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Our Maronite History in Waterville
Lebanese immigrants began arriving in Maine in 1890, and started to establish a community in Waterville. They came to America for economic reasons and a better life. They worked in factories, at the railroad and as peddlers. The Maronite Catholics in the Waterville area attended church services at Sacred Heart Church and other Latin Rite Churches in the vicinity until 1924.
In 1924, Father Joseph Awad I came to minister the Maronite community. The first Liturgy was held in the Ferris Estate on the corner of Front and Temple Streets, Liturgies were temporarily held in a hall over the Federal Trust Building and later the Liturgy was moved to the Knights of Columbus Hall, which was located on the third floor of the Atkins Building, now the Silver Street Tavern.
In 1927, property on Front and Appleton Streets was purchased from the Marchetti Family. The parish at this time numbered 50 to 60 families. The second floor of the house served as the church and the first floor as the rectory.
Father Awad I served until 1933. Father Philip Nagem became pastor from 1933 to 1942. During this time the garage and portion of the first floor were converted into the first Maronite School in the area.
In 1942, Father Joseph Awad II replaced Father Nagem who was transferred to California. At Fr. Awad’s arrival, the property at 3 Appleton Street was purchased from the Gurney Family to serve as the Parish House. Later the property at 5 Appleton Street was acquired from Ed Sawyer and housed the Maronite School.
The foundation of the present edifice began in August 1946, and was completed in December of the same year. This served as the place of worship until 1950, when the upper portion of the church was completed and the first formal service was held in August 1950.
Cardinal Eugene Tiserant, Secretary of the Sacred Congregation for Eastern Churches, laid the cornerstone of the present church in 1951. Father Paul Coury arrived in 1957 to assume pastorate of the approximately 120 families.
A new school was built in 1959 and was closed in 1972 and was razed in 2015.
In 1977, Archbishop Francis M. Zayek came to Waterville to celebrate the Golden Jubilee (50th Anniversary) of St. Joseph Church. At the same time, he dedicated the newly built St. Jude Chapel, which was added on the Appleton Street side of the Church. At that time, Father James Khoury was the assistant to Father Paul. In 1978, Father William Bartoul replaced Father Jim and later succeeded Father Paul as pastor, when Father Paul retired. Father Bill remained pastor until August 1986, and was replaced by Father Samuel Najjar.
On the Feast of Epiphany, January 1988, the entire interior of the church was removed and the parish community, through the kindness of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, set up temporary residence at the Blessed Sacrament Chapel on Silver Street in Waterville. On Father’s Day 6 months later, June 18-19, 1988, the first Liturgy was celebrated in the newly renovated church.
Although the community was back in the church, the renovations continued with the addition of new stained glass windows. At completion, thirteen new windows were installed. St. Joseph was fortunate that Guido Studios, in Montréal, Canada, was still in existence, because it was Guido’s who made the original windows in the church in 1950.
On September 18, 1988, Archbishop Zayek returned to Waterville to rededicate the church and consecrate the new altar made of White Georgia Marble. The original altar, which remains in the church, was designed and made by Father Toubia Ashkar, a Maronite priest in Lebanon and the father of Chorbishop Dominic Ashkar. It is made of Italian marble, and once completed in Lebanon, it was shipped to Waterville. The life-size painting of St. Joseph and the Christ Child is in the center above the altar. The original painting from Italy was restored by a local artist in 1988. At the same time, this artist painted Icons of the blessed Mother and Christ the Shepherd.
With a growing need for handicap accessibility, an elevator was installed in July 1992.
The parish celebrated its Diamond Jubilee (75th Anniversary) in 2002 with Bishop Stephen Doueihi attending.
Fr. Larry Jensen replaced Fr. Sam in July of 2006.
In 2008 the parish started a Capital Fund Drive. The church raised over $125,000 with the help of a dollar for dollar match of $50,000 offered by John D. Joseph. The Lebanese Youth Society contributed $25,000. This money was used to repair the tall and majestic bell tower, the granite steps at the two entrances of the Church, replace all the windows in the rectory, re-leaded the stain glass windows, and build a new garage.
With a shrinking and aging population, many of the area churches have lost a substantial amount of their memberships. This led to the closing of several Catholic Churches. With these closings, several families have joined the Maronite Church, and is one of the few churches that actually increased in membership over the past five years.
With the population still aging and shrinking in population, St. Joseph Maronite Catholic Church is working to form an Endowment for the future. The Lebanese Youth Society, which sold their property several years ago, contributed $100,000 to the Endowment Fund.
St. Joseph Maronite Catholic Church currently has an estimated 150 to 160 families with hundreds of descendents scattered throughout the United States.