Photo by Meredith Cavaleri
It’s 10:30 a.m. The Divine Liturgy. The Sunday service at Melkite Church seems like that of any other place of worship in the world until I leaned in more closely.
The four dozen or so attendees — young families, elders, millennials — every age demographic thoroughly represented — stood in unison, one community unified in a single hymn that carried loud and proud through the historic but-ever-humble St. George Melkite Church, a true-to-its-roots neighborhood faith center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
And then, something changed. A first-time drop-in would be lost. The words are floating through the air, but sounds and meaning now independent and detached from one another.
This isn’t English anymore.
And yet, the flock doesn’t miss a beat, purring through each word just as they had every other prayer so far.
With a language barrier, the actual words may be indiscernible, but a Sunday school devotee may be able to pick up on the rhythm, cadence and repetitions at play. Anyone who’s even been to mass even once before has heard it, just more likely in their own native tongue.
It’s the Our Father or The Lord’s Prayer. But it’s not in English; rather, it’s in Arabic.
It’s what sets St. George’s apart from its Milwaukee counterparts, if not nearly all Christian churches in the state of Wisconsin — and even the United States writ large. Thanks to more than 100-year history of serving the local Lebanese Christian community — as well as descendants from Syria, Palestine, and Jordan — the Arabic portions of mass are routine at St. George’s, and just one aspect of what makes it a unique establishment.
The church traces its origins all the way back to late-19th century citizens of Ain Bourdai, a village roughly 95 kilometers northeast of Beirut. When Chicago held the World’s Fair in 1893, a group from the village made the trek across the globe — some stayed, permanently.
It’s not long before some of these immigrants fractured off, leaving Chicago for its neighbor city of Milwaukee, and began a new community of Lebanese and fellow Middle Easterners. Naturally, the church followed them there, too. By 1916, St. George’s was erected, standing to serve its predominantly Middle Eastern Melkite Catholic community.
It still stands today.
“My wife and I — we’re both Lebanese — we were looking for a church after we got married,” Said Audi, a local parishioner, says. “And it’s been our HOME for 16 years now … There’s a lot of grace in this church. It’s small, but we do a lot.”
Audi says this as he works his way through his potluck platter, a regular occurrence after Sunday mass in the church’s basement. It’s well attended, with at least two-thirds of the Divine Liturgy attendees streaming straight from service to the shared meal. He gets up to shake hands, hug friends, and give well-wishes. The rest of the parish seems just as friendly.
His claim of a small but active community isn’t unfounded either. On average, St. George’s collection basket for church donations (a practice known among Christians as tithe) garners over $1,000 a week — a strong show of support for a church whose active members might only fill up a few pages in an address book.
But it isn’t surprising either. St. George’s has existed for more than 100 years, serving as the HOME for the Milwaukee chapter of the American Syrian-Lebanese Club for nearly its entire existence; it is one of the longest running active clubs in Wisconsin.
Through the American Syrian-Lebanese Club, community members work together on various fundraising projects, offering money for both initiatives back HOME in Lebanon and Syria, but also for local efforts such as St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, of which American Syrian-Lebanese is a founding sponsor. This is proof that, for over a century, St. George Melkite Church has stood proud — in its own unique kind of way.