From Beirut to Bay Ridge
John Abi-Habib stresses faith, family, community
When John Abi-Habib was a boy growing up in Lebanon, he would always know when it was time to go to church on Sundays. The Abi-Habib family lived in a mountain outside of Beirut and John and his siblings would listen to hear the church bells coming from Mar Abda Church.
The bells signaled that it was time for Mass. “The church bells would ring and we would walk to church,” Abi-Habib told the Brooklyn Eagle in a recent interview at Mocha Coffee, a café in Bay Ridge.
The Abi-Habib kids did more than just sit quietly in their pews in church, however. They became active in church life.
Their father, Joseph Abi-Habib, encouraged his six children to take an active role in the church and in the community. “Even from the time we were kids, we were involved in the church,” John Abi-Habib recalled. “We grew up in the church.”
The family could see the Mediterranean Sea from their house. The talk around the dinner table was always about church, community service and politics.
Abi-Habib, who moved to the U.S. several years ago to attend Brooklyn College, has maintained his family tradition of service to the church and the community. He is a leading figure in the Maronite Church in Brooklyn and is a business and civic leader in Bay Ridge where he lives with his wife Sonia and their two children, Michael and Jenna.
Abi-Habib is the founder and president of MSI Net. Inc., a firm headquartered at 415-417 86th St. that provides Internet support to schools and businesses. He holds a master’s degree in computer science from Brooklyn College.
For many years, he served on the Board of Directors of Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Cathedral at 113 Remsen St. in Downtown Brooklyn. His sister, Theresa Abi-Habib, is currently on the board.
Our Lady of Lebanon is technically not part of the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn. It is part of the Eparchy of Saint Maron of Brooklyn, an independent diocese that operates under the direct jurisdiction of the Vatican. The Eparchy extends to all the Maronite Catholics in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Delaware, Virginia, District of Columbia, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Maryland.
“We are Maronite Catholics. Our church existed before the Roman Catholic Church,” Abi-Habib explained.
There are more than a dozen churches, a seminary and a convent in the Eparchy.
Our Lady of Lebanon is a landmark, Abi-Habib said. “The doors of the church are brass. They come from the USS Normandy,” he said.
The church is a good neighbor in Brooklyn Heights. It is currently renting space to the Brooklyn Public Library, which is using the space in the wake of the closure of its Brooklyn Heights branch.
Abi-Habib was one of the organizers of an annual festival that took place in Shore Road Park in Bay Ridge. The event, featuring rides, games and a barbecue, was designed to bring people together. “The idea was for people to get together and for people to understand Eastern Christians. We got to define exactly who we are,” he said.
During election seasons, a group Abi-Habib belonged to, the Middle Eastern Christian Coalition, held political forums at Adelphi Academy in Bay Ridge for mayoral and City Council candidates. “We held a ‘Get to Know the Candidates Night.’ Over 40 candidates came,” he recalled.
Abi-Habib’s service extends beyond the church to education. He and his wife Sonia were active in Saint Patrick Catholic Church when their children were attending St. Patrick School. And they are currently active in parent groups at Visitation Academy, where Jenna is a student.
Abi-Habib is a member of the Visitation Father’s Club and was honored at the club’s annual dinner at Garguilo’s in June. He was presented with a document bestowing a special blessing from Pope Francis. The Papal blessing meant a great deal to him, he told the Eagle.
He currently serves as public relations coordinator for Visitation Academy.
In Bay Ridge, Abi-Habib is perhaps best known as a business and civic leader.
He was among a small group of business owners that revived the dormant Fifth Avenue Board of Trade in the 1990s. The group included state Sen. Marty Golden, who owned the Bay Ridge Manor catering hall at the time, and Basil Capetankis, owner of 14 Apollo Real Estate.
Abi-Habib, whose business was located on Fifth Avenue at the time, was an officer in the board of trade.
The Fifth Avenue Board of Trade eventually led to the formation of the Bay Ridge Fifth Avenue Business Improvement District (BID).
In the early days of the board of trade, Abi-Habib used his organizational skills to improve the group’s directory. He divided the business listing into different categories so that customers could find them easier in the directory. “There was no Internet then,” he said.
Abi-Habib moved MSI Net Inc. to 415-417 86th Street in 1998.
He also became involved in the effort to bring a BID to 86th Street. He recalled that a formation meeting took place at Hinsch’s, a famous luncheonette-ice cream parlor. He worked on the plan with John Logue, who was the owner of Hinsch’s at the time, and Patrick Condren, an experienced BID director.
“The 86th Street BID was one of the first to be set up by the Giuliani administration,” Abi-Habib said. “BIDS do a good job if they are well run. The BID on 86th Street is excellent.”
Abi-Habib uses his vast knowledge of technology to help business groups reach out to customers and to the community. Technology is a valuable tool, he said. “We need technology to enhance communication,” he added.
His community service resume is rich and varied. He serves on the Board of Directors of the Bay Ridge Federal Credit Union. He is a founder of the Arab-American Association of New York.
He is also active in Republican politics and is a former vice chairman of the Kings County Republican party.
He is a president emeritus of a Salaam Club and is a longstanding member of the Salaam Club Foundation. The foundation is a nonprofit group that does charity work. “We do a lot of events,” he said.
The Salaam Club was founded 76 years ago by Lebanese and Syrian immigrants in Bay Ridge.
The foundation conducts turkey drives, donates funds to Salvation Army and helps children in need and senior citizens. The group also raises funds for St. Nicholas Home, a skilled nursing center on Ovington Avenue in Bay Ridge.
Each year, the Salaam Club Foundation holds a dinner dance and selects a recipient to receive the funds raised at the dinner. In 2013, the foundation donated $190,000 that it raised at the dinner to Saint Jude Children’s Hospital.
In 2006, the members sent money to Lebanon to help build a school library. Abi-Habib later traveled back to Lebanon to attend the groundbreaking ceremony to mark the start of construction.
“We have also raised money for ambulances in Damascus,” he said.
The explosive situation in Iraq and Syria is of great concern to Abi-Habib, who said he is worried about the persecution of Christians. He recently attended a conference where the discussion dealt with how to help Christians fight the Islamic State group.
“The idea is to give them hope,” he said.
Abi-Habib is a founding member of the World Lebanese Cultural Union and also helped found the New York City Unity Task Force.
Closer to home, Abi-Habib served on the Board of Trustees of Maimonides Medical Center from 2004 to 2014.
He is a former member of both Community Board Seven in Sunset Park and Community Board 10 in Bay Ridge.
Over the years, Abi-Habib has won numerous awards. In 2012, he was named Ragamuffin Person of the Year by the sponsors of the annual Ragamuffin Children’s Parade. He has been honored by the Boy Scouts of America and the National Republican Congressional Committee. He served on the inauguration committee for George W. Bush.
Abi-Habib was also inducted into the Fontbonne Hall Academy Hall of Fame and has been honored by Children of the City, a grassroots family development organization, and the U.S. Army Garrison at Fort Hamilton.
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