Thousands of Maronites welcome relics to new Australian home

Images by Giovanni Portelli Photography © 2024

Thousands of Maronite Catholics have shut down the streets of Punchbowl to welcome relics of Lebanon’s most well-known saint to their new permanent home in Sydney.  

Queues of faithful braced the rain on 8 May along Highclere Avenue where St Charbel’s Church and Monastery stands, spilling over onto neighbouring streets as more than 70 white-clad pallbearers carried a 110kg replica of St Charbel’s tomb atop a bed of 2,500 roses. 

The glass-topped tomb held a first-class relic—a bone of St Charbel’s—and a replica of his body dressed in a cassock he had worn. 

Beginning at Punchbowl train station, old and young, families and friends processed for more than a kilometre alongside the tomb for nearly an hour-and-a-half.  

They sang hymns and prayed the rosary until reaching the tomb’s final resting place at the parish, which is celebrating its 50th jubilee year as well as the saint’s birthday. 

Locals lit candles in their front yards and streetlights were dimmed for the procession led by a marching band and four men carrying grand-sized incense burners. 

Images by Giovanni Portelli Photography © 2024

Parents raised children on their shoulders and the crowd moved in tighter to witness the tomb arrive at what is now only the second shrine in the world dedicated to the saint.  

The arrival of the replica tomb from Lebanon, made of the same rosewood timber of the original coffin and designed by the same artist, now establishes the parish as a significant Australian pilgrimage site for Catholics worldwide. 

Following the procession Maronite Bishop of Australia, New Zealand and Oceania Antoine-Charbel Tarabay led the celebration of Mass with visiting superior of the Monastery of Annnaya in Lebanon (where St Charbel is buried), St Charbel’s parish superior Abbot Tannous Nehme, Fr Assaad Lahoud and other monks as well as priests from Sydney’s Maronite parishes. 

“I have been a priest for 31 years and a bishop for 11 years. Tonight, I am speechless. Thank you Lord, thank you St Charbel, thank you to the Lebanese Maronite Order of monks,” Bishop Tarabay said. 

Calling it “a day to remember” in the life of the south-west Sydney parish and wider Australian Maronite community, the bishop said the saint’s birthday procession served as a public testament to “the faith of the church, to your faith, and to the faith of St Charbel in God.” 

“Now, with the presence of Annaya’s spirituality here in Punchbowl, we are reminded of the strong ties we hold to our heritage and homeland,” he said. 

“The monks who arrived from Lebanon [50 years ago], armed with nothing but a vision and a devotion to spread the monastic charism and love for St Charbel in this distant land, have become pillars of our Eparchy. Their dedication has helped shape and build the spiritual foundation for future generations.  

“It would be no exaggeration to say that we stand on the shoulders of giants—those who arrived with nothing yet left us with an enduring legacy. 

“Indeed, St Charbel is not merely a saint for a particular people or creed; he is a beacon of faith for all humanity. His miraculous deeds serve as a testament to the power of faith and the boundless love of our Creator.” 

Images by Giovanni Portelli Photography © 2024

Norman Bejjani, one of the organisers of the procession, told The Catholic Weekly practising for the large-scale event involved some trial and error. 

From last minute complications with the pallbearers’ robes and continuous adjustments to the coffin’s enormous float, he said months of preparation paid off on a night which touched the hearts of everyone involved. 

“Five hours before the event I received a call from a man who was desperate to be a pallbearer but hadn’t known what was happening until very late. Everything, including backup carriers had been prepared for weeks, but I said if someone didn’t turn up I would let him know. 

“Low and behold, one person didn’t come. This man took his spot and was in tears as he carried the tomb down the street. 

“It shows that it’s not about what we’re doing, but about who were doing it for. These public processions show that Catholics are here, consolidated and strong.” 

Pallbearer and St Charbel’s parishioner Daniel Merhi signed on for the task immediately despite the threat of, and eventual, rain, which he said only added to the atmosphere. 

“For the Maronite community, I hope this occasion enriches our faith. I’m sure there are many here who are not cemented in their faith as much as they would like, but such a great witness like this can really turn the tide for people. 

“On the other hand, for those who don’t really know anything about the faith, this is an example of the kind of community and spirit we have together, not just as Maronites but humanity itself.” 

St Charbel tomb procession - The catholic weekly
Images by Giovanni Portelli Photography © 2024

Frank Nader, who recently married at St Charbel’s Church and has grown up there, said it was a truly historic event. 

“For this to be so close to home is unthinkable, I couldn’t have imagined it,” he said. 

“Instead of travelling 20 hours on a flight to Lebanon, St Charbel is now a 20-minute drive to the parish we hold so dear in our hearts.” 


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