Keeping Traditions Alive: Saint Elias celebrates diversity through annual festival

When Theresa Garnem arrived in Birmingham from Lebanon in 1972, she was excited, yet a little anxious to navigate a new world.

“I was 11 years old, and came over with my grandmother.  I wasn’t sure what to expect,” said Garnem.

Garnem began attending Saint Elias Maronite Catholic Church almost immediately. She said she was happy to find a place that embraced the customs of Lebanon.

“Saint Elias reminded me of church back home, so much tradition. The food, the dance, the hymns, they remind me of home.”

The food, dance and other aspects of the Lebanese culture will be on display this Friday, May 25, and Saturday, May 26, at the Lebanese Food and Cultural Festival on the Southside campus of Saint Elias, the only Maronite church in Alabama.

This is the 16th year of the festival, which was started by Paul Bolus.

Bolus started the festival because “we wanted our culture, heritage, and religion to be known in the Birmingham community,” he said.

Bolus said he and others would go to various ethnic festivals to see what it took to take on such an endeavor.  “The people who put on the Greek festival really helped us that first year,” said Bolus.

He feels it’s not only important for the church to educate the public on their ways and customs, but to also make sure those customs are passed down to future generations.

Garnem agrees. She works with both girls and boys in teaching the traditional dance Dabke.  The dance imitates the movements of those who pick grapes and stomp them to make wine.

Gerry Kimes joined Saint Elias when he married his wife Beverly in 1970. Kimes said Saint Elias’s services “spoke to me,” and his fellow congregants welcomed him from the start.

Beverly Kimes said the church is a family-oriented one. When I asked how many people attended Saint Elias, she didn’t answer in terms of individuals. “There are about 300 families,” said Beverly.

On the day I visited the church, Beverly was busy preparing zalaybah, a type of Lebanese donut.  Gerry Kimes offered me one, which I accepted. Its taste reminded me of a beignet without all that powdered sugar. He also offered a cup of strong Lebanese coffee. “It’ll wake you up,” he said.  Since I’m not a coffee drinker, I passed.

Kimes likes the idea of welcoming the community with food. “The best way to get people’s attention is to feed them,” said Kimes.

The congregants begin planning for the next festival almost immediately after the current one wraps up.  They begin preparing food in February.  Bolus expects almost 9,000 people to attend this year’s festival.  And before the weekend is over, they’ll serve:

2100 chicken halves
2000 pounds of kibbe
6800 spinach pies
2000 meat pies
12,000 grape leaves

There will also be several specialty dishes that are made in smaller batches.

To make sure the traditional recipes are not forgotten, the church created a cookbook in 2008. There are several dishes that have more than one recipe, as if no one could make a decision as to whose recipe would be admitted because each was just as worthy.

The festival goes from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Admission is free, and credit cards are accepted.

Guided tours start each hour beginning at 11 a.m. from the front steps of the church.   Guided tours will end at 7 p.m.  Guests can also take self-guided tours on both days from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Note that no tours are available at 5 p.m. on Saturday during a liturgy service. The parish started in 1910 in a different location.  The congregants have worshipped in their current location since 1950.

Theresa Garnem

Theresa Garnem

Gerry and Beverly Kimes

Gerry and Beverly Kimes

Below is a recipe for the zalaybeh. There are two recipes in the book, but I’ve chosen the first one to list here.


121/2 pounds self-rising flour
21/2 pounds plain flour
1 cup self-rising cornmeal
½ envelope yeast dissolved in lukewarm water
Approximately 1 cup vegetable oil (add water to correct consistency)

Honey butter:
1 large tub of vegetable spread
1 bottle of yellow label table syrup
1 cup of powdered sugar

After mixing dry ingredients, add water-yeast mixture and then vegetable oil. Knead thoroughly, punch down and then resume kneading. Form a shallow cross with your hand in the center of the dough. Let rest 5 minutes before preparing doughnut balls.

Flour work surface and squeeze dough balls about 10 to 12 at a time. Gently roll in hands to smooth and pat off excess flour. Roll lightly in cornmeal (also spread on adjacent work surface) and place in large plastic tub, layering balls and lightly sprinkling cornmeal to prevent sticking. Continue until all balls are handled and placed in tub. Cover with damp cloth and allow to rise about 3 hours prior to frying.

To prepare honey butter, whip all ingredients together until smooth and fluffy.

Prior to frying, stretch out each individual dough ball and fry in a hot skillet of vegetable oil, turning once until golden brown. Immediately cut lengthwise into center about ½ deep and heavily spread honey butter mixture. (Sprinkling donuts with powdered sugar is your choice.) This recipe makes about 150 doughnuts.

Power to the People: A Poet You Should Know – John Beecher

As the end of National Poetry Month approaches, I want to introduce to John Henry Newman Beecher.


John Beecher has been called a political poet, the everyman’s scribe. Frank Adams, in the magazine “Southern Exposure,” once wrote:

 “John Beecher was a radical poet, perhaps America’s most persistent
for 50 years,The heir of an Abolitionist tradition and proponent of the
dispossessed seizing of power. His most enduring lyrics are about the
downtrodden’s fight for economic justice, human dignity and political
freedom. He heard the music in their voices with uncanny accuracy.”

Born in New York City on January 22, 1904, Beecher was three when his father, who was an executive for U.S. Steel, was transferred to Birmingham. When Beecher graduated from high school (at age 14), the elder Beecher put him to work in one of the steel mills until he became old enough to enter the military.

Beecher finally enrolled at Virginia Military Institute in 1919, but that experience did not last. He soon found his way back to Birmingham and its mills. During this second stint in the mills, Beecher worked 12-hour shifts.

Later Beecher left for Cornell to study engineering.  While there, an English instructor, William Strunk, Jr. (Yes, that William Strunk, Jr.) took interest in Beecher’s poetry.   Adams wrote, “He quit Cornell to return to the steel mills and writing. Eventually, he finished college at the University of Alabama in 1925, and that summer went to Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English, where he studied with Robert Frost.”

Beecher later returned to the mill but was severely injured.  Beecher had probably already known that working in a mill could be hazardous to his health, but after his injury he penned poetry that spoke of the dangers and management’s overall dubious behavior.  His “Report to the Stockbrokers” illustrated these points:


he fell off his crane
and his head hit the steel floor and broke like an egg
he lied a couple of hours with his brains bubbling out
and then he died
and the safety clerk made a report saying
it was carelessness
and the crane man should have known better
than not to watch his step
and slip in some grease on top of his crane
and then the safety clerk told the superintendent
he’d ought to fix the guardrail


out at the open hearth
they all went to see the picture
called Men of Steel
about a third-helper who
worked up to the top
and married the president’s daughter
and they liked the picture
because it was different


a ladle burned through
and he got a shoeful of steel
so they took up a collection through the mill
and some gave two bits
some gave four
because there’s no telling when


the stopper-maker
puts a brick sleeve on an iron rod
and then a dab of mortar
and then another sleeve brick
and another dab of mortar
and when has put fourteen sleeve bricks on
and fourteen dabs of mortar
and fitted on the head
he picks up another rod
and makes another stopper


a hot metal car ran over the Negro switchman’s leg
and nobody expected to see him around here again
except maybe on the street with a tin cup
but the superintendent saw what an ad
the Negro would make with his peg leg
so he hung a sandwich on him
with safety slogans
and he told the Negro boy just to keep walking
all day up and down the plant
and be an example


he didn’t understand why he was laid off
when he’d been doing his work
on the pouring tables OK
and when with less age than he had
weren’t laid off
and he wanted to know why
but the superintendent told him to get the hell out
so he swung on the superintendent’s jaw
and the cops came and took him away


he’s been working around here since there was a plant
he started off carrying tests when he was fourteen
and then he third-helped
and then he second-helped
and then he first-helped
and when he got to be almost sixty years old
and was almost blind from looking into the furnaces
the bosses let him
carry tests again


he shouldn’t have loaded and wheeled
a thousand pounds of manganese
before the cut in the belly was healed
but he had to pay his hospital bill
and he had to eat
he thought he had to eat
but he found out
he was wrong


in the company quarters
you’ve got a steel plant in your backyard
very convenient
gongs bells whistles mudguns steamhammers and slag-pots blowing up
you get so you sleep through it
but when your plant shuts down
you can’t sleep for the quiet

Beecher’s poetry also pointed to discrimination outside the mill.  Beecher wrote about the hypocrisy of the city’s racially-motivated bombings in “If I Forget Thee, O Birmingham!”


Like Florence from your mountain.
Both cast your poets out
for speaking plain.


You bowl your bombs down aisles
where black folk kneel
to pray for your blacker souls.


Dog-town children bled
A, B, O, AB as you.
Christ’s blood is not more red.


Burning my house to keep
them out, you sowed wind. Hear it blow!
Soon you reap.

Beecher attended Harvard from 1926-1927. He also attended the Sorbonne, University of Wisconsin, and the University of North Carolina.

A quest for fairness for all people drove Beecher’s actions and art, said Foster Dickson during a telephone interview. Dickson is a Montgomery educator who has written a book on John Beecher’s legacy. “John Beecher came from a long line of people who strove to do the right thing – Lyman Ward Beecher, Henry Ward Beecher, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. He had a passion for protesting unfairness,” he said.

In addition to using poetry as a weapon of protest, Beecher also wrote prose and worked on FDR’s Fair Employment Practice Committee to investigate discrimination.  Beecher worked as a journalist and anthropologist, too.

He suffered consequences, as “If I Forget Thee, O Birmingham!” alludes to. He was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and in 1950, Beecher refused to sign California’s state loyalty oath and was fired from his position as a sociology assistant professor at San Francisco State College.

Beecher briefly returned to Birmingham in 1967 as Miles College’s visiting professor of creative writing.

Foster Dickson is disappointed that Beecher’s work, especially his poems, has been essentially forgotten.  In fact, Dickson’s book, “The Life and Poetry of John Beecher (1904-1980),” criticizes keepers of the “canon” for ignoring Beecher.   But as Frank Adams wrote in “Southern Exposure” magazine, Beecher did not write to be praised by his literary peers. “Like Isaiah, or Bunyun, and even Sandburg for a time, his poems were for average people. Beecher seemed to know instinctively that poetry was not just for critics, but that people used it in one way or another every day, not to flatter but to survive…The poet’s task was to listen, to record, then to chant his poetry.”

On May 11, 1980, Beecher died of lung disease in San Francisco.

Want to know more about John Beecher? Click this link.

Have you already heard of Beecher before reading this piece? If so, what’s your favorite Beecher poem? Leave a comment, please.