The History of
Our Lady of the Cedars of Lebanon Church
61 Rockwood Street, Jamaica Plain, MA 02130
The City of Boston has the proud distinction of being the birthplace of the Maronite Church in the United States. In 1893, Rev. Gabriel Korkemaz came to Boston from New York. He stayed for 2 years ministering to the small but growing Maronite Community. With the blessing of Archbishop John J. Williams, Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, they worshipped in the Church of St. James on Harrison Avenue. In the midst of their enclave, Fr. Stephen Korkemaz followed his cousin and was succeeded by Fr. Joseph Yazbek. Fr. Yazbek was a young and energetic priest, who would serve Our Lady of the Cedars for almost 30 years. He was able to obtain a 4-story dwelling at 78 Tyler Street, which served as the priest’s residence, social hall, and chapel. It was dedicated in 1899 and records show that the first child baptized in the new church was Habeeb Mansour Matta. Chorbishop Joseph K. Yazbek laid the foundation and built the front of the church in recognition of his missionary activity and the founding of the first Maronite church, he was later elevated to the rank of Chorbishop and became a leader of the Maronites in the US. After returning from Lebanon, Fr. Joseph Yazbek returned to his pastoral duties until he passed away in 1925. In all, he served as pastor for 30 years. Rev. Anthony K. Yazbek and Fr. Peter Sfeir, both of whom, came from Buffalo, followed him.
For an interim starting in 1928, the parish was privileged to have as its administrator, Fr. Albert J. Shea from St. James Parish. He recorded that the parish consisted of 129 families and had a debt of $1,359.76. In late 1929, Cardinal William O’Connell of the Archdiocese of Boston, summoned Fr. Stephen El-Douaihy from Scranton, Pennsylvania to serve the Maronites of Our Lady of the Cedars. The parish had prospered and grown to 253 families. Fr. Douaihy realized that the community had outgrown the tiny edifice on Tyler Street. He set out to find a more befitting home for the parish. For six long and difficult years, the parish struggled with the economic setbacks of the “Great Depression”. They were undaunted, led by a pious group of dedicated women, who formed the Daughters of Our Lady of the Cedars of Lebanon, the parishioners continued to strive toward their goal of a new church. On March 11, 1935, a building was purchased for $34,250 on Shawmut Avenue in Boston’s South End. The building was in need of major repairs. Fr. Douaihy took on the task with vigor and enthusiasm. The fruits of his work were there for all to admire. Many artisans of the community lent their talents to the task. Among them were Dr. Nassim Shadyak, Mr. Nicholas Gibran, and Mr. Nicholas Milan. On Christmas Eve of 1935, the first Mass was celebrated in the new home of the Maronites. In 1939, Patriarch Hoyek elevated Fr. Douaihy to the rank of Chorbishop. It was the 25th Anniversary of his Ordination.
The Parish was always under financial pressure. In 1944, with the help of our ever-present benefactor, Richard Cardinal Cushing, the mortgage on the church and rectory were retired. Chorbishop Douaihy insisted that the celebration and mortgage burning ceremony wait until all the 160 young men returned from the Armed Services. In April 1954, the 40th Anniversary of Chorbishop Douaihy’s Ordination, the celebration was held to great acclaim.
Involvement of the Laity has always been a key element in the success of any parish. Our Lady of the Cedars of Lebanon has been blessed with many such devoted individuals and groups. The Daughters of Our Lady of the Cedars affectionately known as the “Mother’s Club” was formed in 1929. In the early years, they were the backbone of the parish. They are still active and vibrant today. Through good times and bad, these loyal parishioners organized and supported all the events and activities in the church. In 1952, the Daughters of Our Lady of the Cedars of Lebanon proudly dedicated the new Carrara marble altar imported from Italy. They had worked tirelessly to raise $10,000 to cover its cost.
After World War II, with the return of our young men from the war, the Sacred Heart Society was formed in 1945. That group became the basis of St. Maron Society, with a name change in the 1950s. They were the main stay of the parish through the turbulent transition years after the demolition of the church on Shawmut Avenue and the building in Jamaica Plain. They remain loyal supporters and hard workers on every committee.
Also after World War II, in the late 1950's, some difficulties developed in the parish largely due to many of the parishioners moving out of Boston into the city's suburbs, a church fire, and Chorbishop Douaihy's failing health. The neighborhood was changed.
In October of 1959, a homeless man in the church basement, where Chorbishop Douaihy was storing newspapers for the Cardinal’s Annual paper drive, started a fire. The Church and rectory were quickly engulfed in the smoke. Chorbishop Douaihy, by now and older man, ran to the sanctuary to save the Blessed Sacrament from the ensuing flames. He succumbed to a heart attack on the sidewalk in front of the church that he built and served for 30 years.
Cardinal Cushing was grieved by the loss of his dear friend and the church he had helped build. He offered the Maronites the use of the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament in Holy Cross Cathedral on Washington Street. We would hold our services there until June of 1969!
The Cardinal appointed Fr. James J. Manning as Administrator of Our Lady of the Cedars until a Maronite priest could be found. Fr, Manning found many challenges. The Church was severely damaged in the fire and was condemned by the City and eventually razed. After the demolition of the church, the rectory became uninhabitable and was also torn down. It fell on Fr. Manning to dispose of all the contents of the church and rectory, storing what could be salvaged and throwing out the rest! He did it all with a smile! He gave us a great example of working for the “Glory of God”! He is remembered fondly by the parishioners. His mark remains today in our sanctuary in the form of two wooden kneelers at the shrines to St. Joseph and Mary, crafted by his skillful hands. He did carpentry to relax!
Our Lady of the Cedars, our Patroness has always looked down lovingly and protectively on the people of her flock. She never lets us down. Through her intercession, two newly ordained priests were sent to us, a gift from God!
Rev. Fr. David C. Gabriel and Rev. Fr. Roland Aboujaoude were sent to the United States to study education at Boston College. Their bishop, His Excellency Elias Farah, planned to open a school in Kornet Chahwan, that would use the American Language System. At first, they resided in 2 Latin parishes, but then Cardinal Cushing in his wisdom asked them if they would serve the Maronites. They were an immediate hit! They brought energy, vitality and a nostalgic feel of the “old country”. They brought the parish together, re-vitalized the traditions, established new organizations and renewed the spiritual life of the parish. They did all of this while pursuing a full academic schedule at Boston College. They were a dynamic team and we were so lucky to have them!
Thanks to the kindness and generosity of Mr. & Mrs. Alexander F. Thomas and their family, the parish house was established at 47 Rutland Street. This house was a hub of all activities, club meetings, Arabic classes, Religious Services, Choir Rehearsals, and Lenten Suppers. Every day of the week something was happening.
It was understandable that the parish was really upset, when in 1963, Bishop Farah wanted his priests to return to Lebanon, and be the Directors of St. Joseph School. We had become very attached to these two dedicated priests. Eventually, Bishop Farah agreed reluctantly to leave us Fr. Gabriel. Fr. Aboujaoude returned to Lebanon amidst tears and sadness. In 1964, Cardinal Cushing, who had a special admiration for Fr. Gabriel, arranged with Bishop Elias Farah, through the authority of the Maronite Patriarch Paul Peter Meouchi, to have Fr. David Gabriel appointed as permanent pastor of Our Lady of the Cedars of Lebanon Church. Our prayers were answered.
Fr. Gabriel would carry a heavy burden. He was to assume the task of finding, building, and financing a new home for our church. It was a daunting job! Our dearly beloved benefactor again came to our aid; immediately after Fr. Gabriel was appointed Pastor, Richard Cardinal Cushing offered us a parcel of land, consisting of 12 acres, located on Rockwood Street in the Moss Hill section of Jamaica Plain. Not only did he give us the land, he also gave us $300,000 cash to start building. We were elated. But, soon we would have to deal with many painful realities.
The newly formed Maronite Diocese, Exarchate of St. Maron of Detroit-USA, with its first Exarch, Francis M. Zayek, was in the process of having all the Maronite Church properties throughout America transferred to its name. Accordingly, the property of Our Lady of the Cedars of Lebanon Church was transferred into the newly established Maronite Diocese. In addition, the neighborhood in Jamaica Plain objected vehemently to the construction and presence of a church and a social hall in their midst, and accordingly they opposed our request for a zoning variance. Many delays, unexpected additional expenses, and obstacles followed. The City of Boston was reluctant to issue the necessary permits for the construction and initially denied the variance. The parishioners, in turn, with Fr. Gabriel, exerted their own pressure on the city officials to issue the necessary variance and permits. Ultimately, the Church prevailed and obtained the necessary permits and construction began in 1967. The pressure weighed very heavily on Fr. Gabriel, who spent many sleepless nights praying for deliverance from this heavy cross.
Finally in June of 1969, Fr, Gabriel moved from Rutland Street to the new rectory at 61 Rockwood Street. The new hall was completed and dedicated to our “guardian angel”, the “Richard Cardinal Cushing Maronite Community Center.” A sanctuary was made in a separate area of the hall, for masses, and services. The Maronites of Boston proudly settled in their new home.
In the fall of 1969, we began to see that all the worries and difficulties had taken a toll on our Pastor, his health was failing. On January 16, 1970, our worst nightmare came true; our dear, devoted, saintly priest was called to Heaven. He was only 36 years old! We were devastated. For several days mourners poured in from near and far. His sister, brother, sister-in-law, and nephews were in shock and broken-hearted. How could we console each other? The funeral was celebrated by Bishop Francis and was presided over by Richard Cardinal Cushing, which was attended by many clergy and hundreds of laity. Cardinal Cushing, who praised him as a humble priest and example for all, lovingly delivered the eulogy.
Before returning to Detroit, Bishop Zayek met with representatives of the parish and had lengthy discussions with them concerning the future of the church. He assured the parishioners that he would appoint a pastor, as quickly as possible, to continue meeting the needs of the parish. Who could replace our dear Fr. David Gabriel? Who could help us to hold onto our dream? Bishop Zayek made good on his promise and immediately appointed Joseph F. Lahoud, pastor of St. Maron Church in Torrington, Connecticut. He was the natural choice. He was a classmate and confidant of Fr. Gabriel. He could hit the ground running, because he knew all the difficulties we had endured and was a friend and an acquaintance of many parishioners.
During the interim, we were fortunate to have the services of Fr. Camille Hechaime, a Jesuit, who had been visiting us for several months before our tragic loss. He helped us work through our grief and remain hopeful in our future.
In February of 1970, Fr. Lahoud arrived at our parish, undaunted by challenges he knew would lie ahead. He jumped right in and got started. From the first day, there was never any problem that could not be solved. He was energetic, optimistic, diligent, and remains so even to this day! He is a wise, and capable administrator. Through his efforts, our financial problems were addressed and the church complex continues to grow. The original mortgage was paid off in 1973!
We are most thankful for the architectural talents of Barbara Geddis Wooten and her father, William Geddis, who designed the church structure to compliment the existing buildings. It was dedicated in 1975 and the cornerstone of the two previous edifices was included in the foundation. The Italian marble altar was again donated by the Daughters club. A special crypt was added to lay our beloved Fr. Gabriel to rest in the church. The beautiful stained glass windows executed by renowned artist Saliba Douaihy enhance the interior. Over the years, the property has been graced with many new outdoor shrines donated by grateful parishioners; among them, St. Sharbel, Blessed Mother, St. Rafka, and the Meditation Garden and Stations of the Cross.
High on the hill, Our Lady of the Cedars of Lebanon, an original bronze sculpture by artist Kahlil Gibran, looks down over her children. In 1993, the 100th Anniversary of our church was celebrated by the planting of 100 cedar trees around the property. A new social, cultural, and religious education center was added adjacent to the church and dedicated by Bishop Gregory Mansour in 2005. The building was fittingly named “The Chorbishop Joseph F. Lahoud Pastoral Center”.
In 2009, we celebrated with our pastor, the 50th Jubilee of his priestly ordination “ad multos annos”. We have been inspired by his dedication to us for the past 39 years. In June of 2010, our beloved pastor, Chorbishop Lahoud, retired. For the first time in 40 years, we were blessed with a new pastor, Rev. Fr. Georges Y. El-Khalli, Ph.D. He came to us after a very fruitful ministry at St. John Maron Maronite Church in Buffalo, NY. The first several months were challenging, with many adjustments to be made, but as time passed we progressed and bonded to become an active and vibrant community. In August 2010, we hosted our first Annual Lebanese Festival on the church grounds. It was a happy reminder of our past celebrations of the feast of Our Lady with the Annual Outings. The Annual Lebanese Festival has been ongoing uninterrupted until the present time. Traditionally, November always brought the excitement of our Bazaar since 1967. It has been a major fundraiser for the church, and we are grateful for the chairladies and committees each year that worked tirelessly to exceed the last. In 2014, the Autumn Extravaganza Raffle replaced the bazaar and became an instant hit with the parish!
Somewhere in his whirlwind schedule, our Pastor, Monsignor Georges, found the time to research and write a wonderful book entitled “Whispering Treasures” based on his discovery of the hidden messages enshrined within the stained glass windows of our church. We are so grateful for his efforts, because now, for the first time we can truly appreciate the meaning of the chronological history of the Maronites, represented so exquisitely in the stained glass artwork of world- renowned artist Saliba Al-Douaihy.
One of the main goals of Msgr. El-Khalli is to involve the entire parish community in the life and in activities of our church so that we can all share in the prosperity of our parish and our Maronite Tradition. We are a unique blend of American born and Lebanese born Maronites united in a singular cause. Over our parish’s 125 year history, we have welcomed numerous dignitaries of both Church and civic leaders, such as Cardinals, Patriarchs, Presidents, Governors, Senators and Mayors, just to name a few, and have hosted three national Maronite Conventions. However, the most important accomplishment we have achieved is that we have been able to preserve our Maronite Traditions for future generations. This was made possible by all of our clergy, who sacrificed their lives to serve us. We are eternally grateful to them for keeping the spirit alive.
It has been said that the youths are the “Future of the Church.” In fact, the youths are “the Present and the Future of the Church.” Our Lady of the Cedars of Lebanon was the first parish to start a Youth Group called MYO (Maronite Youth Organization), which was founded by Fr. Gabriel in the 1960s.
Our Religious Education Program is vibrant and our Catechetical Team is second to none. It is through the efforts of our dynamic Catechetical Team that the “Knights of the Blessed Virgin” was formed. The “Knights of the Blessed Virgin: is a Marian Organization that was established in Lebanon in the early 1950s by Father Georges Khoury aiming at catechizing children (ages 7-15) and keeping them in the faith. These young “Knights” are our hope for preserving our traditions and handing it on to the next generation.
Under the direction of our energetic new pastor, Monsignor Georges El-Khalli, the parish is growing. Many new projects were planned, starting with the repair and renovation of our church. Having renovated our Church, we also have installed in October 2022 a vertical platform lift, (outside elevator) in order to make the building of the church more accessible, especially for the elderly parishioners and the handicapped. Further, included in the renovation project, were the surrounding grounds and many improvements and upgrades to the entire parish complex, which turned out to be gorgeous. The Richard Cardinal Cushing Maronite Community Center has been entirely renovated, and the building committee, with the help of the architects and contractors, have provided us a state of the art facility that is the envy of all of Boston.
Perhaps it is Divine Providence that in the 125th anniversary year of our church, we find ourselves completing and dedicating our newly renovated, Church, Community Center, and our entire campus. What a wonderful way to celebrate our 125th Anniversary!
May Our Lady of the Cedars continue to guide & protect us!
Compiled with the assistance of the late Mrs. Matilda Camer Chadie, The Parish historian, Mr. Albert G. Albert, Eminent Historian of the Maronites, and Updated by Rosanne Williams Solomon, Msgr. Georges Y. El-Khalli and Judge Kenneth P. Nasif.