By Larry Grard
WATERVILLE – Upwards of 75 people packed the Redington Museum parlor on the evening of Thursday, Jan. 10, for a presentation of Waterville’s vibrant Lebanese history, sponsored by the Waterville Historical Society.
Tom Nale and Joe Jabar, both of whom have deep roots in the city’s Lebanese history, provided informative and intriguing half-hour talks.
“What a great turnout on a lovely day,” Historical Society President said, a light-hearted remark considering the frigid temperatures outside. “We have two pillars of the community, both members of the bench, here for us.”
On Feb. 13 at 5:30 p.m., the cultural series will continue with a lecture on Franco-American Women in Waterville. There is no admission charge.
Nale spoke first on Jan. 10, detailing how his Sittoo (grandmother in Arabic) and Giddoo (grandfather), and many other Lebanese immigrants, endured the trip to the United States in the early part of the 20th century. The famine of 1918 had wiped out half the country’s 800,000 people.
“They were caged with chicken wire in the worst part of the ship with little food,” Nale said. “They sang songs.”
One group of Lebanese immigrants landed first in Canada, and traveled at night by foot to reach Waterville.
The great majority of Waterville Lebanese are Maronite (Eastern Rite) Catholics, and they were quick to organize a Maronite church of their own. The first family, that of Abraham Joseph, had come to Waterville in 1888. Two years laater, Lebanese families were attending Roman Catholic Masses at Sacred Heart and St. Francis. But by 1924, Father Awad came from the old country to establish the first Maronite church in the city. Today, the gorgeous St. Joseph Maronite Catholic C hurch on Front Street faces the Kennebec River, looking east.
The immigrants built tenements along the riverside, in an area known as “Head of Falls.” Those houses were torn down in the late 1960s.
“I can tell you where each and every house was on Head of Falls,” Nale said. “That was because I had a paper route. Me and Joe were altar boys, and we went to the church after our routes. When Joe and I were serving the church was absolutely full from front to back.”
The mills attracted most of the Lebanese, French, Polish and other immigrants to Waterville, but some Lebanese were Phoenicians, who were merchants. Al Corey had his famous music store on Main Street, and the Peter Joseph family only recently sold Joseph’s Market, which is still in business a stone’s throw from the church.
“We were all known as cousins,” Nale said. “To work on the railroad was a dream for those men. It was not hard work.”
Sen. George Mitchell became the city’s most celebrated Lebanese, although for a time his older brother, the late Johnny “Swisher” Mitchell, claimed that mantle. Swisher led undefeated Waterville High to the New England Basketball Championship in 1944.
Jabar referred to the Earl Smith “Water Village,” which explains some of the tenets of the Maronite religion. St. Maron was a monk in the hills of Lebanon.
Jabar’s father was born in Waterville in 1905, making him one of the early first-generation Lebanese. In 1922, George Jabar and Phillip Nagem became the first Lebanese boys to graduate Waterville High.
“He made $17 a week at the mill,” Jabar said of his father. “Then he got $20-$25 as a weaver. He became a union organizer in the 1930s. He was a natural.”
Those first-generation Waterville Lebanese instilled in their children the need for education.
“We had eight siblings in our family,” Jabar said. “Seven of them went to college.”
The Lebanese kids – including Swisher Mitchell – made the Boys Club their second home. Jabar said there is a 16 mm tape available of Waterville’s victory over Somerville, MA, in the New England final.
“Swisher would dribble, dribble, dribble,” said Jabar, who wasn’t a bad athlete himself in the mid-1960s. “He kept the basketball.”
The Redington Museum will be open to the public from Memorial Day week to Labor Day. Hours are 10-11 a.m. and 1-2 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.