Church honors history; Coptics: Ancient traditions of Christianity from Egypt are followed by a congregation of about 300 members in Savage.


In what was once an Assembly of God church in Savage, a haze of aromatic burnt myrrh fills the sanctuary as a group of Coptic Orthodox Christians honors rituals that essentially haven't changed since the fourth century.

Many people are unfamiliar with the ancient religion practiced in St. Mary Coptic Orthodox Church in Howard County. In the quiet, historic community, the church houses such cultural touchstones as an altar from Egypt and ostrich eggs that represent God's faithfulness.

Members say the church helps them preserve their heritage.

"The Coptic Church isn't just us," said member Maureen Fahmy of Ellicott City. "It's really history. It's what we are and what our grandparents have preserved for us."

The denomination has 19 centuries of history, including authorship of the first part of the Nicene Creed, a formal statement of Christian belief, by St. Athanasius, a Coptic pope during the fourth century, and the development of monasticism in Egypt.

The Coptic Church embraces the Bible as a whole but is rooted in the teachings of St. Mark, the apostle who took the Gospel to Egypt in the first century.

St. Mary is the only Coptic congregation in the state with its own church building, and it owes that to a modern phenomenon, suburban sprawl.

About 15 years ago, a dozen families began meeting in St. Andrew's Church in Loch Raven, conducting monthly services with a priest on loan from Virginia and praying for a building.

"The Egyptians who immigrate here, one of the first things they do is start to look for a place to have services," said member Macarios Salib of Millersville. "Usually, it starts by renting a hall or a gym or sharing a church with another group."

Suburban expansion

The families got their building when Bethel Assembly of God outgrew its sanctuary in the 8300 block of Woodward St. in Savage. Members of St. Mary were overjoyed to find a good-sized building that included the all-important feature of facing east.

Members purchased the building in 1994, and almost overnight it was transformed from a church where traditional hymns rang through the rafters into an ornate building where ancient prayers were murmured amid the pungent smell of incense.

A white marble altar with a gold cross was brought from Egypt. Four Egyptian workers were brought over and commissioned to carve a wooden icon stand to separate the sanctuary from the altar.

The wooden stand was fashioned with mother of pearl inlay and gold oil paintings of icons that seem to shine as though reflecting the faith of those who gather beneath them.

Finally, transformed into a replica of the Orthodox churches in Egypt, the building was blessed by Pope Shenouda III, the pope of Alexandria.

The church has about 300 members who travel to services from as far north as Harford County and as far south as Virginia.

Traditional worship

In a recent service leading up to the Orthodox observance of Easter this weekend, the Rev. Guirguis A. Gobrail stepped out through the divider's velvet curtains, which lead to the altar. Wearing a white tunic called a tailasama and a white headpiece symbolizing purity, recited prayers in Arabic, English and the ancient Coptic language.

His voice rang out in a sing-song rhythm as he paused between the two ostrich eggs that hang from the icon stand, symbols of God's constantly watching over his flock, as a mother ostrich watches her eggs before they hatch.

"Do not cast away from me your presence and do not take away your Holy Spirit," he cried as women with their heads covered in white lace bowed over pews.

The church's deacons -- barefoot so as not to disturb the holy ground on which they tread -- stood in white robes decorated with red scarves called batrachils and sang in Greek in response to the prayers: "Ke-nin Kai A-ee Kai Istos E-onaston E-onon. Amen" ("Now and forever and unto the ages of all ages. Amen.")

Church members, from young children clutching book bags to older women bent over canes, silently made the sign of the cross.

Michael Thompson, a deacon who has been a congregation member for almost two years, said he enjoys the spirit and tradition of the services.

"As an African-American, I had always been interested in Egypt," said Thompson, who lives in Baltimore. "When you are at the church, you can actually feel the energy there, and I believe the church has a lot to offer in terms of its ability to connect with the spirit."

Church is community

Fahmy, who teaches Sunday school, at the church, said members eat together after services as a demonstration of agape -- divine love. Agape is also the word for a meal that early Christians ate together.

The church has a strong sense of community, she said.

"We are trying to teach our children the Coptic alphabet," she said. "We are really glad to keep our culture, and we want to pass on to [the children] that heritage," she said.

Gobrail said the congregation plans to reach out more to the surrounding community as a way of educating others about the religion. The church is planning a bazaar June 10 and 11 to sell Egyptian food, arts and crafts, and religious items.

"The neighborhood has been very, very nice to us," Gobrail said. "They don't know too much about us, but all are welcome."

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