This month should see Christians the world over commemorate the first of the three apparitions of the Holy Virgin to the three children, Lucia de Jesus, aged 10, and her cousins Francisco and Jacinta Marto, aged 9 and 7, in Fatima, Portugal, in 1917. The apparitions extended over the period from 13 May to 13 October 1917.
In Egypt, the primary scene of the annual celebration is the church of Our Lady of Fatima in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis. The Chaldean Catholic church which has stood there since 1951 has become a landmark of Heliopolis; the area surrounding it is today famously denoted as “St Fatima”.
In the mid-19th century, mainly for economic reasons, many families migrated from the Middle East and the Levant and settled in Egypt where they found a mellow, welcoming climate and formed their own communities. Among them were members of the Chaldean Catholic Church, originally called the Church of Assyria and Mosul, which between 1553 and 1681 broke away from the Assyrian Church of the East and entered communion with the Roman Catholic Church.
Members of the Chaldean Church trace their origins to ancient Assyria, a region which now corresponds to northern Iraq, northeast Syria, northwest Iran and southeast Turkey. The Chaldeans live mainly in Iraq, but now also in the four corners of the world; their population is estimated to number 500,000. The current Patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church is Louis Raphael I Sako, who was elected in Iraq in 2013.
In 1890, the community in Egypt expanded to include 150 families with a population of about 600. The then Chaldean Patriarch appointed Bishop Boutros Eid as the first Patriarchal Vicar in Egypt and pastor of the congregation.
Over time the population grew in number but many members migrated out of Egypt, so that the number today remains unchanged. The community has included many members who rose to be prominent in Egypt, not least among them was the widely-loved pioneer comedian Naguib al-Rihani who in the 20th century spearheaded Egypt’s social comedy theatre.
Granted the title ‘Basilica’
Watani met Msgr. Philippe Negm, Bishop and Patriarchal Vicar of the Chaldean Catholic Eparchy of Cairo, to learn about the Chaldean Church in Egypt and the Chaldean Basilica of Our Lady of Fatima, commonly referred to as St Fatima’s Church, in al-Nozha Street, Heliopolis, Cairo.
According to Msgr. Negm, the first Chaldean Catholic church was built in Egypt in 1891 in the Cairo neighbourhood of Faggala and was dedicated to St Anthony the Great. The parcel of land on which it was built was donated by a patron, Helana Abdel-Massih, who was of Iraqi descent.“The church was built using donations from worshippers,” Msgr. Negm said. “No official authority was ever involved with funding the construction of the church.”
At the beginning of the 20th century, many members of the Chaldean congregation moved to the new neighbourhood of Heliopolis. As the Chaldean community in Heliopolis expanded, the need arose for a new church to serve the thriving congregation. The foundations of the new church were laid in 1950. Designed after European churches, the exterior of the new church is faced in pink brick. Its high façade is graced by a large statue of the Holy Virgin blessing passers-by. The Church was consecrated in 1951 as Our Lady of Fatima by the late Patriarchal Vicar Msgr. Emmanuel Rassam to honour the apparitions of the Holy Virgin in the village of Fatima in Portugal in 1917; however, the name by which most Egyptians refer to it is ‘St Fatima’. In 1994, the church was granted the title of Minor Basilica by the late Pope John Paul II; a title usually given to important churches and shrines. The official document issued by the Vatican was brought over by the late Msgr. Youssef Sarraf and is kept at the bishopric.
Statue from Portugal
“At the time of the Fatima apparitions the three visionaries gave a description of the Holy Virgin, and based on this description a statue was made in Portugal of Our Lady of Fatima. Subsequently a few copies were made; one of these copies was sent to Egypt,” Msgr. Negm said. “My predecessors told me that when the statue arrived to Cairo in the 1950s it was given an official reception by representatives of the Egyptian State, who escorted it to the church. There the Bishop installed it on a high pedestal inside a side altar made of wrought iron in front of a splendid, starry-sky background.”
The basilica’s stained glass windows depict scenes from the life of the Holy Virgin during which she accompanied her son Jesus, as in the Nativity, Crucifixion and Resurrection. The scenes of the stained glass can be seen from inside the church in daytime and from outside in the evening when the church is lit up.
Beautiful blue and white porcelain tiles representing the 14 Stations of the Cross adorn the walls around the nave, and more tiles include verses from the Holy Bible and famous citations. The tiles were custom made in Portugal for the church in 1955, and they have kept their original colour ever since.
The church features two very unique Byzantine icons. “I personally have never seen anything like them,” Msgr. Negm said. “Usually, Byzantine icons are painted on wood, but these icons are unique in that they are painted on canvas. The first icon depicts the Dormition of the Holy Virgin and the other depicts her standing with the Disciples during the Ascension of Christ. The iconographer and the year in which they were written are unknown, but we believe they are as old as the church.”
The Basilica garden contains a shrine for St Anthony of Padua, whose feast is celebrated on 13 June each year. In front of the library is a statue of the miracle of the apparition of the angel to the visionaries of Fatima, which preceded the apparition of the Holy Virgin. Behind the altar on the garden side is a shrine dedicated to three Chaldean Bishops who are buried in the small crypt beneath the altar. They are Bishop Emmanuel Rassam, born in Mosul, Iraq in 1891, and the first Patriarchal Vicar in Egypt from 1938 until his death on 19 January 1964; Bishop Thomas Bidawid of Ahwaz in Iran, who was born in Zakho, Iraq in 1910 and died in Cairo on 29 March 1970; and Bishop Youssef Sarraf, born in Cairo in 1940, who was consecrated Bishop of Cairo in 1984 and who left our world on 31 December 2009. Msgr. Sarraf was a very popular bishop who faithfully served his congregation and is credited with building a home for the elderly adjacent to the church.
Four years ago the church underwent restoration, in the major part for the walls, the cupola, and the painting of the crucifix above the altar. Chaldean inscriptions were added to the walls of the apse and new mosaics were installed on which the Angelic Salutation (Hail Mary prayer) is written.
“As a Church in communion with the Roman Catholic Church, we give special importance to the celebration of the Holy Virgin’s Assumption on 15 August,” Msgr. Negm said. “We also have monthly celebrations related to the apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima from 13 May until 13 October every year, since her Fatima to apparitions lasted during that period.
For Christians and Muslims
The church of St Fatima offers services not only to the Chaldean community but also to all the Christians of Heliopolis; members of all Christian denominations are always welcome to participate in all the church activities. The adjacent building contains a seniors’ home in which high quality service for the elderly is provided, as well as a bookshop which sells religious books, candles and souvenirs. The church organises domestic and foreign, religious and cultural trips, in addition to scouting and Sunday School activities for young people.
Our Lady of Fatima is open daily from 8am until noon and from 5:30pm until 7:30pm. The Rosary is prayed every day, and on the 13th of every month, in addition to the Rosary, the Ladies’ Committee organises a special prayer assembly in honour of the Holy Virgin.
St Fatima’s has become an important Marian shrine and is visited by both Orthodox and Catholic believers, as well as by Muslims, who come to light candles at Our Lady’s feet. Many visitors ask for the intercession of the Holy Virgin, and when their wishes are granted they record their gratitude on the ex-voto marble plaques that adorn the church walls.
The 1917 Marian apparition at Fatima
The official website of the Sanctuary of Fatima [http://www.santuario-fatima.pt/portal/index.php?id=2634] cites the story of the stunning 1917 Marian apparition:
On 13 May 1917, three children were pasturing their little flock in the Cova da Iria, parish of Fatima, town of Vila Nova de Ourém. Today the diocese of Leiria-Fatima. They were Lucia de Jesus, aged 10, and her cousins Francisco and Jacinta Marto, aged 9 and 7.
About midday, after praying the Rosary, as was their custom, they were amusing themselves building a little house of stones scattered around the place where the Basilica now stands. Suddenly they saw a brilliant light, and thinking it to be lightning, they decided to go home. But as they went down the slope another flash lit up the place, and they saw on the top of a holmoak (where the Chapel of Apparitions now stands), “a Lady more brilliant than the sun”, from whose hands hung a white rosary.
The Lady told the three little shepherds that it was necessary to pray much, and she invited them to return to the Cova da Iria during five consecutive months, on the 13th day at that hour. The children did so and the 13th day of June, July, September and October, the Lady appeared to them again and spoke to them in the Cova da Iria. On 19 August, the apparition took place at Valinhos, about 500 meters from Aljustrel, because on the 13th the children had been carried off by the local Administrator to Vila Nova de Ourém.
In the last apparition, on October 13, with about 70,000 people present, the Lady said to them that she was the “Lady of the Rosary” and that a chapel was to be built there in her honor. After the apparition all present witnessed the miracle promised to the three children in July and September: the sun, resembling a silver disc, could be gazed at without difficulty and, whirling on itself like a wheel of fire, it seemed about to fall upon the earth.
Afterwards, when Lucia was a Religious Sister of Saint Dorothy, Our Lady appeared to her again in Spain (10 December 1925 and 15 February 1926, in the Convent of Pontevedra, and on the night of 13/14 June 1929, in the Convent of Tuy), requesting the devotion of the five first Saturdays to pray the Rosary, meditate on the mysteries of the Rosary, confess and receive Holy Communion, in reparation for the sins committed against the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and the Consecration of Russia to the same Immaculate Heart. This request had been announced by the Apparition on 13 July 1917, in what is called the “Secret of Fatima”.
Years later, Sr Lucia related that, between April and October of 1916, an Angel had appeared to the three seers on three occasions, twice in the Cabeço and once at the well in the garden behind Lucia´s house, who exhorted them to prayer and penance.
Since 1917 pilgrims have not ceased to come to the Cova da Iria in thousands upon thousands from all parts of the world, at first on the 13th of each month, later during the summer and winter holidays, and now more and more at weekends and any day all the year round.
18 May 2016