St. George Antiochian Church in Little Falls NJ turns 100
St. George’s Antiochian Orthodox Church sits atop a grassy hill in Little Falls. With a large cross on the roof and towering hexagonal walls of brick and glass, it’s a testament to faith with a modernist twist.
But what’s inside those walls is steeped in history and ancient traditions.
A little over a century ago, Christians from what is now Syria and Lebanon came to North Jersey and founded St. George’s to worship in Arabic and follow the Eastern Orthodox rites of their homeland. Today, hundreds of families are still active in the church, including descendants of its founding members.
This year – two years late due to COVID – they are finally celebrating the church’s centennial.
“In the sea of American culture, it was so important to hold on to faith,” Reverend Nicholas Belcher, the church’s pastor, said in an interview. “Faith was at the heart of their life. It is beautiful that, for 100 years now, it has endured”,
The church continued to fill the pews for services despite the growing secularization of Americans and the passing of generations. Church leaders say strong family ties, social connections and the timeless quality of their religious rituals have been key to keeping the faith alive.
At the end of May, hundreds of families gathered for a banquet and liturgy to mark the 100th anniversary. The service was presided over by Metropolitan Joseph, head of the Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of Antioch in North America.
Priests prayed at the altar behind an iconostasis, a screen with paintings of holy figures including Jesus, Mary and the saints. They came out carrying the book of the Gospels and offerings of bread and wine. In unison, the parishioners sang sacred music from the Byzantine era in Arabic and English.
“It’s Uncle Tony”
Michael Kabbash recalled his grandfather’s arrival in the United States around 1910. Like many Syrian immigrants, he worked in the silk mills that lined the Passaic River and gave Paterson its nickname “Silk City”. .
The community began holding worship services in people’s homes and in a rented Lutheran hall, but they wanted a place of their own.
About 50 families pooled their savings to buy a three-story high school in Paterson, including women who sold gold jewelry on the streets of downtown Paterson to help fund the effort. St. George’s Antiochian Church opened on W. 27th Street, now Carlisle Avenue, in 1921.
“My dad looked back and told stories,” Kabbash said. “They knew the people in the neighborhood socially, but their friends were the people from the church. They vacationed together.”
The community at the time met in Syrian-owned grocery stores and a social club on Main and Grand streets where people played backgammon. They founded three churches, including St. George, with services in Arabic.
As families grew over the decades, St. George’s no longer fit its space. Sunday school was held in trailers. In 1974 the church moved to its current home on Long Hill Road in Little Falls.
“The community is really tight-knit,” said Kabbash, chairman of the 100th anniversary committee. “We joke when we bring neighborhood friends to festivals, ‘It’s Uncle Tony, it’s Aunt Pearl, it’s my cousin.’ We’re not really related, we just grew up together.
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Kabbash, 54, grew up in Clifton and now drives about an hour from his home in Bridgewater to Sunday church. He sings in the choir and his son is a mass server.
Others have found a place in the St. George’s Ladies’ Society, the Charity Committee and the Young Teenagers’ Organization, while the Sunday School fills 10 classrooms each week. Children and teens also go to a summer camp in Pennsylvania run by the Archdiocese of Antioch.
There are church feasts and the annual St. George’s Summer Festival with Middle Eastern food and dancing, which this year runs from June 16-18.
For Claire Levash, the church is part of her family’s life and history in America. His father helped buy the Paterson Church property, and his great-uncle led the way both there and in Little Falls.
“I still have the spade they gave him as the winner,” Levash said.
His grandchildren, a 2-year-old and a soon to be baptized newborn, are among the new members.
“You are in another world”
Levash described an air of spirituality that envelops visitors at the door. In the Orthodox tradition, the church has colorful stained glass windows and paintings of Jesus, Mary and several saints.
The singers sing ancient Byzantine hymns, while the scent of incense rises to the rafters, symbolizing the prayers of the faithful ascending to heaven.
“You walk in there and you feel like you’re in another world,” Levash said. “That’s what you want – to get out of the secular world and into the spiritual world.”
The ancient rites and iconography reflect a religious tradition that began in the early days of Christianity. Peter, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus, founded a church in Antioch of Syria (now part of modern Turkey) to which they trace their roots.
The Orthodox Church has about 250 million members worldwide, including about 100,000 in the United States and Canada, according to its website. The Archdiocese of North America, with more than 275 cathedrals, churches, and missions, is headquartered in Englewood.
In the United States, the majority of Arab Americans are Christians, many of whom are from the region’s first significant wave of immigrants, who arrived between the 1880s and 1924, when federal lawmakers restricted immigration.
Around this time, two more churches were founded in Paterson to serve immigrants to the area. They are active today, though they too have moved: Sacred Heart Armenian Catholic Church in Little Falls and St. Ann Melkite Catholic Church in Woodland Park.
Old traditions, new worshipers
Over the years, St. George’s has faced challenges. After 9/11, vandals sprayed anti-Arab graffiti on the front doors with a message “go home”.
The church has struggled with how much Arabic to include for a congregation that wants to keep tradition and be inclusive of young people and new immigrants. While St. George’s services began in Arabic, today they are primarily in English. Arabic is still used in Byzantine songs and in bilingual reading.
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Some have moved or married outside the faith. But the church has also welcomed converts and recent immigrants, including families who fled the war in Syria that broke out in 2011 and unrest in Lebanon. The St. George’s Charitable Committee helped refugees inside and outside the church with rental assistance, furniture, and groceries.
They are also trying to get back to the attendance they had before the COVID lockdowns, Levash added.
Today, St. George’s has about 570 registered families, including at least 300 who are active in the church, Belcher said.
In 2020, he became the first non-Arab pastor to lead the church. Belcher’s parents were converts to the Orthodox faith and his wife is Lebanese.
“The people that we have in our church, when they read the Bible, they don’t have to picture it in their head or think of a Charlton Heston movie,” he said. “They grew up in these places. They know the streets of Damascus. They know the cedars of Lebanon. They know where Jesus walked in Palestine.”
“They are servants who have clung to the faith through the centuries.”
Hannan Adely is a diversity journalist covering Arab and Muslim communities for NorthJersey.com, where she focuses on social issues, politics, prejudice and civil rights. To get unlimited access to the latest news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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