A BRIEF HISTORY OF OUR LADY OF MERCY MARONITE CATHOLIC CHURCH WORCESTER, MASSACHUSETTS
1. Humble beginnings:
The first Maronites came to Worcester, Mass. from some small villages in the northern mountains of Lebanon around the year 1893; among them were members of the Dadah, Lotuff, and Agbey families. Most of the newcomers settled on East Central Street near the downtown area, close to the railroad station, using this as a directional landmark lest they suffer, like many of their Lebanese countrymen, the embarrassment of being lost in these large American cities, because their English, at least in the beginning, they knew ill well, if at all. The first concern of these pioneers was to secure the economic independence of their families. Some went into farming, others into industry, and many into small businesses of their own selling groceries and imported delicacies, linen and dry goods and setting themselves up as restaurateurs. They worshiped in Roman Catholic churches such as the former St. Ann’s Church (on Eastern Avenue), St. John’s Church (on Temple Street), and Notre Dame Church (on Salem Square), for about 30 years. Through the kindness of Fr. John J. McCoy, the pastor of St. Ann’s Church, the first Maronite Rite Mass in Worcester was celebrated in St. Ann’s Church probably in 1906. The celebrant was the Rev. Msgr. Joseph Yazbeck, the pastor of Our Lady of the Cedars of Lebanon Church in Boston. From time to time other priests would come to offer their priestly services such as celebrating Mass, performing baptisms or conducting funerals. One of these was Fr. Michael Saab, the pastor of St. Anthony’s Maronite Church in nearby Springfield.
2. A new parish is established:
In 1922 Fr. Paul Rizk, a Maronite priest from Lebanon, visited Worcester and learned that a building at 72 Mulberry Street, which was a Swedish Lutheran Church also called the “Finnish Hall” was for sale. This beautiful Gothic style church built in 1884 was in perfect shape. Joseph John George (better known then as “Youssef Hanna” from Karm-Saddeh, North Lebanon) a wealthy Maronite businessman, who spoke seven languages and a great leader of the Maronite-Lebanese community, called the people for a meeting. Encouraged by a visiting bishop from Lebanon, the Most Reverend Shukrallah Khoury, who was sent here by His Beatitude the Maronite Patriarch Elias Peter Howayek, they organized committees and finally bought, in 1923, the above-mentioned building for $7,500.00; then they had it remodeled for Catholic worship. The building committee included Joseph John George, Joseph Adams, Joseph Daboul, Khalil Assad, Patrick George, Anthony Massad, Joseph Dadah, Joseph Abdella and others. A few years later the rectory, next door to the church, was purchased for $11,500.00. Since most of the Maronite people did not speak well the English language at that time, there was great joy and happiness among them because they have at last their own church and their own priest. They were finally able to worship God according to their own liturgy and more importantly in the old country language. On June 29, 1923 the Most Reverend Thomas M. O’Leary, the Roman Catholic bishop of Springfield, Mass. dedicated the building under the name of “Our Lady of Mercy Maronite Catholic Church” and appointed Fr. Rizk as its first pastor.
3. The new parish progresses and moves forward:
The church’s records show that this church was founded during the time of its first pastor, Fr. Paul Rizk who served from 1922 until 1924. The rectory was purchased during the tenure of the second pastor, Fr. George Sabehlani, who came from New Bedford, and served the parish from 1924 until his sudden death at the age of 65, on Sunday, February 21, 1937 when he collapsed in the sanctuary after having just finished the celebration of the Mass. After the death of FR. Sabehlani, a Roman Catholic priest named Fr. Jeremiah T. Reardon, who was the pastor of St. Joseph Church in Leicester, Mass., was appointed in 1937 by Bishop Thomas M. O’Leary of Springfield as temporary administrator of Our Lady of Mercy Church. Fr. Reardon used to be an assistant pastor at St. Ann’s Church, and therefore, knew many of the Maronite people who lived in Worcester since they often worshipped in that church. He served the parish faithfully until February 21, 1947. He was always affectionately remembered for his charity, understanding and the priestly devotion of his service. The mortgage on the church was burned during the tenure of Fr. Reardon. That mortgage was $12,000.00 that is $7,500.00 bequeathed by Fr. Sabehlani, and $500.00 donated by Joseph Adams, a generous parishioner; the balance of $4,000.00 was collected from the rest of the members.
4. A new pastor arrives:
On April of 1947, at the invitation of Bishop Thomas J. O’Leary of Springfield, the Maronite Patriarch Anthony Peter Arida of Lebanon, with the approval of the Sacred Congregation for the Eastern Rite Churches in Rome, sent Fr. Joseph Saidi from his native Zgharta (in North Lebanon) to visit Worcester parish. In May 13 of the same year Fr. Saidi was appointed by the Most Reverend Thomas J. O’Leary, the bishop of Springfield, to be the third pastor of Our Lady of Mercy Church.
During Fr. Saidi’s tenure the parish property was completely renovated, both inside and out. Fr. Saidi himself did much of the work with his own hands. The improvements affected the church which can seat 400 people, the parish hall, and the rectory building with its four apartments of six rooms each. Later on, in 1997, Fr. Saidi purchased another house next door to the church for the sum of $50,000.00. This house has been recently entirely remodeled and serves as the actual parish rectory.
During the pastorate of Msgr. Saidi great joy and gladness came upon the parishioners of Our Lady of Mercy parish when they celebrated the 25th anniversary (Silver Jubilee) of the founding of their church on June 29, 1948, in the presence of the Most Reverend Thomas M. O’Leary, the bishop of Springfield. On that same year new beautiful stained glass windows depicting Maronite saints along with other saints honored in a special way in the Maronite Church were installed in the church replacing the old original plane windows. The statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary erected in front of the church, which was donated by the James McGuiness family from Worcester, was dedicated at the same time. The statue of St. Joseph located of the other side of the front of the church was donated in 1950 by the Milad Joseph family (originally from Beit-Mery, in Central Lebanon) in honor of the Most Reverend John J. Wright on the occasion of his nomination as the first bishop of the newly established Diocese of Worcester, Mass.
On October 1, 1950, Bishop Wright made his first pastoral visit to Our Lady of Mercy Parish and re-dedicated the church after all the renovations have been completed. In 1960, the Most Reverend Bernard J. Flanagan, who had become the second bishop of Worcester on September 24, 1959, visited also Our Lady of Mercy parish and blessed the church and the people which brought a great deal of comfort to everyone. In 1974 Msgr. Saidi became a Chorbishop (that is a Monsignor in the Maronite Rite) and the parishioners were so proud to see him wearing the insignia of this honorary rank during the religious celebrations. Msgr. Saidi remained pastor of Our Lady of Mercy Church for over fifty years serving with great love and dedication until his retirement, in 1998, at the age of 88. Shortly after his retirement, Msgr. Saidi returned to Lebanon to be with his family. He passed away in his native Zgharta on January 31, 2008 at the age of 98 and was buried in the family cemetery on Saturday, February 2, 2008. A memorial Mass was held for the repose of his soul at Our Lady of Mercy Church on Sunday, February 10, 2008 which was well attended by many of his old parishioners and friends.
5. A new era begins:
In 1998, the Rev. Msgr. Joseph Lahoud, the pastor of Our Lady of the Cedars of Lebanon Church in Boston was appointed by Bishop Stephen Doueihi administrator of Our Lady of Mercy Church with a young Maronite priest in residence, Fr. David Michael as his assistant. However, Fr. Michael was transferred in 1999 and was replaced for the period of only six months by Fr. Anthony Weiler as a temporary parish administrator. Bishop Doueihi then appointed the Rev. Msgr. Assad Awad as the fourth pastor of Our Lady of Mercy Church. Msgr. Awad took possession of his office on February 9, 2000, the feast of St. Maron.
Under Msgr. Awad’s leadership extensive renovations took place at once on both the church buildings and the parish administration. Church and parish hall were painted and refurbished. A new rug was installed in the church sanctuary; two oak-carved lecterns and the baptismal fount were donated and the original majestic altar, which was covered by plywood by order of the Latin Rite Bishop after liturgical reforms of Vatican Council II, was uncovered and cleaned up; also several new icons of Maronite saints to adorn the church were commissioned and installed. The Sunday services took a new direction thanks to many new members recently immigrating from Lebanon, an more social activities such as parties and huflis were taking place all along; consequently many parishioners coming back home. During his relatively short pastorate Msgr. Awad made several attempts to improve the physical life of the parish without much success: First he tried to acquire a parcel of land located across the street from the church to be used as a parking lot (about 50 parking spaces) for parishioners and guests while attending church services and social functions, bu the State of Massachusetts, the owner of the land, did not agree. Second, an attempt to provide the church with an electrical elevator to help older parishioners avoid climbing the hard steps proved to be very expensive and not feasible for such an old building. The relocation of the church was always a dream of Msgr. Awad that did not materialize because the ideal location was hard to find even though a parcel of land (4 acres) near the Science Museum of Worcester (EcoTarium) could have been very convenient but the conditions imposed by the seller were not acceptable and the deal unfortunately, did not go through. Finally after the local Roman Rite Bishop closed five churches in recent years, the parish tried to purchase one of them but none seemed to be up to the task.
In 1966, the Holy Father, Pope Paul VI, appointed the first Maronite bishop in the US the Most Reverend Francis M. Zayek as Apostolic Exarch (that is the Pope’s representative). On June 4, 1972, Bishop Zayek became the first Eparch (Bishop) of the Eparchy (Diocese) of St. Maron USA, with headquarters in Detroit, Michigan. He later moved his see to Brooklyn. New York. In 1994 another Maronite Diocese in the US was created the “Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon” of Los Angeles, California for the West Coast with Bishop John G. Chedid as its first bishop, while the Eparchy of St. Maron of Brooklyn remained in charge of the East Coast territory. In 1997 bishop Zayek resigned because of canonical age, and in February 5, 1997 Bishop Stephen Doueihi was appointed the second bishop of the Eparchy of St. Maron. In 2004 Bishop Doueihi resigned also because of canonical age and was replaced by Bishop Gregory J. Mansour as the third bishop of the Eparchy.
Our Lady of Mercy parish belongs officially to the Eparchy of St. Maron of Brooklyn and was honored by the pastoral visit of Bishop Zayek in 1966 and then in 1973 on the occasion of the parish Golden Jubilee (50th anniversary) celebration. Also in 1998 Bishop Doueihi made another pastoral visit to Our Lady of Mercy Parish on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of its founding (Silver Jubilee). Bishop Gregory J. Mansour made a pastoral visit in 2006 and again in 2007 for the celebration of the Golden Jubilee (50 years) of priesthood of Msgr. Awad which took place on Sunday May 20, 2007. The celebration began with a Thanksgiving High Mass at the church attended by Bishop Gregory J. Mansour of Brooklyn, New York, Archbishop Cyril Bustros of the Melkite Eparchy of Newton, Mass., and the Right Rev. Abbot William Driscoll the Superior of the Holy Trinity Maronite Monastery in Petersham, Mass. along with several neighboring priests and deacons, in addition to 400 parishioners and friends. After Mass everybody went to the nearby Union Station Reception Hall for the traditional testimonial dinner. The Honorable Konstantina Lukes, the Mayor of Worcester read a special proclamation on behalf of the city, Bishop Gregory Mansour presented Msgr. Awad with a special blessing from Pope Benedict XVI, and the Consul of Lebanon in Boston, Abraham Hanna, presented him also with a special decoration from the Lebanese president General Emile Lahoud for his hard work towards the cause of the Maronite Church and the country of Lebanon. On June 1, 2009, Msgr. Awad retired because of canonical age, and Fr. Paul Mooradd, the pastor of St. Anthony’s Church in Danbury, Connecticut, became the new pastor of Our Lady of Mercy parish in Worcester for a six-year term.
6. A look at the future:
Our Lady of Mercy Parish of Worcester has seen many changes through the years. From the jurisdiction of the local Roman Rite bishop, the parish was placed under the jurisdiction of the newly appointed Maronite bishop in the ‘60s. At the same time, while the new liturgical reforms of Vatican II were underway throughout the entire Catholic Church, English has gradually replaced Arabic and Aramaic at Our Lady of Mercy as well. At present, however, under the influx of new immigrants from the country of Lebanon because of the latest civil war there some Arabic and Aramaic have been reintroduced in the celebration of the Mass in order to accommodate the newcomers, while all the other prayers are recited in English according to the Mass books provided by the Church Authority. Furthermore, the Maronite Church has always taken pride for being among the few Churches in which during the Mass the Words of Institution (Consecration) have always been chanted in Aramaic, in the same way Our Lord himself did during it the first Mass of the Last Supper.
While much has been accomplished so far at Our Lady of Mercy Church much more still needs to be done in the future including the eventual relocation of the church, so that the Maronite Rite, one of the oldest Rites in Christendom may flourish and grow in this part of the Kingdom of God on this earth; this may also bring back to the sheepfold many of those who have drifted away from it, through the years, for many different reasons.
PASTORS WHO SERVED OUR LADY OF MERCY CHURCH DURING THIS PERIOD:
1893-1922: No resident pastor, only visiting priests 1922-1924: Rev. Fr. Paul Rizk, Pastor 1924-1937: Rev. Fr. George Sabehlani, Pastor 1937-1947: Rev. Fr. Jeremiah Reardon, Administrator 1947-1998: Rev. Msgr. Joseph Saidi, Pastor 1998-1999: Rev. Fr. David Michael, Assistant Pastor 1999-2000: Rev. Fr. Anthony Weiler, Administrator 2000-2009: Rev. Msgr. Assad Awad, Pastor 2009- 2013 : Rev. Fr. Paul Mooradd, Pastor 2013-2015: Father Gaby Hoyek 2015 – Present: Father Alex