The Monastery of Anba Barsoum al-Erian at Helwan has been celebrating its patron saint since his feast day on 10 September and till the Feast of the Cross on 27 September. Watani marked the occasion with a visit to the monastery, a visit which uncovered some stunning facts
When Copts say ‘monastery’ they do not necessarily denote a place populated by monks; the term might more generally refer to a complex that includes a church or churches as well as Church-affiliated buildings or grounds in which Church-related or Church-run activity takes place, and which is managed by clerics. In this sense, a visitor to the Monastery of Anba Barsoum al-Erian (St Parsoma the Naked) in Helwan, south of Cairo, discovers not a monk community but a stunning beehive of artistic, industrial, and humanitarian activity that serves not only Helwan parish but also anyone sufficiently lucky to discover the place.
When Anba Picenti (Pisentios), pronounced Besanti, became Bishop of Helwan and Maasara in May 1988, he decided to set up his headquarters on the grounds of the Monastery of Anba Barsoum al-Erian, a 13th – 14th century ascetic Christian and miracle-worker who is a saint in the Coptic Church Since then, the vast grounds became home to buildings that house a hospital, centre for Psychotherapy and the treatment of addiction, home for the aged, centre serving the persons with disability, a student hostel and conference centre, and a pre-school nursery. Production activity includes manual weaving; ready-made garments; knitted and crochet products; clerical vestments; leather products; toys; furniture and wooden products; bed linen; embroidered bedding, tablecloths and napkins; T-shirts and cotton goods, as well as a plethora of religious souvenirs and products needed in churches.
When the projects started one by one in the late 1980s, Anba Besanti consecrated a number of young women to the job of supervising and running the projects. They were five Tassoni, literal for Sister in Coptic; now their number has risen to 33. Once production started, the monastery set up outlets on its grounds to sell the products at affordable prices.
Watani took a tour of the grounds of Anba Barsoum’s under the gracious guidance of Tassoni Alisabat (Elizabeth) who was one of the first five Tassonis consecrated by Anba Besanti.
So many different goods
Our tour began with the outlet selling wood burning products. Tassoni Patomina, supervisor of that project, told us that the workshop opened three years ago, and that it produces wooden frames, medals, acrylic-decorated wooden products and religious pieces such as crosses and wooden icons. All the workers at the workshop are women in their twenties; in addition to one designer and one technician. The workshop sells about 200 pieces a day.
We moved on to the workshop that weaves cotton material. Established in 1996, it is among the older workshops in the monastery. A machine produces 100kg of material a day, and the workshop produces 20 dozen pieces of cotton clothing a day. This led us to the workshop that produces and prints garments and T-shirts for men, women, and children, a workshop 27 years old today, run by Tassoni Hanouna. Tassoni said the workshop employs 15 young women who produce some 100 pieces a day. She also supervises the bed linen and embroidery workshop and works on the embroidery machine herself, producing four to six sheets a day.
A crochet goods workshop produces crochet bags, mobile phone covers, and various-sized bath mats and scrubbers.
We also visited the hand-embroidery workshop, founded in 1989 and supervised by Tassoni Alisabat. The handwork is of excellent quality and stunning beauty. The embroidered goods include bed linen, tablecloths and napkins, knits, and clerical vestments; clerical vestments may also be bought machine-embroidered. Tassoni told us that the best sales for the hand-embroidered products are those that go into bridal trousseaus.
Toys … and icons
A few metres from the main entrance to the monastery there is a display hall for the leather goods produced at the monastery. These include goods of natural as well as synthetic leather: jackets, bags, Bible covers, hand-woven crosses, and school bags.
Carpentry occupies a special place in the Monastery’s activity. Besides the production of furniture for bedrooms, dining rooms, living rooms, kitchens or smaller pieces of wooden furniture—supervised by Tassoni Bellagia—a workshop produces items for church needs such as iconostases, pews, panelling and others.
We also visited workshops for metalwork and the manufacture of tiles and mosaics. Another workshop included looms for carpet weaving and machines that produce upholstery fabrics; a new machine is expected soon for the production of bath towels.
The toy workshop was founded in 1997 by Tassoni Maria who still runs it. It produces Christmas decoration, big masks, muppets, teddy bears, and puffy animals, as well as books for little children.
Perhaps the activity most connected to ecclesiastic interest is that of icon writing whether in paint, mosaic, or stained glass. The workshop concerned with that is one of the oldest in the monastery; it was founded 27 years ago and is supervised by Tassoni Eripsima who is herself an icon painter. The stained glass works are done by a number of other Tassonis. Noteworthy is that Pope Shenouda III said that this icon workshop is the best in the Coptic Orthodox Church.
Right beside the Coptic icons exhibition is one for christening garments for both girls and boys.
Hospital and home
The vast grounds of the Monastery have also been used to house community services. There is a male student hostel with 160 rooms and two conference halls; also the Anba Barsoum nursery for preschool children.
Young men with visual disability may be accommodated and educated at a special house run by Tassoni Theodora, and boys and girls with mental disability come under the care of Tassoni Illaria in a house that was founded back in 1996.
The 50-bed Anba Barsoum Hospital has an entrance separate from and independent of the Monastery, which makes it accessible from outside. Tassoni Barbara, a doctor and member of the Arab Doctors Union, guided us through the hospital which started operation in 1990 but was officially opened by Pope Shenouda III in 1996. It provides round the clock medical services through its inpatient care, outpatient clinics in all medical fields, emergency room, radiology facilities, and well-equipped laboratory. The hospital includes five operating theatres; Tassoni Barbara said that general surgery, ophthalmology, orthopaedics and plastic surgery are the most required.
The hospital, she says, provides a family health care programme in which some 200 Coptic and Muslim families are registered. It also offers psychotherapy and addiction treatment, a service that has been in operation since 2000. The hospital charges nominal prices; and funds, through donations, specific cases that cannot afford medical expenses.
The top two floors of the hospital building act as a home for the elderly. The home, Tassoni says, is keen to provide the best health, psychological, and spiritual care to its inmates.
We concluded our visit by entering the church to say a short prayer of thanksgiving and appreciation.
20 September 2017