Race against time to rebuild historic Beirut church before Christmas

Volunteers are working to get the St Mary church destroyed in the port blast ready

Days before Christmas, residents of the Karantina area in Beirut hope to celebrate the festival at the neighbourhood's century-old church.

A group of volunteers, commissioned by Offre Joie, a local Lebanese NGO, is on a mission to rebuild the Saint Mary Maronite Church that was damaged in the deadly port explosion.

The blast on August 4 killed more than 200 people, injured thousands, and caused destruction in large parts of the capital. The damage is estimated to be $15 billion.

“The goal is to rebuild it respecting the standards set by the Directorate General of Antiquities,” said Nicole Sfeir, 27, the Lebanese architect leading the renovation team.

“The walls will be made with sandstone, and we’ll be making the ceiling’s intricate wooden arc and windows with Victorian wood. The rest of the church will be painted white to reflect the spirituality and purity of the place.”

It is not the first time the church has been damaged. The heritage sandstone structure was hit several times during Lebanon's 15-year civil war.

Just across the street, resident and shop owner Olga, 50, surveys the church daily and monitors progress.

“It’s my second home. I’ve been living on this street for 35 years and attending mass here twice a week,” she said. “Had the church’s holy spirit not saved us from the explosion, we would’ve all died.”

The Lebanese government has been largely absent in the aftermath of the explosion, forcing citizens and NGOs to step up.

“When the explosion happened, we were destroyed, just like Beirut. And we became even more distraught once we saw that no one from the government helped us.”

Ms Sfeir said her team had been working long hours to meet the tough deadline. But she hoped that by reopening the church on Christmas Eve, she will be giving the neighbourhood a little bit of hope amid all the tragedy.

“Residents from the area keep coming to check on our progress. They cannot believe that they’re going to celebrate the holidays here,” Ms Sfeir said. "They keep saying it’s too good to be true."

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