When a candle lights a candle

30-05-2018 12:44 PM

Victor Salama Mariam Farouq

100 years on the foundation of Sunday School in the Coptic Orthodox Church

There is a chorus which almost every Coptic child—and, for that matter, almost every Coptic adult too—knows and loves. To a sweet, lilting tune, it speaks of the Church as a home, mother, and “the secret of the joy in my life”; it is where “I was christened” and the place where “I was joyfully brought up in Sunday School.” Listening to the chorus, one is tempted to think that Sunday School had always been there from time immemorial. But no, Sunday School in the Coptic Orthodox Church is an institution only 100 years old; earlier generations could not boast of having the happiness of experiencing it.

Is it a paradox that “Sunday School” in Egypt is held not on Sunday but on Friday? If anything, it witnesses to the resilience of the Coptic Church that has moved Sunday activities to Friday, given that Sunday is a working day in Egypt and Friday the weekend holiday. And so it is that Coptic families flock to churches on Friday to attend Mass followed by, for the joy of the children, Sunday School.

Centenary celebration

This year, the Coptic Church marks 100 years on the establishment of Sunday School, and celebrates the remarkable man who founded it and who has been canonised by the Church in 2013, St Archdeacon Habib Girgis (1876 – 1951).

From St Mark’s Cathedral in Abbassiya, Cairo, Pope Tawadros II on 13 May presided over the opening ceremony of celebrating 100 Years of Sunday School, a celebration that extends till next November. Attending were Minister of Emigration Nabila Makram; Anba Ibrahim Ishaq Patriarch of the Coptic Catholic Church; Rev. Andrea Zaki head of the Evangelical Community in Egypt; as well politicians and figures from the Coptic Orthodox Church.

The celebration has been named “A Candle Lights a Candle”, a reminder of the light spread by handing from one person to another. It started with lighting 100 candles held in the hands of Sunday School girls and boys who also held small flags carrying the centenary emblem, then Pope Tawadros entered in the traditional procession, and lit a candle to mark the opening of the event.

The celebration had been a long time in preparation. In December 2014, Pope Tawadros ordered a committee formed to plan the event, neither an easy nor a regular task. Heading the commission was Anba Danial, Bishop of Maadi.

Christian schooling

Watani talked to Anba Danial who began with recalling his own time in Sunday School in the 1950s in the church of Anba Antonius in Shubra, Cairo.

“Sunday school was and still is the foundation of Christian schooling for Copts,” he said. “It was the institution that lay the basis for the education of figures who rose to be among the prominent teachers and spiritual fathers in the Coptic Church; among them Pope Shenouda III (patriarch from 1971 to 2012); Anba Pachomius, Bishop of Beheira and Matrouh; Anba Arsanius, Bishop of Minya.

Anba Danial told Watani that, to prepare for marking the centenary of Sunday School, six sub-committees were formed, each tasked with a specific role.

“The first committee was tasked with reviewing and developing the curriculum taught in Sunday School so that a main framework of teaching would be applied nationwide. This committee was headed by Anba Marcos, Bishop of Hadayeq al-Qubba since he had already started work on that task together with Pope Tawadros since 2012. The Pope had been especially concerned about instituting contemporary education in the Church.

Throughout the past three years, the committee completed the design of a curriculum for little children of kindergarten age. By yearend, it is expected to have developed one for children of primary school age. Further development will follow.

The second committee was concerned with documenting the history of Sunday School, and was headed by Dr Sinout Shenouda. It has prepared a book that includes meticulously collected and documented material on the history of Sunday School; the material was used to produce a docudrama on Sunday School that was screened during the centenary celebration.



Dr Shenouda, Anba Danial said, divided the history of Sunday School into several phases. The first dates earlier than 1918. Back then, Hegumen Salama Mansour and Deacon Youssef Iskandar Greiss thought to establish a society in the name of Baby Jesus Association, and asked Archdeacon Habib Girgis who was then headmaster of the Coptic Clerical College, the Coptic seminary, to join them.

Archdeacon Girgis was concerned about the religious education of Coptic children who had for centuries on end been educated at kuttab, church-annexed schools at which children were taught to read and write and do arithmetic, and were at the same time given Bible classes and taught about Church history, traditions, and music. When civil schools became spread in Egypt in the 19th century, Copts enrolled their children there. This meant the children were taught nothing about their faith or Church. As Archdeacon Girgis saw it, there was a dire need to fill the gap in religious education of Coptic children. Hence his idea of Sunday School.

So it was that when Archdeacon Girgis met Fr Salama and Mr Greiss, he suggested that the society they proposed would be responsible for his brainchild project, the Sunday School project, which he had already studied thoroughly. The joint desire and effort of the three men gave birth in 1918 to founding the basic framework of the Sunday School service and drafting a curriculum for it.

The first Sunday School began at St Mark’s Church in Clott Bey, Cairo, and was followed by schools in other churches in Cairo, Giza, Alexandria, and the whole of Egypt.


Nationwide celebration

The third committee, according to Anba Danial, was headed by Fr Mikhail Attiya and was concerned with drawing up a future vision for Sunday School. The committee concluded a plan for developing the service, curriculum and training of teachers over the next ten years.

The fourth was headed by Girgis Ibrahim Saleh and focused on researching new ideas to link Sunday School to other activities on the State or Church level. Dr Saleh has been in contact with scholars in Egypt and abroad, who wrote more than 40 research papers that will be presented in a three-day conference at St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo from 15 to 18 November, to conclude the centenary celebration.

Because the Pope is keen that the celebrations should not be restricted to Cairo but should extend to all Egypt, the fifth committee was formed, headed by Magdy Naguib, to arrange that the centenary be marked in the various parishes nationwide.

In Alexandria, a celebration will be held on 25 July at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina with Pope Tawadros attending; Assiut will mark the occasion on 5 and 6 September, hosted by Assiut Bishop Anba Yua’nnis at the Convent of the Holy Virgin in Assiut’s Western Mountain. With each celebration, Pope Tawadros will communicate with each parish through videoconference, and the celebrations will be broadcasted on Koogi TV.

The sixth committee is the media committee headed by Ayman Karam assisted by Hany Soliman designed the centenary slogan. It carries the figure ‘100’; the ‘1’ is shaped as a church tower, one ‘0’ depicts the face of a boy, the second that of a girl. Above is the blue sky of Egypt and below is its good land depicted through lush palms.


Receiving and handing over

On 13 May, St Mark’s Cathedral was decorated all over with the centenary slogan. Children choirs from church of St Mark in Maadi, and that of St George in Manial, chanted a number of heritage hymns associated with Sunday School.

Then it was time for speeches.

Anba Suriel, Bishop of Melbourne, Australia, spoke of St Archdeacon Habib Girgis who rooted Sunday School in the Church to preserve faith and tradition. “Habib Girgis believed that Sunday School education was very important to meet spiritual needs of children and establish their identity,” Anba Suriel said. “He should be considered the father of education in the modern Coptic Church.” Anba Suriel has authored a book on St Habib Girgis, Habib Girgis, Coptic Orthodox Educator – and a Light in the Darkneess, St Vladimir Seminary Press, New York, 2017.

Fr Yuhanna Baqi of St Mark’s in Heliopolis spoke of Habib Girgis as a propagator of the discipleship that Jesus Christ established with His disciples. Archdeacon Girgis applied this to children and to young men and women.

MP Marianne Azer, talked about her memories of Sunday School and how she had been lucky to attend it at the Church of Holy Virgin in Faggala, Cairo, among the first churches where Sunday School was established. She said that Sunday School taught her that life was all about receiving and handing over, meaning that the education she had received so generously at the hands of dedicated masters should be handed over by her to a younger generation; she should serve as much as others had served her.

The Minya parish of Mallawi participated with a sketch in the Coptic language that extolled the role of Habib Girgis in establishing Sunday School, and how the then patriarch, Pope Kyrillos V, had supported him. It also focused on Habib Girgis as an Archdeacon.

Printing press and girl’s education

Tarek Heggy, an Egyptian liberal writer, scholar, political thinker and international petroleum strategist, gave a word in which he spoke of the Coptic Church as a pioneer in education in Egypt. “Education is not new to the Church,” he said, “it was always high on the Church’s agenda.”

He talked of three major milestones in the history of the Church concerning education. The first was under Pope Kyrillos IV, patriarch from 1854 to 1861, who established the famed Coptic schools in Egypt, and the first schools for girls. He brought into Egypt the first non-State-owned printing press which he valued so much that he moved it from Alexandria port to the Cathedral in the city preceded by a deacon procession chanting praises.

The second milestone came at the hands of Pope Kyrillos V whose papacy, which lasted from 1874 to 1927, saw the establishment of the Clerical Seminary and Sunday School; both were founded by Archdeacon Habib Girgis. Then came the third milestone, the longest phase that is still ongoing, with the establishment by Pope Kyrillos VI, patriarch from 1959 to 1971, of the Bishopric of Education which spearheaded numerous efforts on that front.

“Education in the Coptic Church pours into the stream of the Egyptian nation,” Mr Heggy concluded.


Children interview Pope

Pope Tawadros was then interviewed by two children, Youssef and Julia, who asked him to talk about his childhood memories at Sunday School. Pope Tawadros focused on how he was influenced by Sunday School teaching, and how that teaching impacted the Coptic Church throughout the last 100 years.

“In Sunday School I learned that love is the base of Christian teaching: to love God; to love every human being everywhere and all the time,” the Pope said.

“In Church, love is alive through ‘Fatherhood’. It is very precious; it is the bond that ties us together and ties us to God. When we pray, we talk to our ‘Heavenly Father’, and a priest is called Abouna (Father).”

Youssef and Julia asked the Pope to sing a hymn of those he used to sing in Sunday School, so he sang one on “Mariam (Mary) and Martha”.

Believing in the importance of Sunday School, the Pope said he was contemplating the establishment of a bishopric that would concern itself solely with Sunday Schools affairs and issues.

The two children, who are brother and sister, presented the Pope a bouquet of flowers. A fitting conclusion to a great event.

Watani International

30 May 2018



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