The Maronite Community of Raleigh was formed in May, 1996 after a group of Maronite families decided to establish a regularly scheduled Maronite Liturgy in Raleigh. St. Michael the Archangel Maronite Church in Fayetteville, NC supported the group in Raleigh by sending Fr. Larry Jensen to celebrate a monthly Divine Liturgy. A choir was organized to sing hymns in Arabic. The newly formed Maronite Community of Raleigh celebrated its first Divine Liturgy at St. Joseph Catholic Church on June 23, 1996. Three months later, their place of worship was moved to Sacred Heart Cathedral.
The community formed a parish council on October 19, 1997 in preparation for the first pastoral visit of Bishop Stephen Hector Doueihi of the Eparchy of St. Maron of Brooklyn on November 30, 1997. Bishop Doueihi made a second visit to the community on September 20, 1998. Both of these events were also concelebrated with Chorbishop Joseph F. Kaddo, Vicar General of the Eparchy of St. Maron, as well as many other visiting priests. On October 18, 1998, the new pastor of St. Michael’s Church, Fr. Jack Morrison, took Fr. Larry’s place as the administrator of the Maronite Community of Raleigh.
Four years of hard work and dedication were recognized on January 16, 2000 when Bishop Doueihi established the St. Sharbel Mission and named Fr. Joseph Thomas, BSO as the founding pastor. Weekly celebrations of the Maronite Liturgy began to take place at the Cardinal Gibbons High School chapel. St. Sharbel Mission celebrated the 30th anniversary of the ordination of Fr. Joseph Thomas to the priesthood on December 8, 2001. This celebration was a huge event for the mission, which was also celebrating its second anniversary of being established. The event was con-celebrated by Bishop Doueihi and Chorbishop Seely Beggiani, Rector of Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Seminary, along with several area priests. The “seeds” had been planted for the new St. Sharbel Mission to grow.
With the help of Fr. Joe, the mission began to look beyond the core group of church members and reach out to a larger community of Maronites. On May 11, 2002, St. Sharbel Mission hosted its first hafli. This would become an annual Mother’s Day Hafli event. With the establishment of the church building fund, the mission was able to purchase three acres of land in nearby Morrisville on May 31, 2002 for a future site of the church. The mission hosted the NAM Southern Regional Convention from November 14 to 16, 2003. A special highlight of this convention was the commemorative book that featured many articles of interest, as well as ad pages that helped raise money for the building fund.
On March 6, 2005, the new bishop of the Eparchy of St. Maron of Brooklyn, Bishop Gregory Mansour, made his first pastoral visit to North Carolina and visited the St. Sharbel Mission on the church’s celebration of the Feast of St. Maron.
After Fr. Joe retired to the Basilian Salvatorian Order in Methuen, Massachusetts, St. Michael’s Church again shared a priest until the arrival of Fr. Paul Damien, who become pastor of St. Sharbel Mission from 2006 to August 2008.
In October 2008, the assignment of Fr. Kamil Al-Chouefati as the pastor brought new life to the church. Outdoor activities such as skiing, hunting trips and a soccer team became popular with the young adults and youth. Fr. Kamil served the community until June 2013 when Fr. Elie Mikhael was assigned to the position of pastor at St. Sharbel and the worship location was moved to the St. Mary of the Angels chapel at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church.
Under Fr. Elie’s leadership, efforts to raise money for the building fund continued in earnest with donations and fundraisers. An exciting event for the church happened when Claude Shiver, who had served the mission for many years in the position of acolyte, was ordained to the order of subdeacon on August 9, 2015 by the right reverend Chorbishop Michael Thomas.
After the reassignment of Fr. Elie Mikhael to the Maronite Mission of Charlotte, the St. Sharbel parish welcomed the current pastor, Fr. Elias Khalil in December 2015. At the same time, efforts proceeded with the building project on a three-acre plot of land in Morrisville, a town located midway between Raleigh and Durham. On January 14, 2016, the Morrisville Town Council approved the site plan for the new St. Sharbel church building at 909 Church Street. Parishioners of St. Sharbel Mission were beginning to realize their dream of a permanent church building. On February 28, 2016, many parishioners were present to venerate the sacred relics of St. Sharbel in Raleigh during a tour to the United States for the first time.
Today, the mission is a vibrant community with a talented choir, religious education, and bible study group. Popular annual events include baking of mammoul cookies during Lent, a Spring Hafli, an outdoor summer picnic, the St. Sharbel Feast Day celebration in July, a Golf Tournament in October and a Christmas Hafli. The seeds planted with the establishment of St. Sharbel Mission have grown into strong roots and branches of a tree that keeps on growing.
By Lisa Saleh