From the Spinner Archives
This week we have chosen to feature a series of essays published in Spinner People and Culture in Southeastern Massachusetts Volume IV. These essays, which deal with ethnic surveys of various groups in southeastern Massachusetts, were originally produced as part of the Federal Writers Project, one of the programs that made up the WPA (Works Progress Administration).
To read more from the Federal Writers’ Project and to learn about other WPA projects in Southeastern Massachusetts check out Spinner IV, available on iBooks.
From These Strains
The Lebanese of Fall River
by Irene Posey and Nathan Kaplan
Early Beginnings and Demographics
Though most of the people in this city who come from that country generally designated as Syria are called Syrians, they are not in the strict sense of the word Syrians at all, but Lebanese. Practically all the people in this city come from that section surrounding Beyrouth on the Eastern Mediterranean Sea which is designated as Mount Lebanon.
The reason for the misnomer “Syrians” for these Lebanese furnishes an interesting story. The present country of Lebanon is situated in Asia Minor on the Mediterranean Sea. To the south lies Palestine; to the north, Turkey; and to the east, Syria. In appearance, language (Arabic), and customs, the people are very similar to their neighbors. However in religion, grave differences manifest themselves. The Lebanese are mainly Maronite Catholics, one of the oldest of the Catholic religions; whereas the neighboring Syrians are Mohammedans.
As early as 1860, Lebanon had attained a degree of semi-independence in having a Christian governor and in having their religious freedom guaranteed by France, England, Italy, Belgium and Spain. However, up to the close of the World War, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine all belonged to Turkey which has united all three countries under the name of Syria. In 1926, France was granted a mandate over Lebanon. During the latter part of 1936, Lebanon was granted total independence. Since Lebanon was a part of Syria when the first wave of immigrants arrived in 1890, these people were officially listed as Syrians. One hopes that this listing erroneous as it is in view of Lebanon’s independence will be changed in the future.
Lebanon in 1890 was an agricultural country with hardly any industrial development; most of its people owned their own little farms in which by dint of hard toil they secured an existence. A spirit of restlessness existed among some of these small farmers; they were eager to attain some of the riches of the newly-heard-of America. Upon arriving in America, they turned to trading in dry goods for a living. The peoples of neighboring or the same village lived in close proximity of each other in the larger cities. When migration to the smaller cities occurred, we find a repetition of the above phenomenon. Furthermore, since the people possessed different customs, language and religion from others of the community, colonies were formed in the various cities.
Soon after settlement in the smaller cities, most of the Lebanese turned to the industries of their particular neighborhood for a living.
They have prospered and many are skilled workers at present. Though an agricultural people in Lebanon, these people are predominantly city dwellers in the new world. As a result, one finds practically none of these people in Barnstable, Dukes and Nantucket counties. Likewise, in Plymouth and Bristol counties, nearly all of the Lebanese are located in the urban centers. Of the nearly 3,000 Lebanese and Syrians living in the five counties mentioned, close to 2,000 reside in Fall River.
The original intentions of many of these people were to secure wealth and then return to Lebanon. With the passage of years, these ideas have been completely altered. Most of the people have settled in a particular district of this state, bought their own homes, and adopted America as their country.
The city’s polyglot population experienced its first impressions of the Lebanese around 1890 when a few immigrants sought employment in cotton mills, which it was easy to obtain even with ineptitude, or followed the example of the preceding Greeks by embarking in the fruit business, or venturing into the peddling line despite the handicap of unfamiliarity with English. Their increase in representation proceeded fitfully, notwithstanding that the Lebanese pioneers had managed to make their lot fairly satisfactory among a strange people.
While storekeeping is the “colonists” most engrossing pursuit, the textile industry absorbs not a few. Their adaptability was determined in the homeland, and locally it has been tested successfully in silk weaving as well as in the production of the finer fabrics of cotton.
While members of the race may be located in different sections, unlike most other settlers, they have but one colony. That exists in Flint village, or the east end, being restricted to Harrison, Quequechan and Jenks Streets in the main, south of Pleasant Street. This settlement is in the French section of the city. They settled here because most of them speak French quite fluently and, by their contacts with the French-Canadians who settled here earlier, are able to accustom themselves to America that much more quickly.
Lebanese people are to be found expressing themselves freely in social contacts with other people. Clannishness, group segregation, or passive utilization of the elements of citizenship do not have a restraining effect on activities. Politically, the doctrines of the democratic party make the strongest appeal to the majority. The ambition to be treated as a factor in politics unaffected by racial distinctions led one of the outstanding representatives to enter the scramble for seats in the city council two years ago and to get himself elected a member of the city committee. Defeat did not daunt him, and again this year he entered the office-seeking fray by offering himself for the office of county treasurer. To eke out the scant profits of a variety store in the Globe district, the aspirant has become a weaver in the Charleton factory.
There are approximately 200,000 Syrians and Lebanese, foreign-born and American-born, living in the United States. With regard to their religious adherence they are divided as follows: Maronites, 90,000; Greek Orthodox, 85,000; Greek Catholic, 10,000; and Protestants, 5,000. The remaining 5,000 are scattered among the Mohammedans and Druzes.
Fall River is represented by two of these four sects—the Maronites and the Protestants. The Maronites, who claim allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church, are said to have the largest number of adherents both in America and Lebanon. While they have conformed to many of the practices of the Occidental Roman Catholic Church, they still retain many of the eastern services for baptism, marriage and burial as well as their feast days. They celebrate Mass in Syriac instead of Latin and the gospel is read in Arabic for the benefit of the people. Their parish priests may marry while they are in minor orders or before they are ordained. The Maronite Catholics represent the overwhelming majority of Lebanese in Fall River.
The other religious group among the Lebanese in Fall River is the Syrian Protestant Congregation which is located on Harrison Street in the city. There, Joseph Zaidan expounds the gospel as taught to United Presbyterians.
Lebanese Catholics settled Fall River in 1900 and until 1911 attended services celebrated each week at Notre Dame and St. Anne’s churches by a Lebanese priest from Boston. In 1911 Rev. Gabriel Corkemaz of Boston spent three months in this city, during which time he purchased a tenement at 286 Jencks Street and converted it into a church.
Upon the return of Father Corkemaz to Boston the pastorate was given to Rev. Ignatius Savegh who had been called from Lebanon. He administered the parish’s affairs until 1920. From 1920-1929 Rev. Caesar Phares took charge of the parish. During his pastorate the property on Jencks Street was sold and the land upon which the present church stands was purchased.
On July 14, 1930 Rev. Joseph Eid took over the duties of pastor of the church. He proved to be a conscientious worker, a fine organizer and a benevolent pastor towards his people. It us during his early pastorate, while he was still a young man that the idea of a church for the Lebanese was conceived and consummated.
The founding of the first Syrian Roman Catholic Church in Fall River represented something of an event throughout Massachusetts, as can easily be gathered from the account of the ceremony taken from the records of a local newspaper:
“Parishioners of St. Anthony of the Desert Church, their members greatly increased by prominent Syrian personalities, delegations of Syrian colonies, relatives and friends from many near and distant New England communities and state and municipal officials thronged the vicinity of Quequechan and Alden Streets yesterday for the solemn and impressive ceremony of the blessing and dedication of their beautiful and attractive new church edifice, the realization of their hopes and prayers for a quarter century.”
Causes for Lebanese Immigration to the United States
One of the primary expellant factors in Lebanese immigration was their desire to find freedom from political oppression. Lebanese had long been dominated by the Turks and desired to seek freedom in the countries across the seas. That they found it upon coming here cannot be doubted nor can their appreciation for American democracy be fully understood by those who have become accustomed to it. It is significant fact that the picture of the first Syrian family in America, that of Arbeely, was taken with a placard on which was written: “THE CHILDREN AND I HAVE HAPPILY FOUND LIBERTY!”
Another expellant factor in Lebanese immigration was their desire to escape military duty. Every steamer bound for North or South America was crowded with Lebanese Christians who were anxious to avoid military draft. This desire to avoid military draft finds expression in the present day attitude of Lebanese in this city who say they are not Syrians at all. To say they were Syrians at the time of their emigration from the country would have meant that they were admitting they were liable to military service under the Turks. Thus, the aversion of Lebanese in this city to being called Syrians.
A further cause of Lebanese immigration to this country was more attractive than expellant. It concerned those Lebanese who had been in the United States and had returned to Syria. Their apparent prosperity acted as a conspicuous and never-failing advertisement for the United States. The sight of a European-dressed Syrian in the interior of the country was often enough to label him as having been to America.
Another factor in Lebanese immigration was religious. Christian Lebanese are a decided minority in Syria. Christians in Syria have never been entirely free of restrictions placed upon them because of their belief.
In Fall River, as has been remarked previously, Lebanese settled mostly in the Flint section of the city. Although Syrians in other sections of the country are not, as a rule, industrial workers, in Fall River many of them are engaged in the city’s factories. As a consequence, it might be expected that housing would be more of a problem among them than among their compatriots elsewhere. Such, however, is not the case. It is true that the section in which the Lebanese have settled is one of the poorer sections of the city, but it is by no means a squalid or unsanitary district. A Mrs. Houghton writing of the Syrian immigrants’ housing conditions had this to say concerning the question: they are “superior to most immigrants’ colonies, of whatever people, in any part of the United States.”
A survey made by the Immigration Commission showed that living conditions among the Syrians on an average were slightly better than among all other groups including native born. It was further discovered that “taking boarders” is an institution almost unknown and the average occupant per room is less than among most other nationalities.
Prominent Personalities during Development
Rev. Joseph Eid, Ph.D., D.D., pastor of St. Anthony of the Desert Maronite Catholic Church:
Father Eid’s life is extremely interesting. He was born in Mt. Lebanon, Syria in 1896. He attended the schools of the small village where he was born and later attended the Jesuit University at Beyrouth. While there he studied philosophy and theology. Later he moved to Rome where he obtained his doctor of Philosophy degree and the degree of Doctor of Divinity. He was ordained in 1924. He then took up missionary work in the Orient where he labored for some years following his ordination. He was later assigned to France doing the same type of work. While in France he received an invitation from the then bishop Daniel Feehan urging him to take over the duties of administering to the colony of Lebanese in Fall River. He took over the duties of pastor of the parish on July 14, 1930 and since that time the affairs of the parish have prospered exceedingly. He secured the funds for a new church for the Lebanese people in the city and also was instrumental in securing the present rectory which is part of the church property.
Father Eid is a brilliant linguist, being able to converse fluently in six languages—French, Arabic, English, Latin, Italian and Syriac. He is also a poet of some repute and is the author of several poems which have been rather well-received in French literary circles.
Customs and Practices among the Lebanese of Fall River
An apparently strange fact regarding the Lebanese in this city is their ability to speak Arabic and the fact that so many of them have such a strong admixture of Arabic blood, although they are in no sense Arabian.
This Oriental infiltration in their blood has a profound effect on their lives and their buildings. Speaking of one of the churches (St. Anthony of the Desert) it was written: “As the eyes rest upon the church one receives the impression of comfort and strength. Its architecture is a combination of Occidental and Oriental art. Its Oriental features were originally introduced into Cordova and Granada at the time of the Arab migrations into Spain. The horseshoe at the church portals is often used in Oriental architecture. The effect was introduced into the church interior as well. Similar effects are used in church architecture in Lebanon at the present time.”
Another Oriental practice which is prevalent among the Lebanese is the widespread use of the “water-pipe” (nargilah). It consists of a long tube attached to a flask containing water on the top of which there is tobacco burning. It is said by those who indulge in tobacco in this fashion that the smoke is much cooler and smoother than in any other form of smoking.
[Top Banner image: “Roughriders” parish football team, 1942. Photograph courtesy of St. Anthony of the Desert Church.]