The Coptic Orthodox Church is the Christian Church of Egypt tracing its history to St. Mark the apostle. Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church was founded by the first Egyptian immigrants to New Jersey and New York in the 1960s. It is recognized as the first Coptic community and permanent church in the United States and North America as a whole. The church building was the first to be purchased among all the established Coptic churches.
On August 5th, 1970, Pope Kyrillos VI ordained Mr. Hakim A. Abdelsayed and he was sent to Saint Mark’s as Fr. Gabriel Abdelsayed. From that point forward, the church blossomed and rapidly expanded; attendance began to increase and many more Coptic churches were established in New Jersey. In 1993, Heg. Fr. Gabriel fell asleep in the Lord.
After the departure of Fr. Gabriel, the church entered a period of transition and multiple priests served in the church until January 5th, 1995 when Pope Shenouda III transferred Fr. Abraam Slemen from Colorado to oversee the church. Fr. Abraam labored in the church, oversaw major renovations, and added the church of St. Mary and St. Abraam to be the first Coptic church in the area to have a full English liturgy on Sundays. Rev. Fr. Youannes served with Fr. Abraam for a couple of years before returning back to Egypt. On November 14th, 1999, Fr. Markos Ayoub was ordained to serve alongside Fr. Abraam. On January 9th, 2003, Fr. Abraam was elevated to the rank of hegumen. Fr. Daniel Abdel-Maseih became the newest priest to serve in St. Mark’s, being ordained by Pope Shenouda III on September 1st, 2007. Rev. Fr. Markos was elevated to the rank of hegumen by Pope Tawadros II during His Holiness historical first visit to church on September 24, 2018, in which he also officially opened the church’s newest service building, Emmanuel Center.
St. Mark’s has been a pioneer and continues to be a beacon for the Coptic Orthodox Church in America. The church’s primary goal is to faithfully shepherd its congregation and nourish them spiritually guided by the bible and its ancient Orthodox traditions. The church also serves its local community and helps the sick, the poor, the homeless, and new immigrants.
AN ACCOUNT ON THE FOUNDATION OF ST. MARK CHURCH
Deacon Dr. Medhat Riad Wassef
The rapid growth of the Coptic Orthodox Churches in the United States was essentially based on the concept of immigration to the New World a few decades ago. A brief chronology may serve as a rough guide to the quantitative flow of Coptic immigrants.
The first significant period started with the sporadic immigration until the late sixties. Immigrants were mostly postgraduate students seeking higher education or appointments in various institutions. Indeed, the concept Egyptian immigration, at large, on a systematic basis, was virtually unknown. It all began in the late sixties and early seventies when the immigration of Coptic families started to take shape. Most of the immigrant family members were professionals.
The rising flux of mass immigration of Coptic families continued in the early eighties and increased in momentum till the mid-nineties. At this period the number of the non-professional immigrants began to be significant. The rising tide of mass immigration of Copts of various social and economic strata is continuing till present.
The story of St. Mark Church
During the early period of mass immigration of the Coptic families which started in the late sixties very few families and some post-graduate students resided in New York City and Jersey City. In late 1968 there were almost ten families in Jersey City. To name a few they were the families of the architect Ralph Yanni and his brothers Dr. Raef Yanni and Dr. Rudolph Yanni, Mr. Naseef Banoud, Architect Tanios Shenouda Abdel-Shahid, Architect Iskandar Saad, Architect Makram Dimian, and others.
Soon they were able to congregate and voice their longing for the Ecclesiastic Services they missed so much. They, indeed, are considered the blessed seed and nucleus of the heavily populated multitudes of the Coptic congregations existing and still growing nowadays.
The fatherly love of the late H.H. Pope Kyrillos 6th prompted him to extend pastoral services to his sons and daughters in the land of immigration. Priests were sent for very short and limited time, and not on a regular basis.
The late Father Makary el-Soriany (H.G. Bishop Samuel), martyred during the attack on President Sadat, and the late Father Roufael Younan, from Montreal, Canada, both were instrumental in their pastoral services. In addition, other priests who happened to be present in the United States seeking medical care or visiting family members took the opportunity to share and extend their pastoral services.
Great efforts were spent to find a place for worship whenever news of arrival of a priest is spread among the young congregations. The Syrian Orthodox Church in Brooklyn was visited on many occasions, being a sister of the Coptic Orthodox Church and a member of the Non-Chalcedonian Orthodox Family of Churches. Members of the congregation constituted a closely knit society and lived as one large family. Indeed, the long awaited news of the arrival of a priest, for any reason, mostly personal and for a very limited period of time, was received with utmost happiness. Consequently, Liturgical and Pastoral services held by a Coptic priest were very sporadic and far in-between. They were held in various places such as an apartment of one of the congregation members, a court in a sporting club or in a church of different denomination.
Liturgical services have been held at the apartments of Mr. Ramsis Awadalla, Dr. Ralph Yanni and the Architect Mr. Tanios (Antoun) Shenouda among others. In late October 1968 Father Mankarious of St. Mary Church at Zamalek, Cairo arrived to New York. He held the Divine Liturgy three times in the open air at a football grounds in Jersey City for ten families. In 1969 Father Mankarious held the first Covenant Thursday of the Pascha week’s service at the apartment of Mr. Tanios Shenouda in Jersey City. On the same year, Father Roufael of Montreal held two hour service of Good Friday, only to leave back to Canada for his congregation. An Armenian Orthodox Church in New York, used in the afternoons after the Armenian service, and a building that belongs to the International Council of Churches, through Mrs. Eva el-Masry, in the West Side of New York City, were frequented whenever a priest was available.
Gradually, the late Father Roufael arranged to come from Montréal twice monthly, on a regular basis, to serve the Holy Liturgy in the places just mentioned.
1970 – A decisive Year
Two major events happened this year. The first was the purchase of Church Building, and the second was the ordination of the late Father Gabriel as the first permanent priest in the United State.
Time was ripe in the early seventies for the Coptic congregation to have a Church building of her own. Exhaustive search was undertaken by representatives of the congregation was crowned by finding a Protestant Church for sale in Jersey City at Westside Avenue, the present Coptic Church of St. Mark. After extensive negotiations, the purchase price was reduced to $30,000.00 (Thirty Thousand Dollars), from a fourfold asking price. However, the stipulation of consummation of purchase was a down payment of $10,000.00 (Ten Thousand Dollars) and balance to be paid in three years.
The purchase of the Building was God’s gift to the congregation and the fruit of the deep prayers offered in earnest and in utmost faith by all members of the young congregation. At that time there was a sense of shared common concern not only for their present time but for the future of their children and generations to come. The members of this young congregation are considered pioneers for their unrelenting endeavor maintain the Coptic Orthodox faith and tradition in the New World.
It is noteworthy, for the sake of history that sense of sacrifice with love was prevailing among all members of this young Coptic community. This love was epitomized when some Coptic ladies offered their jewelry for sale in order to complement the down payment. It should not be forgotten that the political situation in Egypt, during which these people immigrated, dictated that they should leave Egypt with meager amount of money.
Active members of the Coptic community used to hold meetings frequently to discuss the concerns of the Copts. After the purchase they continued their meetings in the Church building. The following names are obtained from a copy of an official meeting held on April 5th, 1970. They were (as in the same order in the document): Father Roufael, Dr. Maher Kamel, Mr. Nasef Banoud, Mr. Rasis Awadalla, Mr. Albert Kamel, Mr. Iskander Saad, Mr. Tanios Shenouda, Mr. Khairy Wisa, Mr. Wassef Simaan, Mr. Esmat Mesiha, Mr. Heleem Habashy Awadalla and Mrs. Eva el-Masry Sidhom.
In that meeting, two major matters were discussed, together with matters concerning repairs to be undertaken in the Church building.
In the first, the treasurer discussed manner of collecting the down payment. Part of the money, $3,800.00, that belonged to the Coptic Assembly was donated when Mrs. Eva el-Masry in her capacity as Chairwoman of the Assembly and declaring the dissolution of the Assembly as its aims have been fulfilled. That charitable act enhanced the early purchase of the Church Building.
In the second it became clear, with the establishment of a Church building, to ask H.H. Pope Kyrillos 6th to ordinate a priest.
The first Permanent Priest in United States
After the purchase of the Church, the Late Father Roufael continued to come from Montreal twice weekly. The First Liturgy was held on March 22nd, 1970.
Time has come and the work of the Holy Spirit, who laid the foundation of the Church in the upper room in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost, the foundation of a Coptic Orthodox Church in the land of Immigration has become a blessed reality. The dream of the early Coptic immigrants has been realized. The Coptic Orthodox Church of St. Mark has been established.
H.H. Pope Kyrillos 6th ordained, in Egypt, Professor Dr. Hakeem Amin Abdel-Sayed to the Holy Order of Priesthood under the name of Father Gabriel in August 5th, 1970. Soon after the lapse of the traditional forty days spent in St. Bishoy Monastery Father Gabriel assumed his ministry in late September 1970 among thanksgiving prayers and joy of the Coptic Community.
1. Details mentioned in this article were obtained from a hand-written copy of the minutes of the Church Board meeting, mentioned above, held in April 1970 and a hand-written copy of personal recollections of the late Mr. Tanios Shenouda (one of the members) upon my request.
2. An appeal in earnest is called for to any person, particularly to relatives of the early immigrants, to provide the Church with pertinent and credible information regarding the foundation of the Church of St. Mark for historic documentation.