St Mark’s Coptic Church in Toronto
It is a time-honoured truth that Egyptians are no migratory people; they have throughout their five-millenia-long history been tightly anchored to their land and beloved Nile. Moving out, even if within the boundaries of their land, constituted a painful uprooting and estrangement which time and again featured in their literature, folk songs, and traditions. As far back as some two millenia BC, Egyptians told the tale of Sinuhe who left Egypt and lived a brilliantly successful life, but whose soul found its peace only when he could return home, live his remaining days on Egypt’s soil, and have a proper burial there to prepare him for his afterlife.
But modern times have brought on a lot of changes, not least being a boost in health care that led to population explosion. The land produce could no longer feed all the additional mouths, and the main activity of the population turned away from agriculture to industry or trade. The situation was compounded by the political and socialist policies applied by President Gamal Abdel-Nasser in 1960. The rural community that clung to its land was no more the same.
Dispersed over a continent
The first wave of Egyptian migration started in the 1960s, with thousands heading to North America and Australia, destinations that promised unlimited opportunity. Many among them were Copts, and the uprooting from homeland and mother Church was especially painful. North America is an extensive continent, and the first Coptic immigrants were dispersed all over the place. This augmented, spiritually and morally, the feeling of estrangement, and they reached out to their mother Church in Egypt to send over a priest to cater to their spiritual needs.
In August 1964, Pope Kyrillos VI ordained Fr Marcos Marcos and commissioned him to serve the Coptic community in North America. November 1964 saw the establishment of St Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church in North America, headquartered in Toronto which was then home to 36 Coptic families. They were mostly newcomer first generation immigrants, yet their strong faith, zeal and determination made it possible for the one priest to cater, on very limited financial means that came from donations alone, to the needs of Copts in North America. Regular monthly services were held in Montreal and New York, and less frequent visits and services were offered for the Copts scattered all over the continent, from Newfoundland to British Columbia, and from New York to California. The infant Church was able to gather its flocks in large centres and provide them with programmes, books, pamphlets, and other material for regular Bible study classes, spiritual meetings, Sunday Schools, social gatherings and other activities.
Fr Marcos remembers the early days of the Church in North America. “As I think back about that period when I used to travel a great deal, I remember the congregations labelled me ‘the flying priest’, ‘now you see him, now you don’t’.
“All during those formative years,” he recalls, “we were trying hard to grow some roots in this continent, and depended heavily on the greatly needed and highly appreciated assistance of the clergy of the North American Churches. They most willingly allowed us the use of their churches, halls and other facilities for our services and different activities. As a matter of fact, they represent a non-erasable part of our history, proudly remembered and greatly cherished by the Copts of this generation and the generations to come.”
St Mark’s Church in Toronto was keen to establish parishes in the large centres of Canada and the US, appoint Boards of Deacons and various committees, and build local funds so that each parish would be able to support its own priest and services. By 1967, the parish of Montreal was financially strong enough to call for its own priest, and the late Father Rafael Nakhla was ordained and assigned to serve there in July 1967. The years 1969 and 1970 saw the establishment of St Mark’s Coptic Church in Los Angeles, California with the late Fr Bishoy Kamel as priest, and St Mark’s Coptic Church in Jersey City, New Jersey with the late Fr Gabriel Abdel-Sayed as priest.
Today, the Church which started in Toronto in 1964 has multiplied to some 250 churches in the US and Canada, a monastery in California, a Papal Residency in Cedar Grove, N.J., and two Theological Seminaries in Jersey City, N.J. and Los Angeles, California.
A land of their own
According to Fr Marcos, no history of the Church in Canada can be complete without citing the papal pastoral visits to Coptic Canadians. “The first, in 1977,” he says, “marked the first visit ever by a Coptic Pope to North America and stands indeed among the most significant landmarks in the life of the Church here. The visit by Pope Shenouda III answered the Coptic Canadian longing for care by the top spiritual leader; many took time off to accompany His Holiness wherever he went. At the airport, he was received with Copts carrying welcome banners, children waving Church banners and the national flags of Canada and Egypt, and a procession of robed deacons singing hymns. Men and women were overcome with emotion; tears of joy flowed down their faces.
“The visit culminated with His Holiness Pope Shenouda and His Worship Paul Cosgrove, Mayor of Scarborough, laying of the foundation stone of St Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church in Scarborough, a suburb of Toronto. That was the first time the Copts in Canada collectively possessed land that they could call their own. They no longer felt foreign in a strange land; they became, in a true sense of the word, Coptic Canadians.”
Dream come true
There’s a story worth telling about the land itself. For years, resources of St Mark’s in Canada were thinly stretched to cover the Church’s mission in North America. When finally it was time for the Parish of Toronto to build its own church, land prices had skyrocketed and all attempts to purchase land failed before the congregation’s inadequate financial resources. Fr Marcos says: “We were met with nothing but one frustration after the other. But the Copts’ faith never wavered. At long last, the miracle we awaited did occur and it was far beyond our expectations. Out of the blue—and I use the expression literally to mean ‘from Above’—a full acre of land was sold to the Church for one dollar. For Bill McClintock, the vendor, we were strangers and he took us in. We and our children for generations to come will be indebted to the McClintocks for their benevolence and genuine brotherly love.
“Once we had the land, every member of the congregation, even the children, began doing something to make the dream of ‘our own church’ come true. The Building Committee met weekly until past midnight to work on the plans, the architect and I flew to Cairo to study Coptic Church architecture and meet specialists in this field. The Fund Raising Committee worked diligently to meet the financial demands of the project, and the Social and Cultural Activities Committee worked hand in hand with the Ladies Committee to organise bazaars, fairs, variety shows, outings, trips, movies, lectures and dinners to generate the needed funds. In less than a year we celebrated the first Divine Liturgy in our new church on Palm Sunday, 23 April 1978.”
Open full time
It is important to note here that this particular building, St Mark’s Coptic Orthodox church, has a distinctive cultural value because it is built in authentic Coptic architectural style. It was the first to be built thus in North America.
The church includes some stunningly beautiful icons written by the father of modern Egyptian iconography Isaac Fanous (1919 – 2007), and others jointly done by Youssef Nassif (1921 – 2013) and his wife Bedour Latif (1922 – 2012) who together created works of exceptional beauty that boasted, besides the characteristic Coptic art features, undertones of vivid Egyptian folklore.
In the summer of 1991 the church was further blessed by the reception of the holy relics of some of its saints, and particularly those of our Patron Saint, St Mark the Apostle and Evangelist. Thus in both a literal and theological sense, the building houses the essence, doctrines, and dogma of the Coptic Church.
Apart from the active spiritual service of Holy Mass, Sunday School, prayer meetings, Youth and Family gatherings, St Mark’s has a library, bookstore and audio-visual library and shop that offer a wide variety of material in both English and Arabic. The bazaars it holds include beautiful antiques, jewellery, handcrafts and collectors’ items. Besides, national Egyptian foods, drinks, sweets and different preserves are sold and/or served. Coptic plays, variety shows and musicals are produced and acted by the church’s youthful members. Other activities include trips, retreats, conferences, and chartered flights to Egypt. The church holds regular classes to teach the Arabic and Coptic languages to both children and adults.
The church is open every day and every night of the week.
The concern of the Canadian Coptic Church does not stop at its local congregation but extends to the mother Church in Egypt. Among other endeavours, millions of dollars worth of medical equipment and supplies have been shipped to help furnish benevolent Church hospitals in urban and rural areas throughout Egypt.
In the field of ecumenism, the Church is active with other Churches, denominations and organisations. It is a member of the Canadian Council of Churches, St Albany and St Sergios Fellowship and the Inter-Church Regional Planning Association, to mention but a few.
“The Coptic Church in Canada,” Fr Marcos fondly recalls, “came in very handy to the Canadian Government in 1967 when Haile Selassie I, the late Emperor of Ethiopia, paid an official visit to Canada. Sunday 30 April 1967 was Easter Day according to the Julian calendar, and His Imperial Majesty was scheduled to be at the Military Base in North Bay, Ontario. The Government knew that, especially on such days, His Majesty liked to attend church. So, to make it most meaningful for him as a Copt, the Canadian Government called St Mark’s Coptic Church in Toronto to celebrate a special Coptic Easter Liturgy at the Military Base Chapel for His Majesty and entourage of nineteen cabinet ministers and dignitaries. Before dawn, four deacons and myself were flown in a military airplane to the Base. After the service, His Imperial Majesty commented that that was the most pleasant surprise he had in Canada. ‘I never expected,’ he said, ‘in this part of the world, to be treated to an Easter Liturgy according to my own tradition’.”
8 October 2014