West Virginia Maronites Preserving Food, Faith And Future, Before It’s Too Late
Throughout Appalachia, many communities share a common concern: As the young people leave and the older generations pass on, who will carry on the traditions?
But in Wheeling, West Virginia, one young man, Dalton Haas, is determined to reverse this trend. He’s committed to bringing his community home, to the sound of church bells and the smells of homemade cooking.
It was the annual church fundraiser and volunteers gathered in the basement kitchen, serving food and sharing fellowship. The volunteers were mostly women, but alongside them was Haas, dressed in a black t-shirt with a tree printed on it: a cedar of Lebanon.
Haas is 25 and with his dark hair and youthful face, he looked out of place. But he says he’s known the women for a while. “I’ve been watching them cook and bake in this church my whole life,” Haas said.
Haas is a member of Our Lady of Lebanon, the only Maronite church in West Virginia. Maronites are Catholics who adhere to an Eastern branch originating in what is now Lebanon and Syria.
In parts of their mass, Maronites still use Aramaic - the language of Jesus.
Maronite immigrants came to West Virginia around the turn of the 19th century, seeking economic opportunity and refuge from religious persecution in Lebanon. With them, they brought rich traditions of food, faith and community.
There were once over 300 Maronites in Wheeling. But today, the congregation is small and the majority is elderly. Older generations have passed on and the younger people have moved away.
“I’m the one that stayed, the lone wolf that stayed,” Haas said.
Haas’s family moved to Wheeling from Lebanon in the early 1900s. When he was eight, he began serving on the altar at Our Lady of Lebanon. Today he’s one of the few servers still left.
But Haas explained that for him, it was different. During his preteen years, he fell in love with the traditions of his church and the culture of his ancestors. He started to learn Arabic and practice Lebanese dance.
Around that time, he started cooking. Haas says food plays an important part in Maronite religion.
“We put a cross in our dough because we think that’s the only way it’s going to rise, is if it’s blessed with a cross,” he said.
Haas learned to cook from the women of the church. They would prepare food for bake sales, church dinners and the annual festival fundraiser. Dalton learned how to make “kibbeh” from Linda Fadul Duffy, one of the main volunteers for food events.
Kibbeh is Lebanon’s national dish. It’s made with ground meat, onions, spices, and bulgar wheat, all mixed together and topped with pine nuts.
Duffy’s family used to own a Lebanese Bakery in Wheeling. Her mother, Rose Fadul, was born in Lebanon. She opened the bakery in the late 1950s. They served dishes like hummus, stuffed grape leaves and tabboli.
“It was in business for over 50 years, and it was very, very popular,” Duffy said.
The bakery closed its doors in 2017 — much to the disappointment of the community, Duffy said, the Lebanese and non-Lebanese alike.
“Everytime I go somewhere, people say, ‘I miss the bakery, I miss the bakery,” she said. "And I says, 'Well we all do.’”
Duffy still regularly cooks for church events at Our Lady of Lebanon. But she worries future generations won’t be able to carry on traditions of food in their community.
“I think Dalton’s the only one,” she said. “Because we don’t have too many young people in our parish.”
With the bakery closed and the congregation shrinking, Haas felt compelled to reverse the cultural loss in his community. That’s why he plans to open a Lebanese restaurant and bakery in downtown Wheeling. He says it will be more than just a restaurant, it will be a cultural experience.
“When you walk into the restaurant, you're going to think you're in downtown Beirut,” he said.
The restaurant will have live music, belly dancers on the weekends and serve authentic platters of Lebanese food, Haas said.
Monsignor Bakhos, the pastor at the church, says he’s thankful younger generations are preserving these traditions.
“Some younger generations, they pick up from their mothers and grandmothers,” he said. “We are pushing as much as we can.”
Bakhos says the church in Wheeling is unique. It’s been over 20 years since he first came from Lebanon to lead the congregation, and he’s gotten to know the people well.
Bakhos explained that many in the church feel a pull back to their culture, back to the faith and back to the food.
“They have what I call nostalgia,” Bakhos said. “They have nostalgia to their childhood with their grandmas and grandpas.”
He says even though most in the congregation have forgotten the Arabic language, they’ve held on to a few words -- words like kibbeh, tabouli and hummus. They know the names of the food.
“I noticed that the difference in this community here in comparison with other communities in the U.S., is that this community has roots,” Bakhos said.
This community does have roots - in the mountains of Lebanon and the hills of West Virginia. And Haas says he’s committed to bringing his community back to these roots…before it’s too late.
“In 10 years, who's going to do all the cooking? Dalton and monsignor? Dalton and one of the women who is still here? It can’t be,” Haas said. “It’s impossible.”
By offering more activities for Maronite kids, Haas hopes that more children will get involved with the church. They are trying to bring back Arabic classes, dance and cooking lessons.
In the meantime, Haas is planning to open a Lebanese food truck in Wheeling, while he continues to search for a permanent home for the restaurant.
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council. The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.