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Working Hard to Build Community

The lay men and women of this parish brought it to life and sustain it. In turn, it enlivens and sustains them.

text and photos by Joan Tedeschi

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The Coptic Catholics of New York and New Jersey are a family united by their faith and their Egyptian heritage. They have created a loving community centered around Resurrection Church in Brooklyn. Some have lived in the United States for 20 years; others have only recently arrived.

When they founded the community in 1974, they first worshipped in each other’s homes or in borrowed churches. Finally, in 1985, they bought this 100-year-old church for $150,000. They raised the money among themselves. They did all the renovation and repair in their spare time, and they still continue to work on the building. There were no pews, so they built benches. Adapting the former Roman Catholic St. Stanislaus Church to serve their traditions also meant constructing the traditional iconostasis to divide the sanctuary from the body of the church. More recently Ezzat Feltes and Youssef F. Youssef, two of the original members, installed speakers in the basement after the morning Liturgy, social hour, and Sunday school.

Youssef started the Coptic Catholic community after living in America for a few years. During that time he attended Coptic Orthodox churches. When it became clear that the Orthodox church would not accept Catholics unless they were re-baptised, Youssef decided he wanted a place where Catholics could worship on their own. He sees the name Resurrection as especially appropriate since they are “rising as a community.”

Youssef left Egypt in 1971 at the age of 35 with hopes for a better life in this country. He and his wife of one month, Marcelle, worked hard when they arrived. They now have four children who attend the Sunday school of the parish. Youssef envisions an even brighter future for them: “The second generation will have more opportunity than we did,” he says.

But the community is also concerned that the next generation keep alive their religion and traditions. “I have to teach them our customs,” says Youssef’s sister-in-law, Jacqueline, referring to her three children. They too come to Resurrection for Sunday school, where Jacqueline plays the piano. Youssef’s sister, Mary Gabriel, and her husband Fawzi come to Resurrection too. “The community gives me support. I can keep in touch,” he says.

Another member expresses the importance of this community for the individuals who comprise it: “Any time you find someone who speaks your language, you feel at home. If you have a problem, you can talk about it in your own language,” says Alex Eskandar. He is comfortable in English and Arabic because he has lived here since 1979 and received a master’s degree in business from an American school. For him, too, “it was hard in the beginning to start a business – first the language, then the culture.” Today he says he works about 120 hours a week for his own businesses and as a manager of a continental restaurant in Brooklyn.

Marriages have expanded the Resurrection community to Cubans and Filipinos. They are at home here even if they don’t understand Arabic.

Their feeling shows the nature of this community. “We are like one family,” explains Isabelle Francis, who makes the bread – korban, in Arabic – for the Mass and takes care of donations, sewing, and decorating.

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Tags: Egypt United States Coptic Catholic Church