Author: Daniel Gorman Jr.
Coptic Orthodox Christians have a long history in Egypt, dating to the first century C.E. Tradition holds that St. Mark the Evangelist founded the church in Egypt, and that the modern-day pope of the Coptic Church is part of an unbroken line of patriarchs, dating to Mark.[i] At the Council of Chalcedon in 451 C.E., the Egyptian faction rejected the prevailing argument that Jesus Christ was one person with two separate natures — one divine, and one human. Instead, Copts argued that Christ had a single nature in hypostasis — one person, one united nature from two, divine and human. This theology set the Alexandrian (Coptic), Syrian, and other Oriental Orthodox churches apart from the dyophysite (two-nature) Byzantine and Roman churches.[ii]
When I interviewed Br. Antonios the Shenoudian of St. Shenouda the Archimandrite Monastery, he elaborated on the Coptic idea of Christ: “When we say that Christ is one, we believe that he is fully divine and fully human, but there was a union that had to happen in such a way that it preserved his humanity and his divinity, but we could no longer speak of them separately… Otherwise we couldn’t say that he took flesh.” Antonios’s metaphor for Christ is that, if you look at a person, you don’t assume that there are two persons in one physical form.[iii]
Copts began to settle in Western New York in the 1960s, when Copts began to leave President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt en masse.[iv] The community of St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church, which initially rented space in Rochester buildings, moved to the southwestern suburb of Henrietta at 530 Lehigh Station Road. When Pope Shenouda III visited North America in 1989, he visited Rochester and consecrated the church.[v] St. Mark’s remains one of only eight Orthodox parishes in Monroe County.[vi] St. Shenouda the Archimandrite Monastery, founded in 2004, sits across the street from St. Mark’s at 525 Lehigh Station Road.[vii] Roughly one hundred families attend either St. Mark’s or the monastery.[viii] The Ss. Peter and Paul complex, a former Roman Catholic church that the monastery purchased in 2006, is roughly a twenty-minute drive to the north, at 736 West Main Street in Rochester. The Coptic parishioners at the two churches and monastery are mainly of Egyptian heritage, although Sudanese, Ethiopian, and Eritrean Christians began to attend St. Mark’s and the monastery in the early 2000s.[ix] Fr. Shenouda Maher Ishak, a noted theologian and the pastor of St. Mark’s at the time, directed the monastery and St. Peter’s, while also serving at St. Mary and St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church in Syracuse, N.Y., until it received a permanent priest. As of this writing (Fall 2018), Fr. Shenouda is solely responsible for the Coptic monastery of St. Shenouda.[x] He directs the monastery with the help of Br. Antonios, who is a theologian, a former hematologist at Strong Memorial Hospital, and the son of Egyptian immigrants who came to America to avoid the Nasser regime.[xi] Pope Shenouda III appointed Br. Antonios as the monastery’s first novice in 2006.[xii]
In 2003, the Coptic Church acquired 51 acres of land across the street from St. Mark’s.[xiii] An essay called “Monastic Rule” from the monastery website provides an oral history of what happened next:
When H.H. Pope Shenouda III [then the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church] was making one of his pastoral visits to the United States in August 2003, Fr. Shenouda went to greet his His Holiness. When he greeted him, Fr. Shenouda asked him how the newly purchased land could best be used. His Holiness told Fr. Shenouda to pray and see what God’s will is for the use of this land. Shortly afterwards, on the Feast of the Transfiguration (August 19, 2003), Fr. Shenouda was on the phone with one of his spiritual children, who had never been to Rochester, nor knew anything about the land. Fr. Shenouda told him about the land, and this person very simply said in Arabic, “Abouna, this is a monastery. It’s a monastery, Abouna! And I’ll tell you who it’s named after — after the name of Abba Shenouda.”[xiv]
One of the great Coptic saints, St. Shenouda directed two Egyptian monasteries and a convent (hence his title of archimandrite) in the fourth and fifth centuries C.E. He amassed a considerable library of Coptic literature.[xv] The invocation of his namesake resonated with Fr. Shenouda, who recalled themes from the saint’s life:
The rest of that day, Fr. Shenouda kept thinking about what that man said, and it all fit just as was described in the monastery mission, i.e. being in a village and combining the life of prayer and solitude with service, etc. So, after this event, when Fr. Shenouda … presented this idea to His Holiness Pope Shenouda as he was leaving the United States to return to Egypt, Pope Shenouda immediately gave his blessing.[xvi]
In August 2004, Pope Shenouda III traveled to the U.S. on his next pastoral tour and visited St. Mark’s. The Pope presided over the laying of the new monastery’s cornerstone.[xvii] The monastery would be one of only three Coptic monasteries in the United States.[xviii] 900 Coptic Christians from Western New York attended the proceedings.[xix]
Fr. Shenouda decided that the monastery would emulate the good works of St. Shenouda by performing community service, providing religious and Coptic language education, and opposing “paganism.” The “Monastic Rule” essay elaborates on this anti-secularization message:
We are surrounded by a society today where people are preoccupied with so many different aspects of their lives that they are not filled with the love of God and the correct understanding of Who He is[,] and how we are supposed to be living our lives with Him. So by the grace of God, and the prayers of St. Shenouda the Archimandrite and your prayers, as this monastery reaches out to this community this true faith and knowledge of God will be delivered to them. There is a lot to be done[,] and we are responsible to do this work through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.[xx]
Permit delays had slowed construction of the monastery when, in March 2006, Fr. Shenouda learned that the Roman Catholic Church of Ss. Peter and Paul was going on sale. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester had opted to close three churches, including Ss. Peter and Paul.[xxi] The purchase of Ss. Peter and Paul offered a chance to increase the visibility of Coptic Christianity and spread the monastery mission of public service and education into the city of Rochester. Unfortunately, the purchase would use most of the funds set aside for the monastery. After much prayer, and with the blessing of Pope Shenouda III, the monastery purchased Ss. Peter and Paul. The day that the monastery made its first deposit, June 29, 2006, was the Catholic feast day of Saints Peter and Paul. The closing day, February 9, 2007, was the Catholic feast of St. Cyril, which was interpreted as a sign from God.[xxii]
Ss. Peter and Paul became a Coptic mission, while maintaining its historic architecture and artwork, the St. Peter’s soup kitchen, and clothing relief program.[xxiii] The expense of Ss. Peter and Paul slowed work on the monastery, but Fr. Shenouda took things in stride. He told the Democrat & Chronicle in 2007 that God wanted his community to be involved in the 19th Ward as well as Henrietta: “That’s why the Lord, before we built the monastery, prepared Saints Peter and Paul for us.”[xxiv] The cover image for the monastery’s eventual website would reflect the providential role that Fr. Shenouda and his peers ascribed to God. The image fuses a photo of the monastery so with one of Ss. Peter and Paul, so that two buildings appear to be one. Jesus Christ, depicted in front of the crucifix and surrounded by stylized eagle wings, floats above the united buildings. A Biblical quote, Malachi 4:2, appears above Jesus: “But to you who fear My name, the Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in His wings.”[xxv]
The restoration of Ss. Peter and Paul received a moderate amount of local press coverage in 2007–12, culminating in the church’s addition to the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places on June 20, 2012.[xxvi] Former Catholic parishioner Craig Murphy and artist Sandra Bialaszewski restored the church’s century-old nativity figures, and the Coptic community staged the scene for Epiphany 2007 and 2008.[xxvii] The nativity statues have since been placed on permanent display in the Ss. Peter and Paul sanctuary.[xxviii] Although Orthodox churches traditionally use icons, not statuary, Fr. Shenouda concluded that this debate was a matter of ritual, and not theological, differences, so it was acceptable to retain Catholic artwork. Fr. Shenouda wanted to be open about the building’s history. Some of the remaining saint statues are not Coptic saints, but they are kept for the sake of historical preservation. The church organ remains, despite the use of a cappella music in Coptic worship. The high altar is from the German-majority Ss. Peter and Paul that preceded the current building’s construction. Another altar has “IHS,” a Jesuit slogan, carved upon it. Copts do not believe in the Immaculate Conception or Assumption of the Virgin Mary, but no art in the sanctuary embodies this theme, so no alternate depiction of Mary was necessary. One adjustment reflects Coptic theology: A statue of St. Joseph, Jesus’ stepfather, portrays him as a young man, but Copts believe Joseph was elderly and already had children from a past marriage when he married the Virgin Mary. Bialaszewski therefore painted Joseph’s beard white.[xxix]
The events of 2011 captured the combined Catholic-Coptic heritage of Ss. Peter and Paul. In March 2011, the Rochester Coptic community hosted North American Copts for a weekend of lectures and services commemorating the celebrated priest Mikhail Ibrahim (1899–1975). Most of the events occurred at St. Mark’s, but a Sunday field trip went to Ss. Peter and Paul, so that guests could see the restored facility. The Fr. Ibrahim event was emblematic of the Rochester Copts’ connections to the transnational Coptic world, since guest speakers hailed from Cairo as well as California.[xxx] In June 2011, the Coptic community welcomed former Catholic parishioners back to Ss. Peter and Paul for a centennial Mass. The Democrat & Chronicle described the nostalgia that returning Catholics experienced. Mary Holloway was quoted as saying, “Oh, it’s so beautiful I want to cry…. It hasn’t changed a bit, as beautiful as ever.” Bishop Matthew Clark, who led the Mass, remarked in his homily, “I know this building means a great deal to you and symbolizes the presence of Christ in your lives…. Let us remember our mothers and fathers in faith and recommit ourselves to building up the Body of Christ, and I hope revisiting this church will become a new source of strength for you.”[xxxi]
St. Shenouda the Archimandrite Monastery was finished in 2012. For several years, Wednesday prayers, one Sunday service per month, and Bible study classes were held at Ss. Peter and Paul, while Friday prayers and all other Sunday services were held at the monastery. The Wednesday service was discontinued in 2017, so only one religious service happens at Ss. Peter and Paul per month, but the site is used for other programs, such as church retreats. Monthly community dinners occur in the Ss. Peter and Paul rectory. St. Peter’s Kitchen is still open, but responsibility for the thrift store has been given to other charities in the 19th Ward.[xxxii]
Today, Fr. Shenouda and Br. Antonios are the only clergy who work at the monastery and Ss. Peter and Paul.[xxxiii] The monastery’s website is currently being redesigned, but the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine offers screen captures of the website’s past iterations. Fr. Shenouda and Br. Antonios offered essays in English and Arabic about the Coptic language and Coptic Orthodox rituals. “Teaching tapes,” recorded church rites, and other audio files were available, but the Internet Archive did not capture these recordings. Individuals curious about these recordings should contact the monastery directly.[xxxiv]
[i] Daniel Gorman Jr., interview with Br. Antonios the Shenoudian, Thursday, 24 May 2018.
[ii] John H. Erickson, Orthodox Christians in America, Religion in American Life, edited by Jon Butler and Harry S. Stout (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 17–18; Gorman, interview with Br. Antonios.
[iii] Gorman, interview with Br. Antonios.
[iv] Gorman, nterview with Br. Antonios; Mark Hare, “Who We Are: Orthodox Christians,” Rochester Democrat & Chronicle (Rochester, N.Y.), 29 Dec. 2008, A4, ProQuest Document ID: 442066662; Cindy Mindell-Wong, “St. Mark Meets Britney Spears: Copts Keep the Faith in Rochester,” Rochester City Newspaper (Rochester, N.Y.), 19 Mar. 2003, acc. 12 Apr. 2018, https://www.rochestercitynewspaper.com/rochester/st-mark-meets-britney-spears/Content?oid=2127553; “Sabet K. Salib [Obituary],” Rochester Democrat & Chronicle (Rochester, N.Y.), 1 Sept. 2016, ProQuest Document ID: 1815647531. For context, see: Erickson, Orthodox Churches, 124.
[v] Lisa Hutchurson, “Pope of Coptic Church Visits Local Worshippers,” Rochester Democrat & Chronicle (Rochester, N.Y.), 16 Aug. 2004, acc. 28 May 2018, ProQuest Document ID: 441693003; Mindell-Wong, “St. Mark.”
[vi] Mark Hare, “A Faith That Engages All Senses of the Soul,” Rochester Democrat & Chronicle (Rochester, N.Y.), 29 Dec. 2008, A1, ProQuest Document ID: 442070092.
[vii] Hare, “Faith.”
[viii] Gorman, interview with Br. Antonios.
[ix] Hutchurson, “Pope of Coptic Church Visits”; Mindell-Wong, “St. Mark”; “Monastic Rule,” St. Shenouda the Archimandrite Monastery (Henrietta, N.Y.), Internet Archive Wayback Machine, captured 21 Apr. 2014, acc. 17 Apr. 2018, https://web.archive.org/web/20140421222015/http://www.michellabs.com:80/joomla/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=9&Itemid=8&lang=en.
[x] “Fr. Kyrillos Sadek Biography,” St. Mary and St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church (Syracuse, N.Y.), acc. 29 May 2018, https://stmarystminacopticchurch.org/father_kyrillos.html; Mindell-Wong, “St. Mark.”
[xi] Gorman, interview with Br. Antonios.
[xii] Gorman, interview with Br. Antonios.
[xiii] “Monastic Rule.”
[xiv] “Monastic Rule.”
[xv] Gorman, interview with Br. Antonios.
[xvi] “Monastic Rule.”
[xvii] “News Beat,” Rochester Democrat & Chronicle (Rochester, N.Y.), 13 Aug. 2004, B2, ProQuest Document ID: 441689360.
[xviii] Gorman, interview with Br. Antonios.
[xix] Hutchurson, “Pope of Coptic Church Visits.”
[xx] “Monastic Rule.”
[xxi] “Coptic Monastery of St. Shenouda,” Facebook, acc. 5 May 2018, https://www.facebook.com/brantonios/; Marketta Gregory, “Catholics to Shut Down 11 Churches,” Rochester Democrat & Chronicle (Rochester, N.Y.), Saturday, 19 Nov. 2005, A1, ProQuest Document ID: 441800596, copy in SMA; Gorman, interview with Br. Antonios; Marketta Gregory, “Closures Sadden Resigned Faithful,” Rochester Democrat & Chronicle (Rochester, N.Y.), Saturday, 19 Nov. 2005, A9, ProQuest Document ID: 441800986, copy in SMA; Mike Latona and Tamara Tirado, “City Churches Cope With Change,” The Catholic Courier (Rochester, N.Y.), November 2005, copy in St. Monica Roman Catholic Church Archive [SMA]; Amy Kotlarz, “City Parish Holds Closing Mass,” The Catholic Courier (Rochester, N.Y.), 13 Oct. 2006, https://www.catholiccourier.com/articles/city-parish-holds-closing-mass.
[xxii] Gorman, interview with Br. Antonios; “The Roman Calendar for A.D. 2006,” Romcal: A Program to Generate the General Roman Calendar of the Catholic Church, acc. 2 Jun. 2018, www.romcal.net/output/2006.html.
[xxiii] Hare, “Faith.”
[xxiv] Marketta Gregory, “Place of Solitude, Faith,” Rochester Democrat & Chronicle (Rochester, N.Y.), 8 Aug. 2007, B1, ProQuest Document ID: 441961546.
[xxv] Citation for Figure 1: Coptic Monastery of St. Shenouda Cover Photo, St. Shenouda the Archimandrite Monastery (Henrietta, N.Y.), Internet Archive Wayback Machine, captured 11 Jun. 2012, acc. 10 Aug. 2020, https://web.archive.org/web/20120611092312/http://www.michellabs.com/.
[xxvi] “Weekly List of Actions Taken on Properties, 6/18–22/2012,” National Park Service, June 29, 2012, acc. 29 June 2017, https://www.nps.gov/nr/listings/20120629.htm.
[xxvii] “Corrections & Clarifications,” Rochester Democrat & Chronicle (Rochester, N.Y.), 28 Dec. 2007, A2, ProQuest Document ID: 441986157s; Meaghan M. McDermott, “Despite Parish’s Closure, A Tradition is Renewed,” Rochester Democrat & Chronicle (Rochester, N.Y.), 27 Dec. 2007, B1, ProQuest Document ID: 441985552; Meaghan A. McDermott, “Nativity Scene Has New Life,” Rochester Democrat & Chronicle (Rochester, N.Y.), 31 Dec. 2008, B3, ProQuest Document ID: 442068891.
[xxviii] Gorman, interview with Br. Antonios.
[xxix] Gorman, interview with Br. Antonios.
[xxx] Flyer for Fr. Mikhail Ibrahim Event [“FrMikhail_Mar26-2011event.pdf”], St. Shenouda Coptic Orthodox Monastery of Henrietta, N.Y. (March 26, 2011), Internet Archive Wayback Machine, https://web.archive.org/web/20180417181635/http://www.michellabs.com/joomla/images/events/FrMikhail_Mar26-2011event.pdf.
[xxxi] Meaghan M. McDermott, “Former Parishioners Renew Fond Memories,” Rochester Democrat & Chronicle (Rochester, N.Y.), 27 Jun. 2011, ProQuest Document ID: 873715395.
[xxxii] Gorman, interview with Br. Antonios; “Retreat Information,” St. Shenouda the Archimandrite Monastery (Henrietta, N.Y.), Internet Archive Wayback Machine, captured 21 Apr. 2014, acc. 17 Apr. 2018, https://web.archive.org/web/20140422113913/http://www.michellabs.com:80/joomla/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=82&Itemid=10&lang=en; “Services Schedule,” St. Shenouda the Archimandrite Monastery (Henrietta, N.Y.), Internet Archive Wayback Machine, captured 21 Apr. 2014, acc. 17 Apr. 2018, https://web.archive.org/web/20140422113847/http://www.michellabs.com:80/joomla/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=114&Itemid=20&lang=en.
[xxxiii] Mark Hare noted in 2008 that Fr. Shenouda and Br. Antonios were the only clergy onsite [“Faith”].
[xxxiv] “Church Rites,” St. Shenouda the Archimandrite Monastery (Henrietta, N.Y.), Internet Archive Wayback Machine, captured 22 Apr. 2014, acc. 17 Apr. 2018, https://web.archive.org/web/20140422113928/http://www.michellabs.com:80/joomla/index.php?option=com_content&view=section&id=9&Itemid=87&lang=en; Gorman, interview with Br. Antonios; “Old Bohairic Pronunciation,” St. Shenouda the Archimandrite Monastery (Henrietta, N.Y.), Internet Archive Wayback Machine, captured 6 Apr. 2017, acc. 17 Apr. 2018, https://web.archive.org/web/20170406155256/http://michellabs.com/joomla/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=37&Itemid=31&lang=en.