Familiar Faces from a Far Land
By Dominick Paul Cerrone with Alex Nagem
One of the most exotic ingredients in Wheeling’s ethnic stew is its large and vibrant Lebanese community. Whereas many parts of the country share common ethnic experiences, the Lebanese in and around Wheeling make it distinctive.
Lebanese Christians emigrated to America starting in the 1870s due to an increasingly rigid Islamic Ottoman rule and hostility after centuries of relative acceptance of Christians. The immigration peaked by 1914. Originally the province of Greater Syria, a part of the Ottoman Empire, Lebanon contained various religious sects which formed the basis for identity for most Lebanese. These included the Maronites, the Eastern Orthodox and the Melkits. The idea of Lebanon as a nation did not form until after World War I when it was under French protection.
As the population in current Lebanon became increasingly influenced by France and Britain, and hostilities grew, many Lebanese Christians were lured by American culture after seeing several World Fairs. It was particularly prestigious in Lebanon to have a son or daughter in America. Most of the immigrants came from Beirut. However, there were others that came from Roumieh, Sidon, Salima, and the Mount Hermon and Mount Lebanon areas.
Although these Middle Eastern immigrants were Christians, the exotic shirwal (baggy pants) and fezzes (hats) set them apart from most western European immigrants. While their religion bound them to the West, their culture pronounced the fact that they were foreigners hardly able to speak English. Many of them took to peddling, often times venturing in remote parts of America to introduce products previously not seen. Most others of the first wave were merchants and avoided the heavy industries. It was not uncommon for the Lebanese to have a storefront and live above it on the second floor. Several Lebanese owned rental properties, which allowed additional family and Lebanese to come to Wheeling to live. Later on, they matriculated to the steel plants.
The first Lebanese to arrive in Wheeling in 1888 is recorded to be Roger Saad, a dry goods merchant. By 1900, Wheeling had approximately 300 Lebanese that called it home. At the time, they were called Syrians by both locals as well as the US Census. They settled mostly in Center Wheeling between 20th and 23rd Streets, from Eoff Street to Main Street. The center of this Lebanese community today is the only Maronite Catholic church in West Virginia, Our Lady of Lebanon Church, located in the 2200 block of Eoff Street. The Maronite church is in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church, and is considered the most Latinized of the Eastern Catholic churches. Today, Maronites make up over 20 percent of Lebanon’s population, but there are thousands of other Maronites scattered throughout the world, including in Wheeling.
It was their mastery of retail that most Wheelingites think of when they consider the city’s Lebanese heritage. Everybody has come to love the Fadul family’s Lebanese Bakery still operating on Main Street in Center Wheeling, and establishments from yesterday like Maroon’s Clothing, Cater’s Restaurant, Sasseen’s Diner, and Ghaphery Brothers Grocery. And everyone remembers one of the most successful Lebanese enterprises in the city, the Boury family’s Elby’s Restaurants that at one time were more widespread locally than any national chain.
Every year, Our Lady of Lebanon church hosts the Mahrajan Festival, the first of its kind in the States, to observe the Assumption. It started in 1932 to raise funds after the church burned down. Along with offering ethnic food and dance, it reminds Wheeling of its Lebanese heritage that makes it distinct from many other cities in the country.