A changing legacy finds niche in history
Lowell's St. George Antiochian, home to immigrants since 1879, now
has a place on National Register
By John Dyer, Globe Correspondent | July 3, 2008
Conversions are commonplace at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Lowell.
The Bowers Street church, built in 1879, originally served French
Canadian Protestants before it was turned into an Orthodox Christian
house of worship.
Its pastor, the Rev. Leonard Faris, converted from Catholicism to the
Antiochian Orthodox sect in his youth. The congregation includes a
number of recent converts, as well as Orthodox-raised immigrants who
brought their faith to their new country.
Yet the granite and red-brick church has survived long enough to be
among a handful of Massachusetts sites recently earning a spot on the
National Register of Historic Places. The June 10 listing,
congregants said, is a recognition of the Arab Christians who founded
the church almost a century ago and helped contribute to Lowell's
former glory as an industrial powerhouse.
"Most of our people are from Lebanon or Syria," said Chakeep Skaff, a
Lowell native and a church goer at St. George's. "Now some are
Jordanians, some Egyptians. My parents are from Lebanon. But at the
time there was no Lebanon. It was part of Syria."
The administrator of the Lowell Historic Board, Stephen Stowell, said
the listing on the National Register was in line with the city's push
to expand historic preservation efforts outside downtown, where old
textile mills have been transformed into apartments in recent years,
spurring economic growth.
"In Lowell, preservation really sets the stage for so much of the
city's planning and economic development and marketing efforts," he said.
Antiochian Orthodoxy is a Middle Eastern form of Christianity on par
with Greek, Russian, and other Eastern Orthodox churches. The name
derives from Antioch, an ancient metropolis and early center of
Christianity in what is now southeast Turkey. Many Lebanese and
Syrian immigrants who came to Lowell in the 1880s were Antiochian.
"Some worked in the mills, but most of them went out on their own as
peddlers," said Skaff. "They sold to the area farmers. They carried
on their backs dry goods, clothing, household goods."
In 1917, Skaff's parents were among a group of Middle Eastern
immigrants who pooled their savings and bought the Bowers Street
church built by Huguenot Protestants, who were by then moving out of
Lowell, and created St. George's.
As many as 300 families belonged to St. George's congregation at the
peak of its membership, during the years following World War II, said
Faris. Now the congregation has about 100 families.
Descendants of the church's founders still make up the bulk of
parishioners, but new immigrants from the Middle East and
American-born converts to the faith also belong. Faris, who has been
at St. George's for seven years, speaks Arabic, English, and Greek
during services. The blending of the three languages offers something
for every group, he said, from the old folks who still know Greek to
the new folks who speak Arabic as their first language and English
for everyone else.
Faris, 58, who grew up in Lawrence, learned Arabic from his Lebanese
grandmother, who was Antiochian Orthodox. Although raised Catholic,
at age 21 he felt called to convert to his grandmother's faith, he
said. Twenty-four years later, after working for the Internal Revenue
Service for years, he became a priest.
"I used to go with her to church on Sunday," Faris said. "I loved the
ceremony, all the liturgical things. My parents were fine with it. As
long as I was going to church, they were happy."
St. George's might have shrunk since its heyday, but the Antiochian
Orthodox Church is growing in the United States on the whole. There
are some 260 Antiochian parishes in North America today, said Faris,
up from around 70 parishes in the late 1960s. The Diocese of
Worcester and New England has nine churches in Massachusetts,
including St. George in Lawrence, and one in Pawtucket, R.I.,
according to the diocesan website.
The church attracts newcomers, said Faris, because it is inclusive.
It permits the Roman Catholic Mass to be said as well as the Eastern,
or Byzantine, rites.
"We're liberal in the sense that we do a lot of evangelizing," said
Faris, who came to St. George after a stint at the church in Pawtucket.
The Orthodox faith also often appeals to believers seeking a
fundamentally conservative church. Many new Antiochian priests are
former Catholics or Episcopalians who believe their churches have
strayed from their original missions, Faris said.
One of the congregation's converted members, Paul Durst said he felt
drawn to the church's old traditions. A combination of a near-death
experience when he was a Marine serving in Iraq a few years ago and
an interest in the Orthodox spirituality in Russian novels led the
25-year-old Merrimack, N.H., resident to join St. George's in December.
"It maintains the early church more," he said. "It has not done the
innovation the Catholic Church has. It has stuck to the older tenets."
Many Orthodox Christians view the doctrinal changes decreed by
various Roman Catholic popes over the years, from proclaiming the
Virgin Mary's assumption to heaven to papal infallibility, as
deviating from Jesus Christ's original intentions for the church. The
complex differences have often resulted in Catholics and other
Christians misunderstanding and then ignoring Orthodoxy, Durst said.
He said being listed on the National Register might raise St.
George's profile and lead others to explore the richness of the
"The Orthodox church is overlooked," he said. "Most people think in
the dichotomy of Protestant-Catholic. But the Orthodox really see the
division as between East and West."
Faris, Skaff, and other church leaders want to memorialize the past,
but they also decided to research the church's history and assemble
an application for placement on the National Register because they
wanted St. George's to be eligible for state and federal preservation
grants. It's expensive to maintain the building, they said.
Ten years ago, St. George's spent $250,000 for repairs to the church,
said Skaff, who sits on the parish council. Four years ago, the
congregation spent $35,000 on a new ventilation system. Last spring,
an interior renovation of the church and restoration of its murals
and precious icons cost $70,000. Congregation members covered those
costs through donations, but that fund-raising is reaching its
limits, said Faris.
Brian McNiff, spokesman for the Massachusetts Historical Commission,
said the church's listing on the National Register was virtually
assured once the state approved the nominations in March.
The listing is in keeping with Lowell's efforts to preserve its
history as a center of the American Industrial Revolution, Stowell
said. In 2005, the City Council voted to create eight historic
districts outside downtown. St. George's is near, but not part of,
the Acre neighborhood district, so putting the church on the National
Register expands the area officials can cite as historically
important, Stowell said.
Many of Lowell's old factories have been added to the National
Register or included in historic districts. Preserving St. George's
is important to keeping alive the full picture of the history of
labor in the city, said Stowell, adding that mill employees' places
of work are important but it's also crucial to preserve where they
were baptized, married, and buried.
"Being on the National Register doesn't necessarily mean someone
famous slept there or was born there or a famous battle took place
there," he said. "Sometimes it's just that a building represents what
a community finds important."
John Dyer can be reached at johnjdyerjr@...