A local Lebanese community
The Lebanese Heritage Mural on 54 Main Street celebrates over 100 years of Lebanese citizens residing in Waterville. Although the community has become more fragmented in recent years, it is still strong.
Although it may not be immediately recognizable to the eyes of an out-of-towner, the Lebanese community in Waterville has a number of cultural strongholds. In fact, the town is home to the largest and oldest Lebanese population in Maine, and Waterville has reaped the benefits of this thriving ethnic community for over a century.
In the 1890s, Lebanese immigrants began settling in the Waterville area, and they continued to migrate to the town well into the 20th century. Stephen Plocher ’07 described this time period in his independent study essay, “A Short History of Waterville, Maine,” writing, “Although encouraged to come to Waterville by the potential for jobs and the established Lebanese population,” during the late 19th century many immigrants “were primarily fleeing their country to escape conscription by the Turkish army.” Like many similar migration movements, other reasons Lebanese people left their country included their desires for increased economic and social mobility for future generations.
Back then, the immigrants sought each other out in their new home, and the Lebanese population remains remarkably close-knit, even today. “We love that we have a community that we can relate to and that appreciates the same things that we do,” Waterville native Jennifer Nale ’14 said of the town’s Lebanese population. “It’s like a really big family.”
While first-generation Lebanese immigrants worked mostly in the mills that once bolstered Waterville’s economy, their children often went on to become successful individuals in the professional world.
As quoted in “The Lebanese,” an American Dreams documentary by Alexander Fulton ’11, Alexander Pan ’11 and Richard Schwartz ’11, “The Lebanese,” Thomas Nale, explained, “The biggest emphasis for all of the children of all the Lebanese families here in Waterville, Maine was education at an early age.”
Justice Joseph Jabar of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, who was also quoted in the documentary, said, “There’s nothing that makes us any different than any other minority that works hard to get above the level that they are at, at a certain point in their life.” The Lebanese-Americans success rate, however, was very high, with many second and third-generation Lebanese-Americans attending colleges and even graduate schools.
Today, Lebanese culture can be seen throughout Waterville. Joseph’s Market on 74 Front Street and Lebanese Cuisine on 34 Temple Street both provide an authentic eating experience. Lebanese locals also frequently connect with their community at St. Joseph’s Maronite Church on 3 Appleton Street. On 51 James Street, a Lebanese Heritage Mural was erected in 2007 as a Lebanese contribution to the local downtown flavor.
As the years have passed, however, and children of immigrants moved to cities where it was easier to find jobs, the community has become more fragmented. “When [the Lebanese] club closed, their only source of identity and culture and holding together was the church, and we still have some of that, but it is diminished slightly,” Father Larry Jensen, Pastor at St. Joseph’s Maronite Church, said in the American Dreams documentary.
Nevertheless, the town retains a deep appreciation for Lebanese tradition that will likely continue for years to come. “We know that whenever we come back…certain staples of the community are always going to be here,” Nale said.