St. Elias: Maronite tradition survives even as church, flock change

57259711.jpgSt. Elias Maronite Catholic Church opens itself up to the larger community with a festival this weekend.
By Jorge Valencia
The Rev. Kevin Beaton conducts a liturgy Thursday morning at St. Elias Maronite Catholic Church in Roanoke. The church’s annual Lebanese Festival takes place today, Saturday and Sunday on the church grounds and will feature food, dancing and music.

Parishioners worship at St. Elias Maronite Church's morning liturgy Thursday morning. The Maronite tradition dates to the fifth century, when the hermit priest Maron started a new church in Lebanon.


Parishioners worship at St. Elias Maronite Church’s morning liturgy Thursday morning. The Maronite tradition dates to the fifth century, when the hermit priest Maron started a new church in Lebanon

The Rev. Kevin Beaton opened the heavy wooden church door, bent a knee to the ground, then rose and walked down the aisle between the pews. He stamped his right foot on the rust-colored carpet and looked around the room with the patience of a man who has seen that change doesn’t happen by itself.

“The carpet has taken quite a beating over the years,” said Beaton, 60. “We’ll have to change it.”

The priest came from Pennsylvania a year ago to St. Elias Maronite Catholic Church in Roanoke, founded in 1916 by Lebanese immigrants, and his arrival highlights the congregation’s transition to a majority of non-Lebanese parishioners.

Beaton was one of three children who grew up in North Dakota, Minnesota and Texas before settling in Cheyenne, Wyo., as their father worked for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. He earned a master’s of divinity from the now-closed Oblate College in Washington, D.C., in 1987, was ordained that summer and most recently served St. John the Baptist Maronite Church in New Castle, Pa., for 12 years before he was transferred here.

Like many other non-Lebanese at St. Elias, Beaton grew up in a Roman Catholic family, but was attracted to a different form of Catholicism called the Maronite Rite because it perpetuates ancient traditions. It dates to the fifth century, when a hermit priest named Maron started a church in Lebanon, attracting hundreds of followers who kept his name after his death.

Maronites recognize the authority of the pope in Rome, though they are led by different bishops in North America and a patriarch in Lebanon. Their service is similar to that of Roman Catholic churches before the reforms of Vatican II, which shortened Mass and allowed translation from Latin. Maronite services are in Arabic and Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic.

“Aramaic was the language spoken by Jesus,” Beaton said this week. “It is a great privilege to have that in our services.”

The church counts about 125 member families, many second- and third-generation Lebanese-Americans or first-generation immigrants from Iraq or Latin America. It has shrunk from the 600 to 700 families the church said it had in 2004.

Lebanese heritage still dominates the parish’s cultural life. For example, this weekend the church will hold its 13th annual festival of Lebanese food, dancing and music.

A committee of parishioners has led the festival’s organization, though the priest is ultimately the administrator and spiritual leader of the congregation. One of the projects Beaton was involved in during his first year here was a remodeling of the church’s worship hall to fit traditional Maronite custom, in which Psalm readings are done below the altar.

Beaton “is very gifted in the fact that he is able to take a situation and guide us down the right pathway that is nonconfrontational and very amenable to everyone concerned,” said Sam Silek, a member of the church festival and finance committees.

This week, Beaton said that for the next year, he is looking at whether the church will be able to replace its carpeting. And he’s looking forward to his first festival here.

“We’re praying for good weather,” he said.