The 38th annual Lebanese Festival recently wrapped on the grounds of Coral Way’s Our Lady of Lebanon Church.
The festival has become such a staple of South Florida living that some 5,000 visitors descend on the church grounds to sample Lebanese food, music and culture.
But those in the know realize the appropriate, if not advertised, name is the Mary Thomas Festival.
Thomas, who died March 15 at 93 at her Pinecrest home, came up with the idea for a weekend festival in 1978 to help the church pay its mortgage. Plenty thought it wouldn’t work, her son Kenneth Thomas recalled. Mom knew best.
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In 1973, Mary and her husband, Joe, helped found and develop Our Lady of Lebanon inside an old Food Fair supermarket on Coral Way. Joe Thomas converted the check-out counter to an altar to hold the first Mass on Dec. 30, 1975.
That year, philanthropist Anthony Abraham, who helped fund the church, earned the first Silver Massakbi Award to come out of Miami. The honor is the highest designation by the National Apostalate of Maronites for members who contribute extraordinarily of their time, talent, and treasure on a parish, regional or national level.
Mary Thomas earned the second Silver Massakbi in 1976.
“Abraham was the greatest benefactor. He gave of his treasure. But it was my mother and her time and talent that made the church what it was,” Kenneth Thomas said. “Together, they were such a combination.”
“She was a very loving lady, very sweet, very quiet, very mellow … everybody loved her at the church,” said Abraham’s daughter Norma Jean Abraham, who hosts the festival’s children’s events. “She’s been around since my mom and dad. We were all very close. Even though we are not related, we say we are related to each other. She was my Aunt Mary.”
Thomas, born Mary Margaret Abood on June 2, 1921, in Detroit, grew up on the second floor of her father’s grocery store in the region’s growing Lebanese community. By age 13, she was running the store.
“That worked to her disadvantage. There were four brothers and one girl and she was so good at English and math by the time she got out of high school she won a scholarship to the best college in Michigan. But her father refused to let her take it. ‘Education was a waste of time, especially for a girl.’ That old-time country attitude. That broke her heart,” her son said. “We always wonder what she could have done.”
By the 1940s, the emphasis at home revolved around the auto industry and the war effort. Her brother, George, died on a Pacific island. George had introduced his sister to the tool-and-die Hudson auto plant man who would become her husband and the father of her five children.
The couple left Detroit, lured by the promise of Miami. “The most courageous thing my mother did was move out of Detroit in 1955 or all of her kids would work in the auto plants,” said Kenneth Thomas, a doctor like his four brothers. “My dad left all these people behind to start a new life in Miami.”
The family first settled in an apartment house near the former Orange Bowl in Little Havana that is now the site of Marlins Park. Dad, who died in 1998 at 84, worked as a general contractor. His wife’s first goal: get her kids educated.
“As my mother taught me, use your education to do the right thing,” her son said.
Thomas’ next goal was to build on the Lebanese community in South Florida with the foundation of the church. She became the first president of the Ladies’ Guild and used the skills she learned at her father’s grocery store to start the festival.
“The two of them went out to the farmer’s market with their station wagon and brought back a ton of stuff and worked for weeks. Mother was the best cook and she trained them all and they had their first festival.”
As the annual January event became a Miami-Dade fixture, “very few knew she was the brainchild behind it,” her son said.
“The festival is still going on and it’s bigger than ever now. We rolled 2,000 grape leaves and 2,000 kibbeh and nothing was left, everything sells out,” Abraham said. “Now, the younger generation of people are coming and it’s sad to see the older ones go that were the founders of the church. But they all left a legacy and so it goes on.”
Thomas is survived by her sons Robert, Kenneth, Richard, Lawrence and Brian; grandchildren Christopher and Gregory, and great-grandchildren Alexander and Isabella.
Services will be at 10:30 a.m. Friday at Our Lady of Lebanon, 2055 Coral Way, Miami.
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