(Prepared by Fr Yuhanna Azize)
The history of the Maronite Church in Australia tells of how a people held fast to what was good, working relentlessly for their families in a new land. It is a tale of how simple Christians – laity and clergy alike – have remembered and helped each other.
The first Lebanese had probably arrived in Australia by 1850. Maronites are known to have been in Adelaide from as early as 1854. At first, only a few came, but as religious troubles continued in Lebanon, as new shores beckoned, and travel became affordable, they emigrated from Mount Lebanon in increasing numbers to achieve a better life for themselves and their children. The shipping routes tended to land them in Fremantle or Adelaide. Around 1888, some people from Kfarsghab who had just arrived in Broken Hill, heard the Town Hall clock tolling midnight. Mistaking the chimes for church bells, they sought the church. When they saw a policeman, they made the sign of the cross, and were taken to the local parish priest.
These first emigrants came chiefly to live openly and without discrimination as Maronites. Family and church were essentially one for them. Being Catholic, these newcomers naturally joined in the life of the Latin Catholic Church, forming an active part of the local Catholic communities.
Maronite priests from Lebanon came regularly as visitors to celebrate the Divine Liturgy, but the emigrants needed a permanent presence. From 1888, Fr Kayrouz lived in Adelaide, where he chanted the liturgy and ministered to the people until 1929. The Maronites of Sydney wrote to the Patriarch to send Maronite priests, and on 8 May 1893, Fr Yazbeck and Fr Dahdah arrived in Sydney. The next year, they established a chapel in Waterloo. Such was the support from the local Maronites, that on 10 January 1897, St Maroun’s in Redfern NSW was dedicated.
As the Maronites spread throughout Australia, two things happened. First, visits from the priests at Redfern were eagerly looked forward to, supplemented by visits from traveling clergy. When I was a child in the 1960s, we had a priest stay with us for a couple of weeks. He had come from Zgharta and needed somewhere to stay. He left early each day, and returned late each evening, visiting people, and celebrating Divine Liturgy through the kindness of the local Catholic clergy. However, the second thing which started to occur, almost imperceptibly at first, was that the second generation of Maronites began to melt into the local Latin Catholic dioceses. They had never known the Church in Lebanon, and visited St Maroun’s less and less frequently. Indeed, many young persons of Maronite background became priests, brothers and nuns, but joined the Roman rite.
It became clear that more Maronite churches were needed, and with them, a Maronite bishop to establish an Eparchy (or diocese). In Melbourne, the laity appealed to Lebanon, and in November 1955 Fr Paul El-Khoury arrived. Our Lady of Lebanon, Carlton Vic was consecrated on 16 August 1959.
In Sydney, under Monsignor Ziade, who was at St Maroun’s from 1963-1973, the church premises at Redfern were expanded to supply a greater range of services for the faithful, Maronite Sisters of the Holy Family arrived in 1968, and the building of Our Lady of Lebanon Church, Harris Park, began. The foundation stone was laid on 22 March 1970 by Cardinal Gilroy and Monsignor Ziade. A hall and school were blessed and opened on 10 December 1972.
On 6 February 1972, the Maronite Order of Monks arrived. Their road was a circuitous one, but the Order, always popular with the Lebanese, found premises at Highclere Avenue, Punchbowl, Sydney, and the first divine liturgy to be celebrated in their new church, St Charbel’s, Punchbowl, was the Christmas midnight service of 24/25 December 1974.
In October 1973, the first bishop, Archbishop Abdo Khalife, arrived to establish the Eparchy under the name of “St Maroun’s”. With him came a priest who was at that time Fr Ad Abikaram, later to return as Bishop Abikaram, the present Bishop. Archbishop Khalife’s work was very difficult, not only because of the size of the undertaking, but also because so many Maronites were fully integrated into Latin rite parishes, and identified as “Catholics” first, and “Maronites” second or not at all. An increasing number of people of Lebanese descent spoke no Arabic, or only understood colloquial Arabic as opposed to the more formal dialect spoken in church. Many of these had no particular attachment to the Maronite rite.
However, the Archbishop worked indefatigably to build a united Eparchy, with a centre strong enough to hold together parishes all over Australia. And the Church did spread.
Since that time, more nuns have arrived, working in schools, in care of the elderly, and in child care (The Maronite Sisters of the Holy Family in Sydney, and the Maronite Congregation of the Antonine Sisters in Melbourne). Maronite life in Australia without the nuns would now be unimaginable, being present in all spheres of parish life, not least in the celebration and music of the Divine Liturgy. There are other vigorous Maronite churches, such as that of St Maroun’s at Greenslopes, Brisbane, dedicated on 26 February 1989; Our Lady of Lebanon, West Wollongong NSW dedicated in September 1982 by Archbishop Khalife.
On 4 March 1991, Bishop Joseph Hitti became the new Bishop. His Grace blessed the High Schools of Our Lady of Lebanon, Harris Park and St Charbel at Punchbowl. Bishop Hitti, an eminent canon lawyer who served on the Roman Rota, invited the Congregation of Lebanese Missionaries (the Kreim) to Australia. The Congregation now mans the Church of St John the Beloved, Mt Druitt. The western area of Sydney was a special concern of His Grace, who took steps to minister to the Maronites there.
On 8 February 2002, Bishop Ad Abikaram was installed as Maronite Bishop of the Eparchy of Australia. By building upon the efforts of his predecessors, His Grace established a sorely needed structure for the Eparchy of Australia.
On 17 April 2013, Pope Francis announced the appointment of Bishop Antoine-Charbel Tarabay as the Fourth Maronite Bishop of Australia. Bishop Tarabay ordained to the Episcopate on the 25th of May 2013 by His Eminence and Beatitude Mar Bechara Boutros Cardinal Rai at the Maronite Patriarchate in Bkerke. Bishop Tarabay was officially installed as the 4th Bishop of the Maronite Diocese of Australia on the 3rd of June 2013 at St Maroun’s Cathedral in Redfern.
“Beit Maroun” located at ‘105 The Boulevarde, Strathfield’, was designed by the famous Architect Walter Burley Griffin, and purchased in 1984. It was named ‘Beit Maroun’ by Archbishop Khalife, First Maronite Archbishop of Australia who dedicated it to the use of the Maronites in Australia.
It has a central role in the Eparchy, as the residence of the Maronite Bishop of Australia and the meeting place for all Maronites. Several Maronite supporting Organisations and Committees, concerned in the Pastoral Work of the Diocese, hold their committee meetings and plenary sessions here.
In 2014, Beit Maroun underwent extensive renovations led by Bishop Antoine-Charbel Tarabay. An external Chapel was established and the Chancery offices were relocated to the Our Lady Pastoral, Community and Youth Centre at Our Lady of Lebanon, Harris Park.