovated to provide a small chapel where the congregation met for Mass and the sacraments. A lay committee was comprised of the following members; Joseph Ferris, John Yazbeck, Joseph Ellis, Salim Badra, Joseph Bechir, and Anthony Shiner. All the parishioners agreed that a new church building was needed.

 

Division

 

Meetings were held in 1913 to discuss the matter, and soon the harmony, which had prevailed until then among the various families, was shattered. Two factions were formed. Joseph Ferris and Joseph Ellis became leaders of one group which wanted the church to be constructed on the purchased site at the corner of Park Avenue and Dana Street. Their argument was that everyone had already contributed to buy the present property and the majority of the parishioners lived in the immediate vicinity. The other group, led by Tanios Shiner, wanted the church built "on the Hill" and wanted it named St. George Maronite Church. The reason for the difference within the community arose because of the personal family conflicts that were resurrected from the original Lebanese homeland. All the families originally from Hardin associated themselves with Tanios Shiner, with the exception of the Koury family, who remained loyal to Elias Bou,Rameh who was their leader.

 

St George's Church

Isaac Saba, a contractor, attended a secret meeting, which was attended only by Salim Badra, Tanios Shiner, and Youssef Bechir. The next day, Isaac Saba commenced to build a church "on the hill" on a piece of property owned by Tanios Shiner. Following the beginning of this church, the friends of Tanios Shiner left the congregation of St. Anthony's to form the new parish of St. George.

 

The Basement of St. Anthony's Church

In the winter of 1919, Rev. Peter Elian was assigned as the new pastor of St. Anthony's. The Catholic Light reported in the anniversary edition that "at present the congregation, which consists of fifty members, is worshipping in a private house, but Father Elian hopes, by means of a bazaar, to be, gin the erection of a church." Joseph Ferris and John Yazbeek are named as assisting Father Elian in the project Previously, Ferris, Joseph Yazbeek and Joseph Ellis had gone on tours throughout the United States to collect funds for the St. Anthony's parish. The plans at this time called for the removal of the residence containing the chapel to the rear of the property and the construction of a basement church, which in time would be the foundation of the completed edifice. This was done.

 

The Pioneer of St. Anthony's Church Building

From 1922 to 1966i, the history of St. Anthony's is largely the achievements of the late beloved pastor, Father John Koury. He came to St. Anthony's on January 1, 1922. He served his parish as a good and faithful servant for the next 44 years.

 

Church Building Project Postponed

 

When Father Koury arrived, the original residence served as a chapel had been torn down. The new basement church became the center of all religious functions until the upper part could be constructed. With each year, the population grew so that by 1929, an immediate need was felt to begin construction. On March 26, 1929, a letter was sent to Bishop Thomas J. O'Reilly, requesting permission to draw tip plans for the new building. However, the amount available at the time, $24,000, was deemed insufficient. The Bishop suggested that the project be postponed until adequate funds could be raised. In that very year, the Great Depression began.      Any plans to build had to be abandoned.

 

St. Anthony's Church

 

By 1932, the financial situation of the parish had improved sufficiently for the Bishop to give his consent to build. The date of the letter is March 4, 1932. Construction began. Architect John J. Howley, of Scranton, designed the church, and John J. Loughney, of Pittston, was the general contractor.   On Sunday, October 29, 1933, an elaborate ceremony was held at which time Bishop O'Reilly solemnly blessed the cornerstone in the presence of 1,500 parishioners and friends. All of the pastors and clergy of Wilkes-Barre and vicinity gathered for this gala occasion. The parish committee, represented by Elias Joseph, Anthony J. Shehwen, Joseph Michael, Joseph Karam, Joseph Sadick and Joseph Harry were honored guests. The edifice was valued at $35,000. Father Koury, the host of the affair, had reached a milestone in the history of the parish. Three years later on Sunday, May 10, 1936, the completed structure was solemnly dedicated, and the dream of the original pioneers was finally realized.

 

On Sunday, January 19, 1958, a testimonial banquet was held at Wilkes-Barre's Hotel Sterling. The parishioners of St. Anthony's paid tribute to their beloved pastor, Father Koury, on the 35th anniversary of his pastorate. An excellent book was printed at the time containing a biography of Father Koury and a thorough historical sketch of the parish. Among the items mentioned were the first baptism, that of Sahd George administered by Father Paul Rizk in 1911; and the first marriage, that of Mobarak Elias Decker to Jammella Doumit Assee. There was also mention that Mr. Frank Bolus of Scranton and Miss Anna Shehwen of Wilkes-Barre were the first couple to be married in the New Church. The marriage was celebrated by Fr. John Koury himself on June 15th, 1936.  Charles Bolus and Louise Corey were the witnesses.