Religion

At St. George Cathedral, immigration resurgence recalls Lebanese heritage in Delano

St. George Cathedral celebrates 100 years

100 years ago, Lebanese immigrants in Wichita began a little church in Delano. Today, a resurgence of immigration has given St. George Orthodox Christian Cathedral a renewed sense of its past.
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100 years ago, Lebanese immigrants in Wichita began a little church in Delano. Today, a resurgence of immigration has given St. George Orthodox Christian Cathedral a renewed sense of its past.

The mosaics on the outside of the building depict Christ, John the Baptist, St. George and the Mother of God set against backgrounds of bright gold.

Inside the Byzantine-style cathedral, vibrant icons cover the walls, telling stories of the Old Testament prophets, the women of the Bible, New Testament saints.

Yet St. George Orthodox Christian Cathedral began in more humble roots: a one-room structure in Delano that didn’t even have running water.

While the cathedral has become increasingly diverse over the years, it began with a small group of Lebanese immigrants who moved to Wichita beginning in 1895.

“The first thing they did and most important thing they did was establish themselves in the practice of their faith,” said the Very Rev. Paul O’Callaghan, dean of the cathedral. “To form a worshipping community, obtain a church and find the services of a priest was their priority.”

It has been 100 years since the Lebanese immigrants first worshipped in the little church in Delano.

Today, a resurgence of immigration from Lebanon and Syria has created a renewed sense of the cathedral’s heritage, O’Callaghan said.

Roots in Lebanon

Bob Bayouth, 89, remembers all three St. Georges: The one-room church on South Handley, the newer structure on Walnut and the cathedral on 13th.

His grandparents arrived in Wichita from Lebanon near the turn of the century, and his parents soon followed.

At age 10, Bayouth was an altar boy in the first church, which had been an Episcopal church before it was purchased for about $550. The tiny church was heated by a pot-belly stove. Baptisms were conducted in families' homes.

The Lebanese population in Wichita grew rapidly over the years. Names like Bayouth, Ablah and Farha are familiar in today’s city.

Yet at one time, the Lebanese Orthodox Christian community was treated as exotic and “other.”

A 1904 Wichita Beacon article referred to a baptism by a visiting priest as a “queer ceremony of consecration.” A 1916 article said a priest’s visit brought a “touch of orient.” Once, the Lebanese community was referred to on national television as the “West Side Indians.”

Even more important than their identity as Lebanese was their identity as Orthodox Christians, said Victoria Sherry, who co-wrote a book about Wichita’s Lebanese heritage. Many had left the “old country” under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, which treated Orthodox Christians as low on a hierarchy of religions.

“This faith has really bound them together through really difficult times and given them great hope and strength and resiliency,” Sherry said.

The Orthodox Church, which comprises about 12 percent of the world's Christians, teaches that its doctrine, worship and structure have remained intact from the time of Jesus and his apostles.

The 1940s saw a change in Wichita’s acceptance of the Lebanese after many served in World War II. Some began marrying non-Lebanese people who converted to Orthodoxy. Many had children who spoke only English, not Arabic.

“You see that level of otherness begin to diminish,” Sherry said.

Having outgrown the little church in Delano, the community began raising money for a new church. The first Divine Liturgy was said in the parish hall on Christmas Eve, 1948.

That building was later sold to Senior Services of Wichita and has since been demolished. Bayouth has one of the stained glass windows from the church in his living room, depicting Christ rising from the grave.

Finally, in 1989, the church moved into the building on 13th Street. In 1991, the church was consecrated as a cathedral, making it the seat of a bishop.

At one point there were only seven cathedrals in all of North America, said Rod Learned, a convert to Orthodoxy who has studied the church’s history. They included Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Montreal — and Wichita.

Once, a BBC film crew did a special on orthodox centers around the world.

“They had been to Jerusalem, they had been to Mount Athos, they had been to Moscow — and then they show up in Wichita,” Learned said. “It gives you a feeling that Wichita is a special place as far as Orthodox Christianity is concerned.”

A new vitality

Dr. Sam Cohlmia remembers fleeing Lebanon’s civil war under the cover of night. He was 15 when he arrived in Wichita, where his father had family.

By 1982, there were fewer “fresh off the boat” immigrants at St. George, Cohlmia said. Use of Arabic in the Divine Liturgies waned and was almost stopped. The church became more diverse, with people coming from Russia, Ethiopia, Greece and more.

Even as the church became more diverse, the Lebanese families still formed “the core group of our community,” said O’Callaghan.

Then, more immigrants began to come from Lebanon and Syria. Many Lebanese physicians ended up making Wichita their home after doing residencies through the University of Kansas School of Medicine.

When Dr. Johnny Moussa moved from Syria to the United States, he first went to California. Later, his wife’s ties to St. George brought him to Wichita.

“We felt that Wichita would be very good for us,” Moussa said. “They came here 100 years ago, the Lebanese people and Syrian people. We feel at home here. It is just a part of the city. I don’t feel that I’m foreign. I just feel that I’m Wichitan.”

Greater Syria once contained both Syria and Lebanon. Both countries achieved independence from France in the 1940s, but it wasn’t until 2008 that Syria officially recognized Lebanon. In the early Wichita Eagle articles, members of the Lebanese Orthodox community were referred to as Syrians.

For newer immigrants, St. George serves as a source of comfort, Moussa said. It’s a familiar culture, making them feel safe and belonged.

Moussa’s brother Dr. Ronnie Moussa followed him to Wichita, where his wife sometimes chants in Arabic at St. George. Lebanese and Syrian people don’t usually come to Wichita to later leave, he said. Rather, they come and make it home.

Reina Nabbout, who is originally from Lebanon, spoke to a similar experience. Finding an Orthodox church with roots in her home country brought back memories, she said.

It’s a family that embraces not just new Lebanese and Syrian immigrants, she said, but also people from all parts of the world.

"It’s a great community, very supportive to each other and other people,” Nabbout said. “I’ve seen lots of giving and helping each other. It’s a very peaceful place where you feel loved and cared for. I would say (it is) a place where I definitely belong."

Katherine Burgess: 316-268-6400, @kathsburgess.
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