In the Beginning
The year 1895 saw the beginning of a migration into Rhode Island by people of Middle Eastern origin, particularly from Syria and Lebanon. They settled in the Blackstone valley. The cities of Pawtucket and Central Falls were chosen by many immigrants as their new home. As the Orthodox component of these immigrants grew they sought to establish a church to fulfill their spiritual needs.
They held meetings and discussions and selected from amongst themselves a committee of men. This committee invited Father Alexandros Atallah of Boston to serve the first Divine Liturgy in their new-found home. The date of this first service is March 13, 1910.
The Syrian Orthodox Charitable Men’s Society
Following this Divine Liturgy, Father Alexandros Atallah presided at a general meeting of the members of the Syrian Orthodox community. At that meeting the Syrian Orthodox Charitable Men’s Society was formed. This society consisted of 15 men.
The new Men’s Society began holding regular meetings every Sunday in members’ homes. Later on, the Men’s Society rented a hall to conduct their meetings. As the Men’s Society began to show endurance, they formulated a set of By-Laws in their native Arabic and sent them to Archbishop Raphael Hawaweeny, of Brooklyn, New York, (now Saint Raphael of Brooklyn) to be recognized and registered in the Brooklyn diocese seat of the Syrian Orthodox Church of North America.
Archbishop Raphael Hawaweeny translated the By-Laws into English and the Society then delegated Elias George Essa and Elias Mona with the task of obtaining a charter for the group, thereby becoming a legal charitable corporation under the laws of the State of Rhode Island.
The First Years
There followed a period of time during which the Men’s Society would invite an Orthodox priest to serve the Divine Liturgy. A series of temporary pastors served the spiritual needs of the Orthodox community. Father John Kirshee, Father George Dow Maloof, Father Moussa Hyder, Father George Kattouf, and Father Slemon Fernaynee took turns in serving the community. However, the need for a permanent pastor was ever present. Father Abraham Zaine accepted the position as the first permanent pastor.
A Home for Worship
In the year 1916 the community of parishioners voted to purchase a parcel of land on which they hoped to build a church. The land was purchased for $4,000. On December 9, 1917, the ground was broken and a first floor basement structure was erected. The cornerstone was laid and the church named “Saint Mary Church” in honor of the Virgin Mary.
In June 1918 Father Abraham Zaine resigned as pastor. A general meeting of the parish was called. At that meeting Mr. George Habib Nahas was elected by member vote to be ordained as the pastor of Saint Mary Church. He was ordained in April 1919 by Archbishop Aftimios Ofiesh.
Saint Mary Church
In 1926 the parishioners of Saint Mary Church passed a resolution to build a new and larger church. This new edifice was to be built over the present basement building. Father George Nahas then began a drive for donations to raise funds to build the church. His relentless efforts helped make the dream a reality. During the day he labored with the workers in the construction, while in the evening he sought more donations in order to accomplish the task. The cost of the new church was $65,000. The parish needed assistance to fulfill this mission. Through the work of Father George Nahas, the parish obtained the endorsement of the industrialist Lyman B. Goff who provided the needed capital.
A Commitment Fulfilled
During the many years to follow the Blackstone Valley was hard hit by the Depression. Father George Nahas and the entire parish worked diligently to complete the payment of the mortgage. Finally the loan was repaid. Metropolitan Archbishop Anthony Bashir officiated at the burning of the mortgage in November 1944.
In 1946 Father George Nahas resigned his pastorate for health reasons after having served faithfully for 28 years. After Father George Nahas resigned there was a succession of temporary priests, Father Mattadoes Ackel, Father Elias Hamaty, Father Elias Ellis, and Father Peter Horton-Billard. In 1948, Father George Koury was called from Syria to serve as permanent pastor. Father George Koury served until his retirement in 1960. He was succeeded by Father Athanasius Saliba who served until he was called to the rank of Bishop in Damascus in 1980. The newly ordained Father Timothy Ferguson was assigned to Saint Mary Church.
Saint Mary Parish Center
In December 1981 the construction of Saint Mary Parish Center was completed. The cost of this task was $650,000. The Center is the hub of the activities. It houses the Church School and a large banquet facility. It is in the kitchen of the Parish Center that many delicious meals are prepared with love by the parishioners of Saint Mary Church.
Through the Years
Father Timothy Ferguson served at Saint Mary Church until he was called to serve a parish in Pennsylvania in 1997. Father Leonard Farris was assigned to succeed him. He served until August 2001 when he was called to serve a parish in Massachusetts. From 2001 to August 2013 Father Isaac Crow was assigned to serve as pastor of Saint Mary Church. Father Elie Estephan is currently serving as Pastor of St. Mary.
Saint Mary Church continues to witness in the Greater Providence area. The first immigrants were of Middle Eastern descent and now converts to Orthodoxy as well as cradle Orthodox worship together at Saint Mary Church.