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St. Elias Antiochian Orthodox Church: A Brief History by William J. Attal
At the turn of the 19th Century, families leaving Lebanon and Syria in mass migration to America began arriving in Austin. The immigrants' first few years were filled with making a life in the new century---adjusting to a new society and language, establishing businesses, and educating their children. It was not until 1932 that those Lebanese who worshipped as Eastern Orthodox organized to build a church. They hoped to preserve an ethnic and religious unity among their people, and to maintain their families' connection with the fullness of the ancient faith.
Construction began on Austin’s first Orthodox church in October, 1932. The "Great Depression" had spread through in the United States, making the burden even greater on the small Lebanese community. They purchased a plot of ground at 408 East 11th Street. A Lebanese architect, John Kassouf, drew up plans for the edifice, patterned after the churches of the Holy Land. Stones and building materials, including the roofing for the building, were salvaged from the old Central Christian Church (built in 1897 and razed in 1929) on Eighth Street, where the Federal Court House stands today.
With the beginning of construction came an increased need for funds. To meet the challenge, the ladies of the Church baked Lebanese bread and pastries in their homes and sold them to their neighbors. The first Lebanese Dinner was given by the ladies of the Church at the present site of the Bank of America on Congress Avenue, to pay the mortgage. This dinner was the forerunner of the Lebanese Food Festival, which evolved into the present-day Mediterranean Festival. The women’s contributions, along with others, supported the completion of the Church in 1934.
A number of visiting priests from other parishes served St. Elias from 1934 until 1943. In 1943 Fr. James Rottle was ordained to become the first priest assigned to St. Elias. He was later elevated to the rank of Archpriest and continued to serve St. Elias for 32 years, until 1975. During this time, St. Elias developed into a Pan-Orthodox parish, serving not only the Lebanese, but also Greeks, Slavs, Palestinians, Europeans, Ethiopians, and a growing number of American converts. From 1975 until 1979, Fr. Stephan Graham, Archimandrite Mark Pemberton, and Fr. John Harvey each served St. Elias for brief assignments.
In 1979, Fr. James Kenna became the pastor of St. Elias. He was elevated to Archpriest in 1984, and served as the spiritual leader of this parish until 2002. Under his leadership, St. Elias undertook an active role in extending Orthodoxy throughout Central Texas, by creating and assisting a number of missions and new parishes. From August 2002 to August 2004, St. Elias was served by Fr. Elias Nasr. Fr. David G. Barr arrived in September 2004, and continues to serve as pastor of the parish.
St. Elias is part of the Self-Ruled Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, Diocese of Wichita and Mid-America. The Parish Council oversees temporal and ordinary business matters for the parish.
An introductory description of the contemporary parish is here.
[updated June 2006]