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By Guita G. Hourani 
Chairperson of the Maronite Research Institute (MARI)

Around 1828, a baby boy entered this world. Throughout the land of his birth, the people suffered under the oppression of longtime invaders and greedy governors. His mountain village, often blessed by the airborne fragrance of God’s cedars, was nestled in the sacred mountains of Lebanon at such a height that it appeared to reach the heavens.

Yussef Antoun Makhloof –later and forever after known as Sharbel– was of humble birth. This is confirmed by the mud-packed walls of the house in which he was born and his simple monk’s burial without a coffin in the monastery catacombs 70 years later. These externals seem appropriate for one whose wealth, nobility and heroic achievements were spiritual.

In 1998, one hundred years after Sharbel’s death, his hometown of Bekaa-Kafra, his hermitage in ‘Annaya, his beloved bride the Maronite Church, and his blessed land of Lebanon are celebrating his centennial. Yet Sharbel belongs to more than his village, monastery, church or country. He belongs to the Universal Church and all Christians. When he was beatified on December 5, 1965, His Holiness Pope Paul VI announced that Saint Sharbel is “a new, eminent member of monastic sanctity [who] through his example and his intercession is enriching the entire Christian people.” (Saint Sharbel: The Hermit of Lebanon 1977: 27)
Not much documentation on his life has been handed down to us. There have been searches for his birth certificate and anything in his handwriting, but what has been found must still be authenticated. There is only one authenticated document in the official records of the Monastery of Saint Maron and it is the entry announcing Sharbel’s death.

When Sharbel died, Father Antonios Mishmeshani, the Superior of the Monastery was away at the Patriarchate because Patriarch John Peter el-Hage was dying. When the Superior returned to find that Sharbel had died, he wrote prophetically about him. This is the literal translation of the paragraph from the Monastery’s official Death Record:

“On this day, the 24th of December 1898, Father Sharbel of Bekaa-Kafra, the Hermit, died of a stroke in the mercy of God after receiving the Sacraments of the Church. He was buried in the graveyard of the monastery at 68 years of age when Father Antonios Mishmeshani was the Superior. Because of what he [Sharbel] is going to accomplish after his death, I excuse myself from giving details of his life, especially in regard to the extent to which he kept his vows so that we can say his obedience was angelic and not human.” (‘Awwad 1952: 85; Daher 1993: 8-9)
The Lineage And Childhood Of Yussef, The Future Sharbel
Yussef, who later took the name Sharbel, was the youngest of five children born to Antoun Zaarour Makhlouf and Brigitta Elias al-Shediyaq. His siblings were Hanna, Beshara, Koun and Warde (Sfeir 1995: 15). His father died when he was three years old. Like many of the Christians from the Lebanese Mountain, his father had been taken away from his family [by the Turks] and forced into hard labor. Antoun was required to transport the harvest on his donkey to the Emir (Prince) (ibid. 1995: 25-26). On his way back to his hometown, he developed a high fever and subsequently died. Because Antoun was buried in Gherfeen, near Byblos, where he had fallen ill, his family was unable to pay its last respects. (ibid. 1995: 26; Hayek 1956: 28-29)

With his father’s premature death, his mother became responsible for the welfare of her five children during another brutal period. She was a pious woman of strong character. In Bekaa-Kafra, Brigitta was renowned for daily fasting and praying the rosary. She was engaged in silk weaving like many other women of the village. (Hayek 1956: 36)
Upon the death of their father and in accordance with the custom of the times, Youssef and his siblings were placed under the guardianship of their paternal uncle, Tanious Zaarour Makhlouf. Two years later, the widowed Brigitta married Deacon Lahoud, son of Girgis Ibrahim Makhlouf, who later became a priest under the name of Abdel-Ahad. She had two more children, Noah and Tannous. (Sfeir 1995: 26)

Father Abdel-Ahad, Brigitta and the children lived together as a devout Christian family. Brigitta continued to raise her children with love, faith and piety. The future saint and his siblings were used to prayer, fasting and attending Mass every day. Under the care of his stepfather, Yussef grew spiritually as he assisted him at Mass and in serving the community. (Sfeir 1995: 37)
Yussef studied at the parish school and tended the family cow. He spent a great deal of time outdoors in the fields and pastures near his village and he meditated amid the inspiring views of boundless valleys and proud mountains. Outdoor work suited him perfectly because it allowed him to pray and meditate. He spent many hours in prayer at a grotto near the pastures. Around 1845, the village people named it “the Grotto of the Saint” even before he had decided to become a monk. (Sfeir 1995: 37)
Yussef had several good role models within his family. In addition to his pious parents and his stepfather, his maternal uncles Augustin and Daniel al-Shediyaq were hermits at the monastery of Saint Anthony of Qozhaya in the Qadisha Valley, also called the Valley of Saints. He would visit them, follow their example and accept their guidance. He was so impressed by his uncles’ devotion that his uncle Tanious and his mother were worried he would follow in their footsteps. Often, he said that he wanted to become a monk, but his uncle and mother were completely opposed and tried to change his mind. (Sfeir 1995: 49-50)

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