This month marks 30 years since the Pope Shenouda III Youth Centre was founded in Sydney, by non-other than Pope Shenouda himself, during his first pastoral visit to Australia in 1989. Pope Shenouda III was the 117th Coptic Orthodox Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St Mark from 1971 until 2012; the Coptic congregation has crowned him in their hearts a modern-day Saint even though he has not been canonised.
Earlier this year, the Coptic Orthodox Church in Australia celebrated its jubilee year.
April 2020 marks the silver jubilee of a number of Coptic churches in Australia, including the Anba Abraam church which is affiliated to the Pope Shenouda III Youth Centre. But there is a story behind the Pope Shenouda III Centre, a story worth telling.
Egyptian Copts started migrating to Australia in mid-1960s. But the ministry of the Coptic Church in Australia started in January 1969 during the time of Pope Kyrillos VI, patriarch from 1959 until 1971, at the hands of Father Mina Nematallah who was ordained by Pope Kyrillos and delegated to start ministry in Australia.
Under Pope Shenouda, Australia became home to two Coptic Orthodox dioceses, in Sydney and Melbourne; also a number of monasteries, theological colleges, Coptic schools and youth centres. The ministry of the Coptic Orthodox Church flourished in Australia, spilling over to the Australian community through the services it offered in the seven Australian States.
Pope Shenouda visited Australia six times: in 1989, 1991, 1993, 1995, 1996 and 2002.
The year 1989 marked 20 years since the foundation of the first Coptic Orthodox church in Australia. By then, only a few Coptic Orthodox churches were there to serve the Western parts of Sydney, amid an ever growing Coptic congregation. Due to the low rents and purchasing value of real estate in Sydney at the time, a number of Church servants decided to hunt for church premises to serve the Coptic congregation living in the areas of Liverpool and Campbelltown. They ended up finding a 10 feddan camp land in the area of Macquarie Fields midway between Liverpool and Campbelltown. The camp was owned by the Baptist Church, and its land included two houses; 12 rooms; a chapel; two halls: one for reunions and the other adjoined to the kitchen; a football pitch; basketball and volleyball fields; and a swimming pool.
That same year, Pope Shenouda went on his first pastoral visit to Sydney. He was accompanied by Anba Bishoy (1942 – 2018), the late Secretary of the Holy Synod, and Anba Antonius Morcos Bishop-General of Africa and who was then in charge of the Australian Coptic Diocese. The church servants told the bishops about the camp; Anba Antonius Morcos saw it and liked what he saw and, together with Anba Bishoy, presented the idea of purchasing the site to Pope Shenouda. The Pope welcomed it and, during Holy Mass, announced to a congregation of 4000 worshippers that the Coptic Church was acquiring the camp field and establishing the seventh Coptic church in Australia, in addition to a Coptic youth centre for youth. Pope Shenouda offered the project AUD50,000 which along with another AUD25,000 constituted the initial downpayment for the land. The camp field was bought for AUD750,000 most of which were provided through a bank loan.
Purchasing the camp
On 8 December 1989, Pope Shenouda visited the camp site, blessed its lands, said a prayer of thanksgiving in the chapel, and signed the contract to purchase the camp which was ever since named the Pope Shenouda Centre and Anba Abraam church, as per the wish of the Sydney Coptic congregation. During the signing ceremony, Pope Shenouda was offered a gift from the Sydney Coptic congregation, a commemorative medal with the figure of St Mark carved on one face—St Mark was the apostle who preached Christianity in Egypt in the first century—and that of Pope Shenouda III on the other.
A committee of Church servants was formed with the aim of turning the planned centre into a beacon of Coptic enlightenment and vibrant youth activities on all levels: the spiritual, social, sports and educational.
In 1990, Pope Shenouda sent Fr Philippos Boghdady to start service at Anba Abraam’s, and to found Sunday School there. He was also to give the centre a boost in order to be able to pay back the bank loan and its interest.
Pope Shenouda paid his second visit to Australia in February 1991. He presided over Holy Mass in the small church of Anba Abraam church at the centre. A large marquee was set up to accommodate the thousands of Coptic worshippers who had come to attend Mass and meet the Pope who baptised babies, met the congregation and offered them souvenirs. He officially opened the church library and wrote a word in the guestbook thanking those in charge for the generous effort they had put into the church library.
The monk Danial al-Antony who later became Anba Danial, Bishop and Abbot of St Shenouda Monastery in Sydney; and Fr Surial Youssef, now pastor of St Mark’s in Melbourne, were delegated by Pope Shenouda in 1993 to serve at the centre and the church, especially given the growing number of families who had settled in the vicinity. The centre thrived; it organised spiritual conferences for youth, started an annual book fair, and the annual Keraza Festival, in addition to the Candlelight Celebration during Advent. Furthermore, the centre started hosting spiritual events held by Coptic charity institutions, sports camps, activities and festivals organised by Sydney’s Coptic churches, also events by non-Coptic Churches.
A sad incident occurred in the 1990s: fire devoured the church. But worship was not halted; the reunion hall was used temporarily in lieu of the church till it was restored and again went into use. The restoration was fully funded by the congregation; and no bank loan was needed. In August 1995, during his third pastoral visit to Australia, Pope Shenouda consecrated the newly reconstructed altar of Anba Abraam. In 1997, Fr Mina Kamel took up service at the church of Anba Abraam instead of Fr Surial who was delegated to found a new ministry in New Zealand, and Fr Danial al-Antony who moved out of New South Wales.
In 2002, Pope Shenouda ordained Fr Paula Balamon to serve Anba Abraam’s youth and preside over an English-language Mass every Sunday. In June 2002, directly after Anba Daniel was ordained Bishop of Sydney and Affiliated Regions, he held elections for new church committees; a new committee was elected to manage the centre and coordinate with the committee in charge of the church of Anba Abraam.
A few weeks after Anba Daniel was ordained Bishop of Sydney, Pope Shenouda paid his sixth and last pastoral visit to Australia. To commemorate Pope Shenouda’s sixth visit to Australia, the Federal government issued a special stamp. During that visit the Pope blessed the Melbourne Coptic youth centre, and laid the foundation stone for an expansion of the Sydney centre named after him. On 3 December 2002, following thanksgiving prayer and meeting the congregation, Pope Shenouda planted an olive tree and laid the foundation stone for the youth centre. As a souvenir, the Pope signed his name on some of the gardening tools that were used to plant the trees.
Around 2003, Fr Philemon al-Antoni was delegated by Anba Daniel to serve the Pope Shenouda centre. By then, the centre had declined and needed reconstruction. The renovation plans included a new church, a closed play hall, a closed reunion hall with an adjoining kitchen, a service and Sunday School building, and a number of rooms for camps. However, the Campbelltown Municipality rejected the plans due to the position of the centre which was within the natural reserves belt over which only a small portion of the land could be built. Also the municipality required the installation of a new sanitary system. Negotiations between the Coptic Church in Sydney and the municipality regarding the project and the plans went on until 2008. By that time, Anba Daniel was summoned back to Cairo by a papal decree. Finally, the Campbelltown Municipality agreed to the project but insisted that it should be carried out over three phases.
Looking to the future
In March 2012 Pope Shenouda III passed away, and, in November the same year, Pope Tawadros II was enthroned the 118th Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St Mark.
The years from 2014 to 2019 saw the execution of the first phase of the expansion and renovation of the Pope Shenouda Youth Centre. By the end of 2015, the procedures for a new bank loan to complete the project were completed, and preliminary works for a new sanitary drainage station were carried out. In March 2015, Father Paul Fanous was given the responsibility of the Anba Abraam’s church as per the congregation’s repeated request.
On 30 October 2016, Anba Daniel laid the foundation stone for the new St Demiana church to serve second and third generation Australia Copts in English and Coptic. He also opened the football field and, on 7 April 2018, he opened St Demiana church for Easter. The church was still incomplete, since the altar and the sanctuary were late to arrive from Egypt, but by the end of that year the church was completed. Finally, last April, the Anba Abraam Hall was opened at the same time that beautifying works were completed in the area located between the churches of Anba Abraam and St Demiana, and the Anba Abraam Hall.
The next phase of the project is expected to set off in 2020; it will include the construction of the service and Sunday School building and its annexes. The third and final phase will include the construction of the camp building, a reunion room adjoined to a kitchen and a closed play hall.
As Pope Shenouda always said: “A church with no youth is a church with no future”.
10 December 2019