St. Maron’s Church has served parishioners of Lebanese descent since its founding in 1903. And for the last 30 years, for one weekend each summer, the church’s Lebanese Festival has turned a quiet northeast Minneapolis parking lot into a Lebanese souk—complete with some of the best Lebanese food you can find anywhere in town.
The festival came to fruition in 1990 as a way to strengthen community bonds and shift the lens on Lebanese people at a time when the image of Lebanese, as well as others within the SWANA/MENA region, was not favorable.
“In 1989, there were wars going on,” Chorbishop Sharbel Maroun, who’s known as “Abouna” to the patrons of St. Maron’s, tells Racket. “So people's idea about Lebanon was blood, fighting, and destruction, and they didn't know about the rich culture we have, that is 6,000 to 7,000 years old. It's important for us to bring that rich culture, and to share it.”
Since its first iteration, the Lebanese Festival has expanded each year. The community continues to grow, as does the camaraderie. After the festival was canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic, a scaled-down version took place in 2021—and ended up shattering fundraising and attendance records.
This year’s festival, taking place on Saturday, September 17, and Sunday, September 18, marks a return to its full-scale gathering.
“The hugs that go on between family members and friends who have not seen each other in months, that happens right here,” Abouna says. Ten percent of the St. Maron’s Lebanese Festival net proceeds on both days are going to support Lebanese charities, at a time when Lebanon is facing its worst economic crisis ever.
The festival’s biggest centerpiece—the thing that has people traveling from miles around the six-state region to northeast Minneapolis—continues to be the food, which volunteers take great pride in making. Chairpersons Lily and Laurent Hage are among the few that helped steer volunteers on the prepwork it takes to feed so many from far and wide. For two days, their focus is on making specialties that rival any SWANA/MENA-owned restaurant in the Twin Cities, including the hardest to find item of all: mana'eesh.
Mana’eesh, an olive-oil rich flatbread, is topped with za’atar, cheese, or both. Its counterpart, lahmajeen, is topped with minced meat. Neither item is normally found at SWANA/MENA owned restaurants in the Twin Cities.
“Up until 1999, St. Maron’s didn't have a commercial kitchen, and finding ingredients that would be to our liking was not as easy as it is today,” Laurent says. “So the ladies would gather in the church basement and prepare. Since then, they've grown old, and many of them have passed on the tradition to younger people. Now we're in the process of passing on the tradition to a third generation of people who are willing to work. We have people from all walks of life and regions such as Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Palestine, who are involved and part of it.”
In addition to mana’eesh and lahmajeen, other dishes include chicken and beef kabobs, falafel, gyros, and eggplant sandwiches. Side items at the festival include tabbouleh, Abouna’s fries topped with za’atar and sumac, and desserts such as baklava, Lebanese macaroons, Zlebye, and Abouna’s ice cream made with rosewater.
Alongside the food, there will be live music and traditional dabke dances by St. Maron’s Church Youth Group. The banquet hall inside St. Maron’s also contains wholesale trinkets and Lebanese crafts and goods, and there will be a silent auction.