By Jacquelyn Decker
And Gloria Kassab-Decker
My mother Gloria's story begins in May of 1997 when my Aunt Rose Kassab mentioned to me that our great, great-uncle, Blessed Al-Hardini, was being beatified in Rome on May 10, 1998. Aunt Rose wanted to know if our family was going. For some reason I felt no excitement when she mentioned this. I should have been ecstatic to learn that I was the direct descendant of a saint, yet for the next several months I put this news on the back burner and hardly ever thought about it.
The following March, I was rehearsing a lecture in front of my mother and her friends about the power of the subconscious mind, and how we make events come about by our thoughts and actions. Before the lecture, my mother mentioned how much she wanted to go to the beatification of Blessed Nimatullah Kassab Al-Hardini in Rome, but then came up with twenty reasons why she couldn't go. I decided to use her story during my lecture as an example of "negative thinking". While I was speaking to the ladies, I suddenly had a powerful feeling that my mother MUST GO to Rome and it had to be NOW. So I issued a challenge to the class. I told them how my mother believed that she would never get to go and it was up to us to use positive thinking and action to send her on the trip. Something deep, down inside was telling me that this was the most important thing my mother could ever do for our family, and I started to feel an urgency about the trip that I had never felt before. The ladies responded with enthusiasm and accepted the challenge.
Incredibly, two weeks later my mother had an airline ticket to Rome, and my Aunt Rose invited my mother to be her guest at the hotel where she was staying. When my mother told me and her friends what had happened, we were all amazed at the turn of events.
When I was asked to write an article about our saint and his relationship to our family, I wasn't sure what to write, as I didn't have any information about him. Then I realized that my mother's journey to Rome might be of interest to many Maronite Catholics, especially those who were unable to make the trip. So before she left, I asked my Mom to keep a journal of her trip -- detailing everything that she saw, felt and experienced starting with her flight to Italy and ending with her return trip home. Some of her notes were beautifully detailed. Others were brief and factual.
Mother is in her seventies. In order to write a thorough and accurate depiction of her journey, I had to try to imagine myself in her place and see everything through her eyes. I have attempted to convey her sense of awe at everything that took place and hope that you will be able to relive this incredible experience through her writings.
The Journal of Gloria Kassab Decker The Beatification of Blessed Nimatullah Kassab Al-Hardini
The Week of May 10, 1998
I have to pinch myself to believe that I am actually on a plane flying to Rome to attend my great, great-uncle's beatification. A few weeks ago I was wondering what kind of summer I would have, probably doing the same old thing, taking day trips when the weather was nice, and visiting my children and sisters. How did I get here? I'm a little worried about the long flight, as I have a lot of back and leg pain from osteoarthritis, but luckily the pain isn't bad. I'm so excited that I find it difficult to sit in my seat. I want to jump up and talk to the people around me and tell them how happy and thrilled I am. I never in a million years would have thought that this trip would happen. If Mom were still alive, she would be bursting with excitement and I know that she would have been sitting next to me on the plane smiling and talking to everyone. I believe that she had a hand in my making this journey, because coincidentally, my Mom's birthday is May 10th, the exact date of the beatification. I know she is smiling down on me from heaven today.
My daughter felt very strongly that I should go and represent the Isaac Kassab branch of the family. Isaac was my beloved father, whom I adored, husband to my mother Mae, an extraordinary and loving woman. My father, along with his brothers Casper and Paul, came to Philadelphia from the village of Hardin in Lebanon. We recently found out that Blessed Nimatullah was his great, great-uncle.
Isaac was born to Lillian and Samuel Kassab in 1893 and he died in 1958. He married Mae Joseph on October 17, 1920 in Coatesville, Pennsylvania. She was the daughter of Louis Joseph and Mary Sheyban. My parents had six children: Lillian, William, Gloria (me), Louis, Ray and Ann (see photos). We were raised during the great depression of the 1930's, and if it weren't for my parents resourcefulness, we would have died of starvation. Between them, they made $1 a day yet managed to feed, clothe and provide a loving home for us six children.
I wish Daddy could be here with me today. Now that I'm on my way to the Eternal City, I keep thinking of my father and how proud he would have been of his great-uncle, and I'm sure he's watching over us and smiling. However, it is my greatest regret that when my father and his two brothers moved to America in the early 1900's, the entire written history of our branch of the Kassab family was lost and never brought to America. Sadly, we know nothing about our ancestors. I am hoping to meet Kassab relatives in Rome, and maybe we can start piecing together our family tree.
I will be meeting my cousin Rose in Rome. She has friends there and hopefully they will show us around the city. I didn't want to join my cousin Vicki's tour because she and her cousins will be on buses all day, every day seeing the sights of Rome. I felt that this would be too much walking.
Arrival in Rome
After taking a taxi from the Rome airport, I arrived at my hotel and met Rose and my other cousins from Pennsylvania. We soon settled in and then went out for a cappucino. We were laughing about how disorganized the Italian hotel staff was. When we called downstairs to tell the front desk that there was no air conditioning and our hotel room was steaming hot, the clerk abruptly shouted in broken English, "NO AIR TIL JUNE!" then slammed down the phone!
Between that and the horrifying taxi ride from the airport (the driver never used his brakes), we were still laughing hours later. The only thing we really felt bad about was that many Roman hotels have no accommodations for the handicapped and elderly. Two women on the tour missed the beatification because their hotel did not have wheelchairs. Imagine coming all this way and not being able to go to any of the ceremonies!
Rose's and my biggest concern prior to the trip was our precarious health situations but amazingly, from the moment we arrived in the Holy City, neither of us suffered from illness. This lasted until we both left Rome the following week.
Rose's sons, Tom Golden and Greg Kassab, took us out for several meals and hired a private tour guide to show us the sights. I was deeply moved by the Colosseum, especially when we stood in front of the area where the slaves were kept. Imagine having to decide whether to be a slave for the rest of your life or walk into the lion's den and be eaten alive. Later on, we tried to cross the street and were unable to because the cars simply wouldn't stop. So Greg (our hero!) stepped out into the middle of traffic, stopped the cars, and escorted us across. The Italian drivers were amazed at the audacity of the "crazy Americans".
We assured Tom and Greg that they didn't have to chaperon us but they were having such fun in our company that they constantly took us out to eat at wonderful restaurants and outdoor cafes. One of the first lessons we learned was that no matter what you order to eat, the waiter will bring you whatever he wants you to eat, regardless of whether or not you like it. He knows what's best.
One evening we went to a beautiful restaurant, and even though Tom ordered veal without mushrooms (he hates mushrooms), don't you know that his veal arrived smothered with mushrooms. The waiter said, "Eat them. They're good for you!" We laughed at everything that entire week. Rome is very noisy but interesting. It seems like nothing bothers the Italians. They know how to live and enjoy life, and they all dress beautifully, even the waiters.
Saturday, May 9, 1998
Today we went to see the Sistine Chapel. The artwork was exquisite. While there, we met a large group from Lebanon. There were thousands of Lebanese gathered there from all over the world --many from Australia. All of the people we spoke with were beautiful, warm and gracious. I understood when they spoke Arabic to me, but my feeble answers were hard for them to understand. I was just happy that I could explain to them how much we appreciated the fact that they all came to Rome to celebrate our Saint with us. They participated in every event. Rose and I took a cab back to the hotel to shower and rest for a few hours, because the stores and restaurants close from 1 to 4 PM. This was very inconvenient because that was the only free time we had to shop. We couldn't even watch television during those hours. Their clocks were on military time, so we counted on our fingers a lot.
Sunday, May 10, 1998
Beatification day! I thought of Mom this morning, because today is her birthday. How I wish she was here with me today. We awakened early and were too excited to eat. Greg and Tom got us front seats on the double-decker bus and it was a nice comfortable ride to the Vatican. Once there, we were in another crowd and slowly moved over to Saint Peter's Basilica. When we arrived inside, my first view of the altar took my breath away. The ornamentation was magnificent and nothing like I had ever seen before in my life. It was a masterpiece of human artistry.
Guards were at the entrance checking our handbags and bottles of water. If you had more than one bottle, it was confiscated. If you opened the bottle, they took the top off -- all for security reasons.
Two cardinals escorted the Holy Father into the cathedral. I can't explain the feeling that came over me when the Pope came up to the altar. He looked so tiny and frail; everyone stood and applauded. I am grateful that he was well enough to perform the ceremony today. What a feeling being in the same room with this fabulous human being, a man who has done so much for the world. Just being in his presence made me feel holy.
Besides Blessed Nimatullah, three female saints were being beatified. The ceremony was beautiful and entirely in Latin. Most of the people in the audience were Lebanese; you could tell this by their applause when the Pope announced Blessed Nimatullah's name. I felt like I was in heaven. It brought tears to my eyes and I just sat there and thought, "Am I really here? Am I really in the same room with the Pope standing just a few yards away attending the beatification of my father's great uncle?" Outside of the cathedral, the tapestries of the newly beatified saints were unveiled and I heard the crowd go wild. The visitors from Spain stood to applaud their saint and chanted "Papa" to the Pope. What an unbelievable experience! I can't wait until we get the videotape of this day so that all of my family and friends can see it as I looked at the crowd around me, I saw my dear friend Eddie Shiner in the crowd and he gave me such a bear hug and was so happy that I was there to participate in this holy event. The Spanish people we met were wonderful and elegant with their delicate lace mantillas -- so graceful and charming, as were the Lebanese girls, mostly dark-haired beauties with the sweetest personalities. Even though all of us were practically strangers, there was an instant sense of family among us, especially the Kassabs. This was the first time I learned of the existence of Kassabs in countries other than Lebanon.
Many of the Lebanese visitors were gracious enough to invite us to their homes in Lebanon and Paris. I was surprised at their generosity. The language barrier didn't deter us at all-- we laughed a lot at one another trying to figure out what we were all saying. They were pretty good sports about it.
When we left the Vatican and went outside, strangers on the street saw our name tags with "Kassab" on them, approached us and touched us on our arms, as if we were holy by association. It made us feel very special and blessed.
Monday, May 11th
We were up early again and had breakfast at the hotel. Will we ever get used to the Italian breakfasts? By now we would kill for bacon and eggs or pancakes. Rose and I hitched a ride on the tour bus to St. Peter's Basilica for a special concert honoring the newly beatified saints. It was being performed by the world-renowned choir, La Chorale de l'Universite Saint-Esprit de Kaslik-Liban. The concert was thrilling; it seemed like we were at an opera in heaven. At one point, a Lebanese gentleman was introduced and he sang songs of LEBANON which most of the Lebanese people knew and one song hit me like a ton of bricks. When I was a little girl in the early 1930's, my father would bounce me on his knee and sing "A Rouzana" to me. I hadn't heard it since. On this day everyone joined in the singing and so did I. I had such a lump in my throat trying not to cry, but felt such joy at the memories of my Dad that this precious song evoked.
It seems like Rose's son Tom always picks the right seats to save for us. Before the concert, the people behind us saw by our name tags that we were Kassabs and tapped Rose on the shoulder. It was a young gentleman named Gaby Kassab and his girlfriend Isabella who live in Paris. They grabbed us and hugged us. They kissed us on both cheeks (which we did with everyone for the rest of our trip). It's so odd, we did not feel strange with them. Instead we felt an instant kinship with these lovely young people. Gaby spoke some English but Isabella spoke it fluently and translated for us. She and Gaby were so sweet to us and at our first meeting, we all felt as if we'd known each other all of our lives. Gaby promised to send me all of the information he had regarding Blessed Al-Hardini that his father has collected through the years. I wonder if his father is a relative of ours? Having no written family history, my family is anxious to receive any information about our father's family. After the ceremony, Gaby and Isabella invited us to be guests in their homes in Paris. Their kindness and open-hearted generosity was touching, and I loved it when they called me Madame -- it sounded so classy.
After the Pope's blessing, we all met at Saint Peter's to view the Pieta and pray to all of the saints. The Pieta was so beautiful yet so heartbreaking. It was difficult not to reach out and touch it, and I was tempted to run my hands over the smooth marble. Being a mother myself, it was profoundly moving to look at this sculpture and see the sorrow on the Blessed Mother's face as she held her dead son in her arms.
Inside the building was a beautiful chapel. Rose and I decided to say a prayer. As we rose to leave, we saw a place to put donations. I had buried my wallet far down inside my purse and had to open a small, plastic bag to get the money out. Within seconds, a guard ran in from outside, grabbed me by the arm, held my bag and ESCORTED ME OUTSIDE! I was so embarrassed and tried to explain to him what I was doing and he pointed to a sign in Italian that said "Silencio".
Boy, these Italians really mean business! You absolutely cannot even whisper in the chapel. When he finally realized what I was trying to do, he took me back inside to put money in the box, but not before Rose's son Tom had a chance to capture on film my struggle with the guard. I wanted to choke him. I told him not to dare show that picture to my children and he teased that he was going to put it on the Internet.
Our Sad Farewell to Rome
The last day of our trip came all too soon and I was so sad to say goodbye to Rome and to all of our newfound friends and relatives. Needless to say, this trip is something that I will remember for the rest of my life. It's amazing to think that my family are direct descendants of a saint! I think it will be a long time before I come back down to earth. This is the kind of trip that changes you forever, and makes you realize how surprising and wonderful life can be.
| Previous | Copyright | Next |