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Syrian-Lebanese Immigrants and the Church

St. Elias Church 716 Copeland Avenue, La Crosse, Wisconsin.

> Location: Murphy Library, University of Wisconsin La Crosse
> Oral histories referenced in this collection:

Addis, Elaine. Interview by Rick Brown. July 24, 2002. Audio Recording. Syrian Oral History Collection. University of Wisconsin – La Crosse Oral History Program. Housed at University of Wisconsin – La Crosse Murphy Library Special Collections and Area Research Center, La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Asfoor, James R. Interview by Rick Brown. July 19, 2002. Audio recording. Syrian Oral History Collection. University of Wisconsin – La Crosse Oral History Program. Housed at University of Wisconsin – La Crosse Murphy Library Special Collections and Area Research Center, La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Buschmann, Helen (Markos). Interview by Rick Brown. July 17, 2002. Audio recording. Syrian Oral History Collection. University of Wisconsin – La Crosse Oral History Program. Housed at University of Wisconsin – La Crosse Murphy Library Special Collections and Area Research Center, La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Ferris, Louis. Interview by Rick Brown. February 4, 2002. Audio recording. Syrian Oral History Collection. University of Wisconsin – La Crosse Oral History Program. Housed at University of Wisconsin – La Crosse Murphy Library Special Collections and Area Research Center, La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Harris, Lucy (Joseph). Interview by Rick Brown. August 8, 2002. Audio recording. Syrian Oral History Collection. University of Wisconsin – La Crosse Oral History Program. Housed at University of Wisconsin – La Crosse Murphy Library Special Collections and Area Research Center, La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Markos, Richard E. Interview by Rick Brown. February 6, 2002. Audio recording. Syrian Oral History Collection. University of Wisconsin – La Crosse Oral History Program. Housed at University of Wisconsin – La Crosse Murphy Library Special Collections and Area Research Center, La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Monsoor, Elaine. Interview by Rick Brown. March 19, 2002. Audio recording. Syrian Oral History Collection. University of Wisconsin – La Crosse Oral History Program. Housed at University of Wisconsin – La Crosse Murphy Library Special Collections and Area Research Center, La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Collection Summary

This collection is the stories of children of immigrants from Greater Syria. The stories of these individuals didn’t end at a certain point. Their stories are intertwined with the larger La Crosse community to the extent that, even now, it’s not difficult to see their stories still alive. These individuals try to remember their experiences in the La Crosse community and those of their parents and grandparents as well. Religion, and especially church, plays an important role in these Syrian/Lebanese peoples’ lives. Many of the individuals speak about their past experiences in relation to their religion, Orthodoxy (Melkites) or Roman Catholicism (Maronites). They speak a lot about which churches they are associated with. As one listens to this collection, they will notice the different sects and how they relate to each church. The families that arrive are quick to assimilate as they join organizations and become heavily involved with many of the local churches in the city. In an environment where these immigrant families were not in their own community, the church was a way for them to build a community within an already existing community. Schools like St. James still teach the youth as they did almost a hundred years ago. Schools and churches aren’t the only things still standing, many of the interviewees still have shops and businesses open in the community. Richard Markos, one of the children whose families immigrated to La Crosse, owns the Markos Clothing Store on Pearl St. in downtown La Crosse!

Collection Description

The collection includes 7 CDs that detail the lives of both the immigrants and their children. On these CDs are two important pieces of information. First and foremost, the CDs contain the actual interview of the Syrian/Lebanese child of the immigrant but they also contain an index so one can see what is being talked about. The interviews are conducted by Rick Brown and the interviewees are 1st generation, US-born, family members, meaning they are not the immigrants themselves, rather they are the children of immigrants. Each child, who at the time of the recording is an adult, is attempting to use his/her memory to talk about people and events. This is something that is both exciting and concerning. Something that this collection offers that many others do not, is an actual voice behind the information. At the same time, however, the individuals can have a hard time remembering some things which can sometimes leave holes in the narrative. There has been much criticism over the authenticity of these kinds of sources, “At the core of criticisms of oral history in the early 1970s was the assertion that memory was distorted by physical deterioration and nostalgia in old age, by the personal bias of both interviewer and interviewee, and by the influence of collective and retrospective.”

Each interview is approximately one hour long, but with each question, one can hear the sadness, the appreciation, the happiness, and the laughter of each answer given by the interviewees. They talk extensively about church and religion and the roles that both played in the lives of the community members. The church seemed to be the best form of community-building that the Syrian/Lebanese had, and many of them will affirm this. As one listens to all of the interviews, it’s noticeable that they mention each other a lot. Richard Markos, another child of an immigrant represented in this collection, even appears in an interview with Helen Markos. This shows you how close-knit the community was.

 

Richard Markos

Richard Markos’ paternal grandparents came from Syria and his maternal grandparents came from Lebanon. He explains what churches meant to the community and how Syrian/Lebanese immigrants were quick to assimilate into the community because of the church. Richard talks about how influential churches were, specifically St. Elias. He explains that the churches and priests not only offered religious services, but also a Syrian school, as he referred to it. Below is a full index of the interview:

1. Family history, emigration 00:00:47.397
2. Arne, Syria 00:02:30.054
3. Zaleh, Lebanon 00:02:43.979
4. Father’s family occupation, peddler 00:03:29.684
5. Settlement, La Crosse 00:05:07.626
6. Father’s store, wholesale and retail 00:06:40.111
7. Real estate, downtown ownership 00:07:44.883
8. Mill street, history 00:10:44.730
9. Syrian Diaspora 00:11:39.047
10. Syrian federation 00:12:19.906
11. Childhood 00:13:10.856
12. Syrian perceptions 00:15:00.138
13. St. Elias Orthodox Church 00:16:39.432
14. Arabic language 00:19:00.113
15. Syrian culture, assimilation 00:20:34.791
16. Sahrah, social gathering 00:23:07.745
17. Race riot, 1902 00:24:49.984

 

Elaine Monsoor

Elaine Monsoor’s family came from Blat and Ibbil, Syria and she, like many of the other people in this collection, went to school at the St. James School. Elaine’s interview is especially great because she also knows a lot about about Our Lady of Lourdes church because her family lived right next door. She talks about how the priest at this church not only gave mass to the Catholic community, but also to other denominations. So, the church wasn’t only important in the Syrian community, but it seems that other communities also revolved around the church. Interestingly, she remembers both attending, and helping to eventually tear down the building. Below is a full index of the interview:

1. Personal history 00:00:18.085
2. Monsoor name 00:00:50.302
3. Copeland Avenue 00:04:45.663
4. Lumber mills 00:07:36.263
5. Copeland Avenue 00:09:14.326
6. Syrian community in La Crosse, 1930s 00:10:27.589
7. Education 00:17:58.242
8. Marriage 00:31:22.517
9. Our Lady of Lourdes 00:39:39.630

 

Helen (Markos) Buschmann

Helen Buschmann’s parents came from Syria and have an interesting immigration story. Their route to the United States had them stop in South America, and in the process of moving from South America to the United States, Helen’s father was forced to change his name from Shaheen to Charles. Helen also speaks about her experience with religion and church, specifically with St. Elias Church. She explains the cultural norms of church going and what activities, outside of religion, St. Elias offered the community, like writing and reading Arabic. These activities were offered because they helped to keep the Syrian/Lebanese culture alive. Also, many people needed Arabic and English lessons because they had difficulties with the languages. Below is a full index of the interview:

1. Personal history 00:00:33.459
2. Markos surname 00:05:05.985
3. Immigration 00:06:32.752
4. Coming to La Crosse 00:10:24.566
5. Peddling 00:11:03.034
6. Siblings 00:13:18.997
7. Religion 00:20:07.476
8. Marriage 00:21:39.066
9. Property 00:23:53.141
10. St. Elias church 00:26:30.835
11. South side of La Crosse 00:34:24.021
12. St. Elias 00:37:54.136
13. Interfaith marriage 00:48:40.596

 

Lucy (Joseph) Harris

Lucy Harris’ parents came from Lebanon, most specifically an area outside of Beirut, the current capital. She speaks specifically of her time at the St. James School and church, and she shares which churches the community liked the most. Her father would always go to St. James, so that’s the only church that she really knows about. She also talks about the difficulties that the immigrant community had to face, like prejudice. She bravely recalls the name calling and racism that she had to endure from other kids, some even going so far as saying “go back to where you come from.” Below is a full index of the interview:

1. Parents 00:00:31.506
2. Syrian neighborhoods 00:14:06.692
3. Childhood 00:16:18.934
4. Syrian cooking 00:23:00.665
5. Arabic 00:23:46.235
6. Prejudice 00:23:53.592
7. Our Lady of Lourdes 00:25:15.263
8. Dating 00:29:47.709
9. Parents 00:31:26.738
10. Working 00:31:41.921
11. Marriage 00:33:52.926
12. Opinions, Syrian community 00:48:10.775

 

Louis Ferris

Louis Ferris’ family also came from Syria but his interview is special in the sense that it has the most information. Among also being a child of a Syrian/Lebanese immigrant, he is also a WWII veteran of the United States. He’s able to talk on how interfaith marriages played a role in the community and how the different sects and religions interacted with each other. Louis speaks about how he wasn’t personally invested in the church, but that he helped out a lot, especially by providing the church with donations and food during big events. Even though Louis wasn’t directly involved in the church, he still felt a commitment to the greater community through it. Louis actually has two interviews and the index for interview one is listed below:

1. Personal history 00:00:28.878
2. Monsoor surname 00:02:27.051
3. Technology 00:07:20.239
4. Arabic 00:08:16.120
5. Marriage 00:11:53.107
6. Religion 00:16:41.025
7. Parents’ employment 00:21:40.953

 

James Asfoor

James Asfoor’s parents came from Syria and his father, like many other immigrants, was a peddler. He speaks of Our Lady of Lourdes, a church that was so poor that it eventually closed, leading many people to St. Elias. He explains that a lot of Syrian/Lebanese children were forced to attend St. James because St. Elias and Our Lady of Lourdes didn’t have official schools attached to them. James provides good information about what education meant to the Lebanese/Syrian community. Many people chose their church based on the activities that the church offered to the community, and since education was so valued, St. James was a practical choice for many. Below is a full index of the interview:

1. Personal history 00:00:19.108
2. Syrian neighborhoods 00:06:26.182
3. Syrian and Irish conflict 00:07:11.893
4. Our Lady of Lourdes 00:10:04.716
5. St. Elias orthodox church 00:11:27.856
6. Gender roles 00:15:44.643
7. Syrian immigration 00:21:45.476
8. Religion 00:22:26.525
9. Marriage 00:35:33.584

 

Elaine Addis

Elaine Addis’ parents immigrated to the US from Greater Syria, but she actually identifies as Lebanese. They came from a village known as Rashaya al Fakkar and became heavily involved in the church. She talks a lot about Our Lady of Lourdes because her family was one of the first in the area and Addis’ dad actually was the one to help find a priest for Our Lady of Lourdes. She speaks about how the different religious sects related to each church because she also later attended St. Elias Church. An interesting part of her interview is that she can actually recall Elaine Monsoor helping to tear down Our Lady of Lourdes! Below is an index of interview one:

1. Syrian vs. Lebanese nationality 00:00:30
2. Addis surname 00:03:20
3. Parents’ immigration 00:03:50
4. Attraction to La Crosse, job opportunities 00:09:00
5. Establishing property and rental spaces 00:16:50
6. Gender roles 00:19:00
7. Syrian and Lebanese community leadership 00:26:15
8. Our Lady of Lourdes Church 00:26:50
9. Roman Catholic conversion from Maronite 00:30:30
10. Our Lady of Lourdes church structure 00:34:30
11. Father Salomone, Our Lady of Lourdes 00:38:25
12. St. James schooling, 1930s 00:42:25
13. Ethnic prejudice, 1930s 00:48:45

 

Reviewed by: Aaron Bhatoya