St. Raphael and the Battle of Pacific Street

As we’ve seen over the past couple of weeks, in September 1905, New York’s Syrian community was on the brink of war. On one side were the Orthodox, who rallied around their bishop, St. Raphael Hawaweeny. The saint himself opposed violence — both violent acts and violent words — but his attempts to intervene only exacerbated the problem. On the other side were the Maronites — the Roman Catholic Syrians. These were led by a group known as the “Champagne Glass Club,” which included the influential Arabic newspaper editor and Lebanese nationalist Naoum Mokarzel.

The first acts of violence took place on Friday, August 15, when about a score of Syrian men scuffled in the colony’s business center. By Monday, tensions had reached a breaking point. That afternoon, three Syrians had a dust-up and were arrested. Then, at 7 o’clock that night, an Orthodox merchant named Nicolo Abousamra boarded a ferry boat. Two men attacked him with a stick, leaving a nasty lump on his head. Abousamra thought that they had a dagger, but he was able to escape to a more crowded part of the boat.

Abousamra made it home, where he told his business partner Sakir Nassar about the attack. According to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (9/19/1905), “they decided that it might be as well to have the bishop call on them last night and talk the thing over. For they felt sure that there were assassins lurking about to kill the bishop and they wanted to warn him and plan some form of protection.” Though it was by now the dead of night, Nassar hurried off to find St. Raphael. As it turned out, the bishop already had a bodyguard with him: “for the bishop has been worrying about the shadows that lurk about him when he goes abroad, and it is his habit to take some of his parishioners along with him when he goes out at night” (Eagle). St. Raphael went at once to visit Abousamra, and at least some of his accompanying parishioners were armed.

St. Raphael and his entourage never made it to Abousamra’s. St. Raphael lived at 320 Pacific Street. Abousamra was at 114 Pacific. On the way, the St. Raphael’s party had to pass by 137 Pacific — the home of none other than Naoum Mokarzel. For his part, Mokarzel had conveniently invited a dozen friends over, and at least some of these friends were packing heat. (None of the sources say so, but I strongly suspect that Mokarzel’s friends were the other members of the Champagne Glass Club.)

Why did St. Raphael go to the home of his arch-enemy in the middle of the night? The New York Sun (9/19) reported that Raphael got the rather wild idea that, if only he could sit down with Mokarzel and talk face-to-face, they could make peace and end all the violence. Alternatively, the Orthodox parishioners may have taken the initiative to go to Mokarzel’s house, and St. Raphael may have joined them in an effort to prevent a fight. Another very plausible explanation is offered by St. Raphael himself, and appeared in the New York World (9/19):

I have enemies who are seeking to kill me. I have been warned time and again that I will be assassinated and for many weeks I have not dared to leave my home unaccompanied at night. Whenever I go out I get several of my parishioners to go with me and this was the case last night when I went out to visit a sick friend.

Neither I nor those with me had any part in the riot, nor did we make an attack upon the home of Mr. Makarzoe [sic]. We were passing peaceably through Pacific street when the shooting began. I am convinced that it was a feigned pistol duel, with the purpose of murdering me by hitting me with what would appear to be a stray bullet.

One reason it’s hard to get a handle on what happened is the fact that the newspapers don’t agree with each other. The Sun reports that St. Raphael and several parishioners went into Mokarzel’s house and spent about an hour there in a relatively peaceful meeting. Things eventually turned violent, the meeting broke up, and a shootout began. At least, that’s the Sun‘s story.

The New York Times‘ version of events basically follows St. Raphael’s story. According to the Times, “The minute the Hawaweeny party entered [Mokarzel’s house] the fight began. It was rough and tumble in the parlor for a few minutes, and then the combatants went to the street and fought there.” No hour-long meeting in this version. Honestly, I think the Times, rather than the Sun, has it right. Consider the facts:

  • It was nearly midnight.
  • The Orthodox were on their way to visit an assault victim, Abousamra.
  • St. Raphael and his followers believed that assassins were after him.
  • There were a dozen Orthodox men, some of whom were armed.
  • There were a dozen Maronite men, some of whom were armed.
  • The two groups hated each other’s guts.

I say there’s no way in the world, under those circumstances, that a dozen Orthodox men could have approached Mokarzel’s house — full of armed Maronites — and not had an immediate fight. St. Raphael’s story sounds reasonable, and I’m inclined to believe him.

In any event, a moment or an hour after the Orthodox group passed by Mokarzel’s house, a gunfight broke out. Here is how the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (9/19) describes the scene:

It was clearly a pitched battle, for the combatants were dancing about, here and there, taking refuge when they could and again take pot shots at each other. There were others on the street in addition to the combatants, some of hte men from the nearby house of the fire patrol, and Captain Cashman, the head of the fire patrol company. The men of the patrol were gingerly trying to stop the shooting, and when the uniformed policeman appeared ran in with him and put the shooters to flight.

The police officer — a fellow named Mallon — had heard the shots, and bravely rushed into the battle. Police reinforcements soon arrived, and the Battle of Pacific Street finally ended. About twenty shots had been fired, but fortunately, no one died and only two men were injured.

Officer Mallon (whose name has as many spellings as New York had newspapers) saw one of the Syrians “running for all he was worth” (Times) away from the fight, and he chased after the man. As it turns out, this was none other than St. Raphael himself.

Soon enough, Officer Mallon caught up to the bishop and arrested him. According to the officer, St. Raphael brandished a revolver and even tried to pull the trigger. St. Raphael vehemently denied this, and said that he had never even handled a gun in his life, and would never do such a thing. This issue — whether St. Raphael assaulted a policeman with a gun and whether he lied about it afterwards — is so serious and significant that I want to explore it in great detail in another article.

Most of the Syrian fighters escaped, but several were arrested and locked in jail. Some women tried to bail out St. Raphael, but the magistrate said that, for the time being, the bishop was safer behind bars than out in public. The physical battle was over, but St. Raphael’s fight for his reputation, and his freedom, had just begun.

[This article was written by Matthew Namee.]