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.

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