Happy Birthday: The First Coptic Church in North America

 

St. Mark's Church Toronto

St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church, Toronto

At least in urban and suburban America, it seems like Copts are everywhere. There is an

Orthodox Church a town over from where I grew up in New Jersey. I played soccer with an Egyptian Christian in high school.

Strange to think then, the church in North America is only 39-years-old, today.

Technically that is not quite true. The first weekly liturgy was held over a decade earlier in 1964, and spiritual meetings began in 1959, if not earlier.

But on September 8, 1978, St. Mark’s became the first Coptic Orthodox church built in North America, in Toronto, Canada.

The story is simple, and as a North American who has received much Coptic kindness, I am glad to report my continental forefathers helped along the way.

Elias Wagdy Abdel-Messih, who came to the US to study ethnomusicology, met with other prominent Copts and helped organized the first meetings in New York. By 1961 they drew together the first wave of Coptic immigrants from across the eastern seaboard, and celebrated Easter in a small town in Pennsylvania. That same summer in Chicago the Coptic American Association was established during a conference in Chicago.

Fr. Makary El-Souriany was dispatched from Egypt on repeated visits, and eventually ordained Abdel-Messih as Fr. Marcos Marcos, on August 9, 1964

As an aside, Fr. Makary would eventually be consecrated Bishop Samuel, responsible for nationwide Coptic social services. He was killed during the assassination of President Anwar al-Sadat in 1981.

But Fr. Marcos became responsible for all of North America, and moved to Toronto in 1964, holding regular services also in Montreal and New York. His choice was not particularly strategic – the United States granted him a visitor’s visa, while Canada offered immigration.

Eventually churches would be established in New Jersey, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland, San Francisco, and Boston in the United States, and Halifax, Winnipeg, Edmonton, and Vancouver in Canada.

Fr. Marcos became known as ‘the flying priest’ for his extensive travels. The pattern continued until the arrival of Fr. Raphael Nakhla from Egypt in 1967, when they divided responsibilities into east and west.

St. Mark's Church Toronto 2

The early Toronto liturgy, however, was held in a kindergarten at St. Mildred’s College, an Anglican school, serving 36 Coptic families. In 1965 the Anglican Holy Trinity Church offered their upstairs chapel to the Coptic community, and in 1968 the Anglicans gave full use of St. Matthias. In 1970 they moved again, leasing the United Church for $1 per year.

In 1977 this building was sold, and the church had to move again into a school auditorium. But that same year the church obtained an acre of land, in the neighborhood of Agincourt, Scarborough, Toronto, for $1.

The church specifically thanks Revs. Hunt, Chote, Fisk, Palmer, Roberts, and Lee for their kindness. Dr. McClure offered the lease; Mr. McClintoch sold the land.

Groundbreaking took place quickly, to coincide with the visit of Pope Shenouda to Toronto. And today, 19 years ago, Bishop Ruweis of the diocese of North America presided over the church consecration. Seventeen Coptic Orthodox priests from around the region helped officiate.

The church underwent expansion in 1992, and now includes a cultural center and Coptic museum.

Today St. Mark’s serves 500 families and 4000 parishioners. It is one of 37 Coptic Orthodox churches in Canada; the United States has over 200. The population estimate of the Coptic diaspora worldwide ranges from 1-2 million. Country estimates vary widely, from 100,000 to one million in the US, and up to 50,000 in Canada. The 2011 Canadian census listed their number at 16,000, which dramatically rose from 5,000 in the 1991 census.

I have not visited the church personally, though it would be nice to do so one day. I hope I will find continuing good relationships with the surrounding churches and community.

I would be surprised if it was not so.

Perhaps we can play soccer together.

The information above was collected from a pamphlet issued by St. Mark’s Church shortly before its 1978 consecration, a 2008 MA thesis of Rachel Loewen, for McMaster University, and the St. Mark’s church website. The photos are from the Away with Joanna blog.

UPDATE: Michael Akladios provides additional information and a different timeline in this Facebook comment.

He also writes: “Documentation for this history is available in the Toronto Anglican Diocesan Archive, the Toronto United Church Archive, and Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa; once again proving that Copts must find better means of preserving and maintaining their own history.”

I would trust his version above my own, but a thorough and more fitting article would do well to verify his and multiple sources.

This post is simply meant to make a digital record of an interesting pamphlet I stumbled upon in Cairo, for purpose similar to his: To promote a memory and further understanding.

Preserving history is much more difficult, and all are welcome to help iron it out here – and more importantly, in the archives he references.

The comment below, from Sylvia Marcos, daughter-in-law to the flying priest, is welcome reference for all who are interested.

St. Mark's Church Toronto 3

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3 thoughts on “Happy Birthday: The First Coptic Church in North America

  1. Thank you for this brief snapshot about the Coptic history in North America. My father-in-law, Father Marcos Marcos, has written a 527-page book about his experience and how he travelled across North America to serve the Copts. It has pictures, documents, and articles outlining the church’s history for the first 50 years since 1964 to 2014. He just turned 88 and is still serving at St Mark’s. That is a picture of his car at the bottom of your article. The Coptic church in North America continues to serve Copts and non-Copts and spreads the Word of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

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    • Thank you, Sylvia. If there is a link to his book, please feel free to add it here. I’ve updated the text in reference to it.
      I love that car picture. It is a perfect image of holding the dual identities you in the diaspora I assume you both enjoy, and struggle with. God be with you in the journey.

      Like

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