The history of the St. Elias Parish of Syracuse dates back to the early 1920’s – the handful of Orthodox Christians from the Middle East with the firmness of purpose to keep their faith alive in America, grouped together and sought out a place of worship to feed the seedling which they had planted.
Since funds were not available to construct or buy their own building for a church, they saw to it that Divine Liturgy was held whenever and wherever possible. Liturgy was celebrated on an interim basis at St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox Church, as well as at Raymon Hall. (History repeats itself since the parishioners have been attending their own services for the past two years at St. Michael’s while waiting for the new church to be completed.
Not only were funds limited for the purchase of a building, this fact also prevailed regarding a priest for the parish. Consequently, a visiting priest would make an annual journey to Syracuse, at which time, as many sacraments of the church, especially baptism, would be performed for the parishioners. It was not unusual for children to be baptized close to a year after their birth — such events were simply delayed until the priest made his rounds.
The period of the homeless of the parish was short-lived. Increased immigration from the Old Country, with the resulting expanding membership in St. Elias prompted the founders of our parish to think in terms of their own church building. This would be the only way to preserve our faith and heritage. The search for the appropriate building was started and coincidentally the old Lafayette Methodist Church was for sale. Edward K Bourjalily, who dealt in real estate at the time, discovered the fact that the church building was for sale and made this known to the members of the Parish.
Meetings were then held by the leaders of the infant parish and it was decided to purchase the available Lafayette Methodist Church. The $1000 down payment was not, of course, at hand and would have to be raised. This was the basic need for the organization of the ladies auxiliary. The determination and sacrifices made by the many members of the auxiliary were from the depths of their heart. These efforts were given direction by the first set of officers Jamilly Abdullah, Mary Rezak, Eveline Abdo, Nihai Abdo, and Hina Aborjaly.
The young parish needed to be nurtured and the members of the auxiliary thought of this by not only raising the necessary funds, but also by guiding the children in the ways of the church. The treasury was built up and fed with loving care by the efforts of the ladies in spending hours preparing delectable dinners and holding bazaars and card parties. Bingo games were also held with the ladies donating handmade items for the prizes.
Once the necessary funds were collected for the down payment and total cost of the church building, the ladies continued their efforts for fundraising events to cover the many needs of the growing parish, such as religious artifacts or basic functional furnishings and other important requirements for the proper operation of the church and of the Divine Liturgy.
The purchase of the Lafayette Methodist church by the parish of Saint Elias formally took place on September 16, 1929 at the total price of $9000. History repeated itself again, the first service held in the then new Saint Elias were conducted without the iconostasis being properly installed. This also held true with the present new church some 40 years later.
Since money had to be raised for almost every need of the church, it took several years to finally complete the iconostasis. The framework was built and installed, and over the years the icons and vigil lights above them were donated by many of the Arabic-speaking people of our community.
Many things in the building at the time of its purchase in 1929 required repairs or replacement. This was not a discouraging factor to the determined members of the Parish. It was not uncommon to see many men working on the inside and outside of the church after completing a good day’s work at their own jobs. The woman would cook and work alongside their husbands until the work was finished. With a great deal of hard work on the part of the parishioners they slowly progressed but with a good sense of direction and a spirit of oneness.
The first board of trustees was created in 1929 with Habib Rezac elected President; Mike Morris Vice President, George F. Corey Treasurer and Nick Yakel Secretary. A men’s committee was then formed and the first members of this organization of the young parish were Constantine Issa, Joseph Corey, Joseph Seikaly, Tawfick Mahshie, Sam Abdo, Sam Derany, Sam Khoury, Basil Ketaily, and Constantine Hodge.
With the purchase and furnishing of the church building, the parish still needed but could not afford a full-time priest. As has been the practice, divine liturgy was held whenever a priest visited Syracuse. This practice continued until the parish treasury could be strained with the necessary salary and expense of a priest to be totally assigned to Saint Elias. The first to serve the parish was real friend father boss loss. Then the newly ordained Reverend father George Kareem was sent from Cleveland Ohio to serve us parish priest of Saint Elias. Father Kareem faithfully worked for the progress of the church until the time of his death.
With the assignment of a full-time priest, it became even more important to raise funds for the operation of the church. This financial needs served to spur the members to holding an annual fundraising event the Saint Elias festival. In the early years the festival was held at the old bear trap park which has since been built over into Northern lights on route 81. Due to the fact that the majority of the parish members did not read English well enough the program for the annual event was printed entirely in Arabic.
The same people who need the written materials to be printed in their native tongue became self-taught, self-made citizens of the United States and a credit to their community. In turn, they raised their families to join the ranks of the productive members of their society as well as their church.
Growth took hold and soon the church hall could not comfortably accommodate and serve the needs of the parish, expanded facilities had to be considered. Space for the church school, the most vital factor in keeping Orthodoxy alive and strong, was becoming rapidly limited. Khourieh Kareem was forced to hold Sunday instructions for the children in the kitchen of the basement hall. The need for added space became so pressing, a new social center was decided upon. The construction of the new center came from receipts of past festivals and individual contributions. When the addition was completed, the church school was moved into its new quarters. By 1956 the Sunday school had many classes and treasury, and began to accumulate modern equipment. In 1961 the church school was formally organized under the guidelines spelled out by the Archdiocese.
As the parish of Saint Elias was progressing, a new generation of Orthodox youth was coming into being resulting in the creation of the Orthodox Youth Organization, which ultimately became SOYO and a productively active part of the national organization.
Due to the reaching out beyond the limits of the local existence and needs with respect to the church life, the leaders of the church once again recognized a need for larger and newer quarters for all phases of the parish life. Thus another era was started in the life of the now well established parish of Saint Elias. The possibilities open to the parish ranged from rebuilding and renovating to selling and buying or building. Talk subsequently turned to building new quarters and, although very slowly, developed into reality of initial plans for the prospective construction of the new and sale of the old.
As SOYO, Church school, Teenage SOYO were added to the list of already existing societies within the parish so the need for better housing for the organization as well as celebration of divine liturgy became a “now” thing.
Even with the sale of the age-worn, red-brick building on Lafayette Avenue, sufficient funds to construct a new edifice had to be accumulated in order to begin to put plans down on paper. The membership, therefore, in cooperation with the Russian Orthodox Church worked for and shared the financial benefits of weekly bingo games. The money collected from these games added to the money collected from other social functions and conventions, were developed to a figure which then made definite plans a possible reality.
The goal set before the parish was to continue to nourish and bring into being those dreams started by the members of the original parish in 1929, a church completely belonging to and specifically built for, the Arab-speaking Orthodox Christians. So the search was on for the proper parcel of land on which to construct the dream. An exhaustive study of many areas in Onondaga County, as well as, the city of Syracuse was made.
Among the many sites reviewed and considered was the one finally purchased. This land was brought to the attention of the Board of Trustees by Nick Phillpey. In the final analysis of the advantages and disadvantages, it was felt the majority of parishioners would not experience extreme difficulty in reaching the church would it to be built on this lot. And the vote was taken and decision made to purchase the 7 1/3 acres of land on Onondaga Hill for $10,000, $1000 more than the price of the entire church purchased in 1929. But on this piece of land was space in which to grow conveniently over the coming years.
Although the bank accounts have been swelled considerably in the relatively few years, there still remains a great amount of money to be acquired before the actual construction could start. Parishioners, therefore, continued with their donated time and effort in running the bingo games, the festival and the other many money-raising functions in order to bring them to a point of breaking ground on August 18, 1968.
On that glorious, sunny Sunday morning, His Eminence Metropolitan Philip was handed the golden shovel with which to make the first turn of the earth for the much dreamed of home for the parish of Saint Elias.
Even though the cost to the parishioners is at the figure of $250,000, they can now know the joy and glow of owning their own church, not one made over but one made for them. The enthusiasm and determination permeated down to the smallest child. Attendance at the first Divine Liturgy, which was celebrated on July 20, 1969, will attest to that fact.
Under the direction of Father Michael Shahin, an aggressive and imaginative board of trustees capably supported by all organizations of the parish of Saint Elias, Syracuse, now has a building housing the church which can be proudly passed on to the Orthodox Christian generations to come.