By: Fr. George Hajj
At the wedding feast of Cana, Mary directed the servants, “Do whatever He tells you.” In turn, the servants obeyed Jesus and distributed His fine wine to all the guests. Like Mary, the Church calls and prepares faithful servants to do as the Lord tells them.
In our nation’s capital, at Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Seminary, there are five young men who have responded to the Lord’s call and are preparing themselves to be His faithful servants. During its fifty-seven years of the Seminary’s existence, eighty men have been ordained to the priesthood. Two of the alumni–Robert Shaheen and Gregory Mansour–have become bishops.
Some of the seminarians, Subdeacon Peter Zogby, Chris Nahra and Alejandro Landin, will serve in the Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon. Seminarians of this Eparchy are also in other formation programs. Subdeacon Michael Shami is at the Pontifical North American Pontifical College; Gilbert Nasr is at St. John Seminary, Caamarillo, California; Subdeacon Chady El Jalkh is studying English while residing with the college seminarians of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles; Gerard Abi Assaf: Saint John Vianney Seminary in Denver, Colorado.
Other seminarians are preparing for ministry in the Eparchy of Saint Maron. Vincent Michael and Antony Abi Awad study in the Maronite Seminary in Washington and Imad Hakim,Wassim Fakhry and Adib Salameh are studying English at Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.
The Maronite seminarians in Washington follow the academic program at The Catholic University of America, with supplementary classes offered by Father Armando El-Khoury and Chorbishop Seely Beggiani. In addition to prayer and studies, the seminarians go to the gym and–like most of their generation–compete in video games.
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By the middle of the twentieth century, there were more than forty Maronite parishes in the United States. However, without a Maronite bishop or seminary, the formation of parishes and the search for pastors was difficult and haphazard. The majority of pastors emigrated from Lebanon. Prior to the creation of the Seminary, the four American-born seminarians had studied in Lebanon.
Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Seminary predates the appointment of a Maronite bishop in the United States. Much credit must be given to the Maronite priests and lay persons who in the 1950’s began to petition and work for the establishment of a Maronite Seminary in the United States. In 1961 a group of dedicated priests and lay faithful, contributed funds to purchase a house on Alaska Avenue which was renovated to include a chapel, bedrooms, and recreation room were added. In 1964 the neighboring house was purchased and used for additional bedrooms and a library.
Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Seminary opened its doors on September 24, 1961. Its first rector was Msgr. Elias El-Hayek and the prefect of studies was Father Seely Beggiani. The first class comprised five seminarians. During the first academic year the Seminary was visited by the Vatican Secretary of State, Amleto Cardinal Cicognani, on December 3, 1961. The Seminary held an open house for the Maronites living in the Washington area on the Feast of Saint Maron in 1962; this event marked the beginning of the creation of a Maronite parish community in Washington.
The Maronite Patriarch, His Beatitude Paul Cardinal Meouchi, dedicated the Seminary on August 26, 1962. Patriarch Meouchi was accompanied by the future Patriarch and Cardinal Antoine Khoriache and the future Archbishop Khalil Abi-Nader. Over two thousand Maronite clergy and laity, as well as nine Latin bishops, joined in the celebration at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The nationally known television speaker, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, preached the homily.
On May 2, 1964, then Maronite Bishop of Sao Paolo Brazil, Francis M. Zayek, ordained the first alumnus, Robert Shaheen, to the priesthood in the crypt of the National Shrine in Washington. Archbishop Zayek also presided over the creation of a national organization of Maronite laity, the National Association of Maronites, which had as one of its purposes the support for the Seminary.
On January 10, 1966, Bishop Zayek was appointed the first Maronite Apostolic Exarch of the United States and assumed responsibility for the Seminary. In September, 1967, Father Seely Beggiani was appointed Spiritual Director and Treasurer of the Seminary and Administrator of the Washington parish which was in the process of formation. In May, 1968, Father Beggiani was appointed Rector, a position in which he served until his retirement in 2013.
Chorbishop Richard Saad reminisces about the early years of the Seminary, “Those were great times with Chorbishop Beggiani leading us. Life was simpler back then in the 1960s, and Seminary life for me made us comfortable to be away from the direct influence of the 1960s, but to know enough about it, so that we could respond as seminarians. We were thankful for the way of the Seminary, if we were to be good priests, even though we had difficulties at times. Now we have become the senior priests of the eparchy, whew!”
Thanks to a generous contribution of Mr. Anthony Abraham, a new wing was added to the Seminary in 2001. Patriarch Nasrallah Peter Cardinal Sfeir dedicated the new structure on March 6, 2001. The new wing features a library, computer area, seminar rooms, and housing for faculty and seminarians. It can also serve as a center for a Maronite research. More recently, the main building of the Seminary was renovated and the former church hall was converted into a library.
In 2013, Bishop Mansour appointed Father Geoffrey Abdallah as Rector, a position in which he served for three years until going to Rome for further studies.
Msgr. Fahed Peter Azar, the current rector, was appointed in 2016. Msgr. Azar describes the purpose of the Seminary, “Our goal is to walk with our seminarians on their ‘journey of discipleship’ as they look to shape themselves to the heart of Christ, the Good Shepherd. Our wish to continue to support them in laying the foundations for priestly life in the four dimensions of formation: the human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral.”
Among those who assisted at the Seminary throChorbishop Dominic Ashkar, Msgr. Ronald Beshara, Chorbishop Camille Zaidan, the future Bishop Stephen Hector Doueihi, Rev. Naji Kiwan and Msgr. Ignace Sadek are among those clerics who have served in various capacities in the Seminary.
The Second Vatican Council challenged the Eastern Catholic Churches to return to their genuine Eastern traditions. For the Maronite Church in the United States, a significant development was Rome’s 1971 publication of the proposed reformed text of the Qorbono, or Divine Liturgy. This text was pivotal for our liturgical future and the Seminary embraced it. A committee of Msgr. Beggiani, Father Dominic Ashkar and several students worked to translate the text into English. It was then published ad experimentumby Bishop Zayek and used until the publication of the first complete Maronite Lectionary in English by Father Joseph Amar in 1976. Although this was one of the most important works that the Seminary provided, other liturgical translations were also done.
In the 1980s the Maronite Seminary flourished under the leadership of Msgr. Beggiani, but the Maronite Church in America was at a turning point. The demographics of the Maronite population, particularly in the big cities, were changing rapidly. Huge influx of new immigrants from the war torn nation of Lebanon began to arrive in America. It is a fact of history that the cultural composition in many of our parishes changed in the eighties.
The year 1994 saw the creation of the two Eparchies. The seminarians were divided between the two jurisdictions, each according to his home parish. Those who came from Lebanon and did not have a home parish were placed with the Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon.
Vice Rector Father Armando El-Khoury focuses on the future work of the seminarians in the Maronite Church. “We fully support each seminarian in his endeavor to serve Jesus Christ in whatever capacity his talents allow him. We wish them to be better priests and stewards, and to be more loyal, humble servants of Jesus than we are. We hope that they do more good for God’s people, achieve further successes for the Maronite Church, and reach higher and accomplish more than we are capable of doing.”
The Maronite Seminary Alumni Association invites every Maronite in the United States to know, love and support this center of Maronite tradition on Alaska Avenue that the seminarians and priests call “home.”
Father George Hajj, an alumnus of the Seminary, is the pastor of Saint Anthony Maronite Church in Cincinnati, Ohio.
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