It did not happen overnight. The planning for the first Saint Elias Lebanese Food and Cultural Festival began in 1998. Norman and Paul Bolus, brothers, had the enterprising idea of starting a food festival for their church. They had always marveled at the success of neighboring Saint George’s Food Festival and the Greek Food Festival. They had also cherished their memories of attending the Birmingham International Festival as children. So thus inspired, they resolutely decided to showcase their heritage in a similar way.
After some initial information gathering from the other local festivals, the brothers began to lobby their idea to the church family. Chorbishop Richard Saad, the pastor of Saint Elias, the Saint Elias Pastoral and Stewardship Committees, as well as the entire parish at the church annual meeting, had to agree to the idea before the necessary resources would be committed. Chorbishop Saad suggested that the Festival be called the Saint Elias Lebanese Food and Cultural Festival to emphasize that this was to showcase our church’s rich traditions and heritage. Everyone readily agreed.One of the first obstacles for these brothers was to decide the recipes to use for the food (the key to drawing crowds and fellow parishioners). Recipe taste tests began and after many different recipes were tried (and many different opinions were offered), the perfect combination of recipes was finally established. Our baked kibbee, lemon chicken, grape leaves, homus, spinach pies, Lebanese salad, kiak, loobia (green beans), and rice recipes thus were established and calculated for mass production.
The parish pulled together and, with much effort and prayer, pulled off their first Festival in 1999. The success exceeded the wildest expectations of the brothers and the parish. Each year since, the Festival has grown larger and better, thanks to the support of the community. Over 300 volunteers from the parish now contribute in their own special ways to make the Festival the success it is.Many organizations at the church are rewarded for their labor by enjoying part of the proceeds of the Festival, including: the Junior Maronite Youth Organization, the Maronite Youth Organization, the Maronite Young Adults, the Ladies Altar Society, and the Endowment fund, which finances future church projects. In addition, twenty five percent of festival proceeds are donated to outside charities.
Anthony Bolus now chairs the festival and Paul and Norman Bolus now serve as consultants. To date St. Elias, from festival proceeds, has donated over $553,000 dollars to local, national, and international charities. However, “there are some things that money cannot buy.” The St. Elias Food and Cultural Festival has brought the parish together each year to work as a church family and to showcase what a Christian Lebanese faith community is really all about. It is our hope that through our Festival we are not only carrying on the traditions of our culture to the next generation, but we are also able to display our culture to the community for a better understanding of our Lebanese Christian faith. At the same time, through our donations, we are able to give back to the community that has supported us each year. As the Festival continues to grow, the hope is that this rewarding cycle for the church and the community will continue for many years to come.
Saint Elias Maronite Catholic Church was established in 1910 in order to serve a growing population of people (primarily from what is now the country of Lebanon, and others from the Middle East countries) who had immigrated to Birmingham. Maronite Catholics practice their ancestral Rite, yet maintain the same essentials as other Rites of the Roman Catholic Church. The Maronite Church has consistently maintained its bonds with Rome and the Holy See. The Maronites have their own Patriarch and Bishops and ancient traditions which include the use of Aramaic (the language of Christ) in its liturgy. There was no church in Birmingham in which these Catholics could worship God according to their Rite and these rich traditions. By 1906 there were about 150 Eastern Rite people in the city. Father James E. Coyle, Pastor of Saint Paul’s and chaplain to the group, had invited Eastern Rite Priests to give missions at Saint Paul’s for the parishioners who were members of the Maronite (and Melkite) Rites.
In 1907, Rev. Mobarek Bellama became a missionary to the Maronite Rite Catholics in the United States. Father Coyle asked Bishop E. P. Allen for a Maronite Priest to serve the people of Birmingham, and in January of 1910, Father Bellama arrived in Birmingham. He resided at Saint Paul’s Rectory and held the Maronite Rite Liturgy in a room at Saint Paul’s School while organizing a congregation and establishing the Saint Elias Maronite Catholic parish.
Property was purchased on Sixth Avenue South, between 20th and 21st Streets, and the existing building on the property was remodeled and converted into the Church. On February 14, 1914, Bishop Allen dedicated the new Church in honor of Saint Elias, “patron of the villages from which the faithful came.” The Maronite population had more than doubled to over 300 by then and attendance for the dedication Mass was beyond the capacity for the first Maronite Rite Church built south of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
In 1917 Rev. Joseph Koury was named the second pastor of the Church and Bishop Allen administered the Sacrament of Confirmation to the first class at Saint Elias in 1919. Rev. George Aziz became the third pastor in 1920 and rewrote the music and Arabic phonetically so the choir and parishioners could fully participate in the Liturgy. Rev. Joseph Ghanem was named 4th pastor in 1923, Chorbishop Joseph Shebayah 5th pastor in 1925, Rev. Joseph Shaboth 6th pastor in 1926 Rev. Paul Rizk 7th in 1929. . Rev. George Aziz was again appointed 8th pastor in 1929. From 1935-1937 St. Elias was under the direction of Latin rite priests Reverend Edward Shea and Rev. Herman Cazalas. Rev. Joseph Yazbek was appointed 9th pastor in 1937. Due to the financial hardships created by the Great Depression, the parish suffered greatly: registered parishioners dropped to 61 and it was unable to sustain the operations of the Church.
By 1938 Rev. Joseph Schumtz, Pastor of Immaculate Conception Church, and Rev. Herman Cazalas, and others, including some Benedictine priests from St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman, were appointed to serve Saint Elias part-time. In 1939 Saint Elias was temporarily closed. In less than a year, Rev. Joseph Ferris Abi-Chedid was appointed the 10th pastor and tasked with reopening the church with a treasury fund of $7.87 and $311.00 raised by the Ladies’ Altar Society (which had never ceased working to raise funds while the Church was closed). Those funds were used to repair the Church and Rectory and plans were made for future expansion. By 1949 a new site had been purchased, a square block on Eighth Street between 8th and 9th Avenues South, for the relocation of the Church. In 1947, Father Abi-Chedid, Yousef (Joseph) Habshey and Sam Boackle traveled to Lebanon to obtain marble from the Habshey family quarry to be used for the cornerstones of the church. The structure was completed in December, 1950 and the first Mass in the new Church was offered on Christmas Day. In 1958, ground was broken for the Church Hall.
Saint Elias celebrated its Golden Jubilee in 1960 and His Beatitude Paul Peter Meouchi, Maronite Patriarch of Antioch and all the East dedicated the new Church and Church Hall. Rev. Abi-Chedid was ordained Chorbishop.
In 1962 the St. Elias church rectory was completed and dedicated.In 1966 Pope Paul VI established the Maronite Apostolic Exarchate in the United States. Most Reverend Francis M. Zayek was named Exarch of the Exarchate of Saint Maron, with headquarters in Detroit, Michigan. In 1970 Msgr. John Trad was named the 11th pastor. In 1972 Rev. Richard D. Saad was assigned to Saint Elias as Assistant Pastor and then as Temporary Administrator and the Exarchate was raised to the rank of an Eparchy (Diocese). In June Saint Elias Parish hosted the ninth annual National Apostolate of Maronites (“NAM”) Convention, a first for Birmingham, with Archbishop Peter Sfair, representative of Pope Paul VI, in attendance. U.S. Congressman Abraham Kazan of Texas served as banquet speaker. The President of Lebanon, Suleiman Franjieh, addressed the convention via telephone connection during the banquet.
Rev. Richard D. Saad was appointed the 12th pastor in 1976 and in July Archibishop Roland Aboujaoude and Bishop Francis Zayek attended and spoke at the Southern Federation Convention in Birmingham. In 1980, Rev. Fahed Azar was ordained at the Church, the Order of St. Sharbel met at the Church (and subsequently conducted its winter retreat in Birmingham in 1984), and the Church hosted the Executive Board of NAM in 1980 and 1982. Rev. Maron Abi-Nader was appointed 13th pastor in 1984, and Rev. William J. Decker was appointed 14th pastor later in 1984.
Rev. Richard D. Saad was reappointed 15th pastor of Saint Elias in 1985, the year of its Diamond Jubilee and Year of Spiritual Renewal and hosted Archbishop Francis Zayek, all living former pastors, Bishop Joseph Vath and Msgr. George Wehby, Vicar-General. In 1988 His Beatitude Nesrallah Peter Sfeir, Maronite Patriarch, visited the Church. In 1989 Saint Elias held its second ordination for Rev. (Hikeael) Paul Peter Boackle. In 1992 Rev. Richard Saad was elevated to the honor of Papal Chamberlain, with the title of Monsignor, and was ordained Chorbishop in 2004.
Our 22nd Annual Festival honors Chorbishop Richard on 48 years of priestly ministry at St. Elias. He serves to this day on the altar beside our newly appointed priest Abouna Peter who was ordained in June 2020.