The Very Reverend Fr. Gabriel Abdelsayed was the first priest of the Coptic Orthodox Church of St. Mark, the first permanent Coptic Church in the United States, serving from 1970 to 1993.
The Very Reverend Father and Hegumen, Gabriel Abdelsayed–A Pioneering Coptic Orthodox Priest in the United States, with the Name, Voice, and Heart of an Angel
By: Subdeacon Dr. Farid F. Shafik
Twenty five years may pass, but a loving memory lasts for a lifetime and even into eternal writings. A person comes into the world, and as they walk through life they interact with people and put forth experiences from the talents and gifts given by God. It is such for a particular man, I dare say who was given the name of an Angel, in order to touch us with God’s Love through his fatherhood, his priesthood, and pure heart for the children he loved so much.
I remember distinctly with warmth the first time I encountered Fr. Gabriel at the age of six years. It was a moment that I hold in me for a foundling to the beginning of a journey that is yet to be completed for me. In October 1970, after arriving from Egypt as new immigrants, we attended the Divine Liturgy at the St. Mark in Jersey City, NJ–the first Coptic Orthodox Church in the United States. After Liturgy, my father who had already been acquainted with this parish and this new priest, presented my mother, brother, and me to him at the end of the Liturgy. The presentation of his hand was to cradle my chin in a deliberate and endearing way that a father would have for a son. I believe that is what is uniquely apparent of the Coptic Orthodox Church than other denominations. Our priests conduct themselves as true fathers and with distinction of that word. It is through this that spiritual growth may be arisen within a person.
The Very Reverend Father and Hegumen, Gabriel Amin Abdelsayed, never presented a wanting to become a priest, but prepared throughout his life for the “calling” that would come. His humble beginnings were that as a son of a priest, having been born in the Fayyum on the 3rd of April 1927. His yearnings for knowledge were not just for simple university education but to go forth as a scholar to achieve a doctorate in history from Cairo University. Moreover, he was a participant in the Renaissance of the Coptic Orthodox Church during the spark that began with the Saint and Archdeacon Habib Guirguis, and gathered much steam and momentum in the 1950s to 1960s with the fulmination under the Thrice Blessed and Holy Father, Pope Shenouda III during his papacy from 1971 to 2012. Fr. Gabriel was affixed to several of the venerable fathers that were architects of the emergence of the Coptic Orthodox Church back to a leading position internationally. He was a contemporary and servant with the Blessed Reposed Episcopal Fathers: The Saint and Pope Kyrillos VI, Pope Shenouda III (as general bishop and later as pope), Bp. Samuel (first bishop for Ecumenical and Social Services); Bp. Gregorious (Bishop for Coptic and Higher Studies), Bp. Youannis (of Gharbiya), Metropolitan Athanasius (Beni Suef), Metropolitan Antonious (locum tenens of the patriarchate in the interpapacy after Pope Kyrillos).
He participated with Bp. Samuel as a delegate in the foundational plenary meetings in the founding of the World Council of Churches that were carried out in Europe, and a reviewer to the observational delegation of the Coptic Church at the Vatican II Council of the Roman Catholic Church. His Ph.D. concentration and dissertation on the History of Monasticism in the Coptic Orthodox Church lent a great step to his maturation and scholarly advancement under the noted mentors towards his theological training and later the fruition in erudition of the Coptic Orthodox Church Theology. He related many stories in the travels with Bp. Samuel during those years of the sixties, including a time when they were not able to keep the fast on an airplane flight to Europe, and upon their return, the Venerable Saint-Pope Kyrillos teased them as to why they did not keep the fast on the flight.
In the late 1960s he came to the United States under Fellowship grants in Minnesota and Utah to further his work and research in theology and history of the Coptic Orthodox Church. It is the fraternity and friendship that he had in the late Professor and Doctor Aziz Atiya to work towards the establishment of the Middle East Center at the University of Utah. His research was in the time frame after the Council of Chalcedon and its aftermath to the Coptic Orthodox Church at the hands of the insurgence of the Imperial and Byzantine presence in Egypt and their attempt to impose this false Council upon the Coptics.
The familiarity that he had with the early Coptic immigrants, the role of ministry and service as a member of the community lead to the inspiration by Metropolitan Athanasius and Bp Samuel to present to Pope Kyrillos, Dr. Hakim A. Abdelsayed (his lay name prior to ordination) as a nominee for the priesthood, and to be the first permanently ordained priest for service in the United States. A necessary rouse was needed to get the good Doctor and Professor to open his heart to a calling to the priesthood. Having travelled to Egypt to discuss the necessities for ministry and ideas towards the establishment of the first churches for the Coptic immigrants in the United States, he was met by the venerable bishops and presented him the opening into the priesthood, and needless to say he was resistant and it took three weeks of constant discussion and prayer until he agreed to accept the priesthood as his vocation. On the 5th of August 1970 he was ordained to the priesthood by His Holiness Pope Kyrillos VI and assisted by Bp Samuel and Metropolitan Athanasius at the Patriarchal Cathedral of St. Mark in Cairo (in the section known as the Ezbakiya). He was given the name Gabriel in honor of the Commemoration on that day for the Coptic monthly remembrance of the Feast of the Annunciation of the Lord Jesus Christ. It was the most appropriate name, since his ministry was distinct with majesty of the Archangel and the role that was given to him by Almighty God. This father had the potency of a strong voice, the ethereal melody in voice for the Liturgy, the softness of bliss in prayer and speaking to the Lord, the directness of mission, the assurance in commissioning from God, and the serenity and calmness in his fatherly nature–no different than the Archangel, himself.
The difficulties of beginning from scratch a whole new parish in Jersey City was quite an undertaking. The resources and donations were very limited and stretched to the best that was possible to put the central core of service in the Church Building and helping the settling of the constant waves of immigrants from Egypt. He worked to establish working relationships with different denominations and the National Council of Churches in the USA. He did have responsibility for a wife and four children, being: Mdm Tahani; sons–George and Wafeek; daughters–Waffa and Lucy. The financial difficulties of such an early moment in the Coptic history in the United States did not allow for a stipend that would care fully for this nuclear family that was his responsibility. As such, he was granted permission to accept a professorship at St. John’s University in Queens–New York, from which he would derive a partial salary and be able to accord college educations for his children.
Later these bonds forged with the Roman Catholic hierarchy would be a basis for the establishment of the Dialogue Conferences of the Oriental Orthodox Churches and the Roman Catholic Church. During those early years there were plenty of visitations from hierarchs of the Oriental to St. Mark in Jersey City, including: Patriarch Ighnatius Yacoub III of the Syrian Orthodox Church, Patriarch-Catholicos Theophilus of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Catholicos Vasken I–Supreme Catholicos of All Armenians, Catholicos Mor Basilious I of the Indian Orthodox Church, and a myriad of Archbishops, Metropolitans, and bishops from all of the Orthodox Churches.
At the point of April 1977 and after many months of preparation under his tutelage and auspices, the first Papal Visit of a Coptic Pope initiated a forty day tour of North America that culminated with the parish centers of the immigrants and representatives of secular and religious institutions. Some of the memorable moments included: the great reception at the TWA terminal at Kennedy Airport in New York, the first Liturgies by a Coptic Pope in the United States, the ordination of the first Coptic Priest on American soil–the late Fr. Bishoy Demetrious, the foundation stones for several churches, the reception at the White House with President Jimmy Carter, and the bestowal of an Honorary Doctorate from Bloomfield College. In all of these moments, Fr. Gabriel was an angel watching over the steps of His Holiness, and in preparing every step for the dignity of the successor of the Great St. Mark–the Apostle and Evangelist.
Fr. Gabiel was the principle representative of the Coptic Orthodox Church to the National Council of Churches, and this was instrumental in so many facets that later befell the church to help with the different difficulties after the internal exile of Pope Shenouda III in Egypt. He is the priest that was the personal representative for the Pope that carried through on dispelling the legal atrocities that happened in Houston, Chicago, and New York. During the exile of Pope Shenouda from 5 September 1981 to 5 January 1985, exactly forty months, Fr. Gabriel was tireless in the axis that he formed with Bp. Antonious Markos in championing and marshalling the world leaders to impress upon the Egyptian Government the rightful release of Pope Shenouda. He is the priest that invoked and convened all of the clergy meetings in North America for administration of the cause for the Pope’s release.
The world wide tour of Pope Shenouda in 1989 was organized by Fr. Gabriel over the course of four continents. His Holiness had this as a trip of healing and assurance to all the Coptics in the Lands of Immigration and in it he met with the people on a personal level and consecrated every altar in every church that he entered–personally. The joy of seeing His Holiness at Newark Airport, as he came to the NorthEast was with the expectancy of 500-1000 to attend. The number swelled to over 8000 and the beaming smile was that of Fr. Gabriel as he witnessed the love of the people for their Pope, and in seeing him for the first time after the release from exile. It is in that time frame that there was another visit to the White House to see President George H.W. Bush.
I would say that his ministry was one of “firsts” for so many endeavors, foundational for so many of the institutions and parishes that have come forth, the basis for different dioceses that have since formed, the establishment of the first Seminary in the United States, and so many people settled and ministered under his fatherhood. I would say that his most joyous and rewarding act was to offer the Sacrifice of the Divine Liturgy before Almighty God for the sake of the people and their sins. One of my most thoughtful remembrance was to watch every moment in his face and his hands as he addressed God before the Altar Table. There was a familiarity and solemnity in his interaction with God. I remember his familiarity with the Holy Bible in his very exact and memorized verses of the Bible, and in the ability to open the little Bible in his pocket to give witness in a visitation or meeting. Most of all was that beautiful angelic voice that would penetrate deep into the heart of the listener, and no doubt into the Heart of God for the supplication he was offering.
The Divine Liturgy was never cancelled because of inclement weather during his tenure. He would spend the night in the church, and urge others to do so also so that the offering of the Liturgy would occur regardless of any weather conditions. He drove people home through some of the most difficult storms, and his most hearty aspect was in feeding the people. I would emphasize that he never laid a fork into food until every person had received their portion of food and eaten. The generosity that emitted from him was in rarely keeping any presents but rather to get things to people that were in need. He was proud of his priesthood, from the distinctness of the beauty of the vestments he wore, to the well pressed shirts and robes that he wore in his daily movements, and in the constant contact with the people. There is not a person from that era that did not find him present for happy occasions and the sad occasions that needed the strong shoulders of a father. He is the priest that represented at the dias at graduations, ministered the sacraments, visited and comforted the sick, witnessed the repose of his people, ushered people into their vocations, and most of all he loved talking to God in the most intimate way. His persona is remembered as he represented the Coptic Church at the Peace Treaty Signing between Egypt and Israel under President Carter, and the Triumphant Celebrations of the Victory in the Gulf War under President George H.W. Bush.
Illness did overtake him, and yet the magnificence of his being was exposed as his body became weaker. The dignity by which he bore the pain and the anguish is unparalleled by anyone I have seen. A moment in that time was in his last months that the Very Rev. Fr. Roufail Nakhla went to his rest in September of 1993, and he was adamant about going to Boston to offer his condolences and to take part in the funeral rite for a priest who was one of the four legs on which the first communities were forged–Fr. Markos of Canada; Fr. Roufail for Canada and USA; Fr. Gabriel for USA; Fr. Bishoy Kamel for USA. Another story to share was in his last attendance for Liturgy at St. Mark, also in September 1993. I had spent the night with him to ready him for the Liturgy the next day. I was not cognizant of the Gospel for the Liturgy that day, yet it is one that in remembrance, I hold dearly to my heart. As it was chanted, we were bringing him into the church and the fire-escape stairs from the outside did not allow for the original five to carry him in a chair up the stairs, but one had to release and only the four were able to properly carry the chair into the church. Upon entering the church we heard, and which led us to cry, The Story of the Four Friends lowering their friend before the Lord. Bp. Pisenti was in attendance and he also was touched by the scene and wept.
To point to his last days, I remember the ever present dignity in his being. And most distinctly the fact that he did not give up his spirit until I had arrived at the hospital in Brooklyn. Most difficult for me was in anointing his body with the holy oils and placing the vestments on him for the last time as I did so many times before at the funeral home and to place his body in the casket. The pectoral cross that was laid on his pectus was the one my brother and I gave him at an anniversary of his priesthood in prior that was inscribed: “In your heart, and you in our hearts” “With Love–Farid and Messiha”. In the mausoleum that he had made for he and his wife, he made sure that it was the center point among all the graves of the Coptic Section at the cemetery. He chose as an epithet and inscription, simply: “For me: to live is Christ, and to die is gain” [Phil 1:21]–Fr. G. Abdelsayed. The inscription is in never doubting in the Glory of God.
I am not at a loss for words to tell of his life and achievements, but I am at a loss for words for what he means to me. At this juncture in my life, and even 25 years after his repose, I see him and hear him as if no time has elapsed. I tear up in thinking of him, for I miss my father. He is the spiritual father, in complement to my own parents, that taught me Who God is, the beauty of the Coptic Church, to have experienced so many historical points for the Church, and mostly to be steadfast in the Church teachings and theology, and in talking to God in the most intimate words. He is the father that held my hand at difficult times, and clapped his hands at my graduations. He is the father that asked me to wrap a gift, and then give it to me as my high school graduation present. So many thousands and ten-thousands of miles we spent in the car talking, brainstorming and writing, liturgies to serve, and just hearing his comforting voice. The simple words I have are: I miss my priest and my father. I know he is alive, but I truly wish he was here.