It is now almost 40 years since the Coptic Orthodox Church extended its services to other parts of Africa. The expansion began in 1976, blessed and supported by Pope Shenouda III who assigned Bishop Antonius Marcos as Bishop General of African Affairs. Anba (Bishop) Antonius shouldered the huge responsibility,
and today there are Coptic Orthodox churches in ten African countries. Congregations have swelled and clerics ordained from among the local populations. According to Anba Antonius, the word of God has spread far and wide in Africa, and has had a deep influence on local cultures, not least being the replacement of polygamy with Christian monogamy. Congregations worship in their own languages; Coptic Holy Mass, prayers, praises and hymns have all been translated into the local languages, and are widely used.
The wilderness of South Africa
The most recent addition to the Coptic Orthodox Church in South Africa has been the Monastery of St Mark and St Samuel the Confessor in the ‘wilderness’ of South Africa. ‘Wilderness’ is a term widely used in the Coptic Church to denote faraway places, cut off from the modern world, where monks or nuns could follow their tradition of monastic seclusion. In Egypt the term has customarily denoted the wide deserts where the monasteries have been situated since as far back as the early Christian centuries.
Bishop Antonius told Watani about the new monastery. “The Monastery of St Mark and St Samuel the Confessor,” the Bishop said, “lies in the wilderness of South Africa, some 130km from Johannesburg. Since the project was but a mere thought, there were clear signs from the Lord that He blessed the idea. With every step we took, the blessing of God made the concept clearer and the work successful, starting with how we found and procured the land on which to establish the monastery.
“In 2007, a deserted school owned by a Greek Orthodox family was put up for sale. We found it to be the perfect place to house a monastery, and directly purchased it. The monastery buildings now occupy some 55 feddans, and there are another 55 feddans on which there are large furnished buildings perfect for hosting youth and family prayer camps. There are also meeting rooms, kitchens, restrooms, a playground and a beautiful church with a roof thatched with local straw.”
From the world over
“When the land was purchased it contained only one small building, but now it houses 14 cells for monks, the small church with the thatched roof I mentioned, dedicated to St Antony, and a larger church to St Mark. There is fertile land around the monastery which produces fruit, vegetables and peanuts. There is also a livestock project, a library, a refectory, and storehouses. Monastic life is now thriving. There is an abbot, a priest, as well as two monks and a novice who came from St Shenouda Monastery in Sydney.
“The monastery has been blessed with visits by many bishops of the Coptic Church and other denominations. It was officially recognised by the Coptic Orthodox Church’s Holy Synod in November 2013 under Pope Tawadros II. Accordingly, the south altar, the baptismal room and the icons were consecrated by a group of bishops delegated by Pope Tawadros. Participating were Anba Hedra, Metropolitan of Aswan; Anba Serapion of Los Angeles; Anba Yustus, Abbot of St Antony’s Monastery on the Red Sea; Anba Daniel, Abbot of St Shenouda’s Monastery in Sydney; Anba Ipefanious, Abbot of St Macarius’s Monastery in Wadi Natroun in Egypt’s Western Desert; Anba Arsany from Holland and Anba Michael from Kroeffelbach in Germany.
“There was also a sizeable number of clerics who came from different countries and various Churches and orders—from Egypt, South Africa, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, India, Bulgaria, Romania, Russia, Italy, the Netherlands, and Australia—to join in the celebration. They all came with their hearts full of joy and love to participate in that historical event.”
Donations and hard work
“When our service in Africa began in Kenya in 1976 I faced many obstacles and difficulties, especially because I was totally alone and didn’t have any resources. In 1979 Pope Shenouda III visited the US and Canada and asked me to join him. He wanted me to speak there about the service in Africa, and it was a good opportunity to tell the US and Canada Copts about the new people joining the Church, and the Church’s needs. They responded with generous donations and, to this day, continue to support our service. Their contribution has been a great blessing and the reason why the service is able to carry on.
“In 1977 I needed priests to serve with me. With the Lord’s guidance, I picked Father Philemon from St Macarius’s and Father Serapion from St Bishoi’s in Wadi Natroun. They travelled with me to Nairobi that same year. They were given a period to move freely in Kenya so as to familiarise themselves with the country and the people, and to learn the local language. After nine months Father Philemon began active service in Maseno, Kenya, and in Lake Victoria. Father Serapion went to Ukambani in Kenya.
“In September 1977 Fr Ermiya and Fr Cornelius joined us to serve in the French-speaking Kinshasa in Zaire, now Congo. They jointly revised, printed and bound 2,000 copies of the Bassili Mass in French. In Zaire we were jubilantly received by the foreign missionaries and the Copts there. They were 10 Coptic families whose men worked as doctors, engineers and teachers in Zaire; they were so happy that their Church was reaching out to them.”
“Today there are 12 branches of the Coptic Church in Africa. We serve four tribes, among them the Kikuyu and the Zulu. We have translated 40 books into the languages of these tribes as well as English and Swahili. After 22 years of serving in Kenya, 16 churches have been built and 20 priests ordained. The service extended to Zambia in 1984, Zimbabwe in 1988, and Namibia in 1990, as well as South Africa in 1994. In 1998 I handed over the Kenya and Zambia service to the new bishop, Anba Boulos, and I moved my seat to South Africa. My service has now extended to Côte d’Ivoire, Tanzania, the Congo, Ghana, Togo and the Cameroons.”
29 June 2014