Corrections or additions?
Christmas’s Coptic Encore
In most neighborhoods, the outward signs of Christmas
have already all but disappeared. Some light displays still brighten
the nights, and a few diehards still hold onto their trees until the
official Twelfth Day of Christmas — but for most people who
the holiday, Christmas is pretty much over for another year. Yet for
Orthodox Christian communities the world over, Christmas actually
arrives quietly this week; and for the congregation of St. Mary Coptic
Orthodox Church in East Brunswick, the Christmas Eve services on
January 6, take on a special significance. This is the first Christmas
celebration to include their new community center and chapel.
In this era of multi-cultural awareness, it’s surprising that so
is commonly known or heard about the Eastern Orthodox churches in
general or the Coptic Orthodox church in particular. Today central
New Jersey boasts a growing Coptic population — part of the more
than 1 million immigrant Copts living in countries outside of Egypt.
St. Mary’s has more than 600 active families in its parish, and St.
Mina’s in Holmdel represents an additional 400 families. And the joy
that infuses their deeply spiritual services for Christmas may be
a healing antidote for a "holy day" that seems overwhelmed
these days with an odd secular panache and manic consumerism.
The word "Copt" comes from the Greek word "Aigyptos,"
a Greek interpretation of "Hikaptah," one of the names for
Memphis, the first capital of Ancient Egypt. The term "Coptic"
is today to describe Egyptian Christians, and the unique art and
forms created as an expression of that faith. It is also the name
for Egypt’s ancient language script. The Coptic Orthodox church, based
on the teachings of Saint Mark, author of the first canonical gospel
in the New Testament, is one of the oldest of Christian traditions.
By sometime around 50 A.D., Mark had established a Christian
in Egypt which has survived centuries of persecution and ostracism
with its rituals and spiritual traditions intact. Today Copts are
well integrated into modern-day Egypt, representing just over 15
of the total population.
In staying true to their highly-ritualized Coptic liturgies, Copts
have maintained ancient customs — such as the separation of men
and women in church — which may raise a modern eyebrow or two.
At the same time, for almost 2,000 years, the church has been
successful in practicing doctrines that emphasize prayer, faith, and
individual choice. "With my religion, it doesn’t matter so much
which church I go to, because the most important thing I do there
is pray," says Malak Morgan, the Plainsboro architect who
the final drawings for the 23,000 square foot addition to St. Mary’s
church and a member of St. Mary’s.
It is clear, though, that the church plays an important part in her
life, both spiritually and by providing a cultural oasis for Morgan
and other Copts. She talks about her own "Christmas culture
experienced when she, her husband, and two small boys first arrived
in the United States from Egypt in 1970. "I felt overwhelmed.
Christmas was so commercial here," she says. "I’d go anywhere
— supermarket, shopping mall — and hear `Jingle bells, jingle
bells . . .’ all the time. It’s still all the same. It drives you
crazy because there’s no meaning in it.
"In Egypt," she says, "Christmas is always a very holy
day. Everyone dresses in white, as a symbol of our great joy about
the birth of Jesus." She explains that the Coptic religion
fasting during the 40 days of Advent leading up to Christmas. No
products of any type can be consumed during this time, including meat,
milk, poultry, eggs, or butter — although fish can be eaten.
on Christmas Eve we go to church for midnight mass and afterwards
the family gathers at home and has a dinner of traditional foods that
usually includes a turkey and special pastries. — And that’s it.
Gifts weren’t exchanged. Christmas for us was always an extremely
happy, holy day. "
Morgan’s early memories are rooted in Cairo where she grew up with
an older sister and a younger brother (who, like her, is a practicing
architect). Her father, an engineer, encouraged the education of his
daughters at a time when it was not the norm in Egypt, but it was
her mother who provided the emotional support and guidance to the
family. "She was a wonderful woman," Morgan says. "She
was very dedicated to her children, and very spiritual — although
not strict about observing traditional religious customs. I was
to those customs by the rest of my extended family."
As a child, Morgan attended the Lysee Francaise of Cairo. The rigorous
French curriculum, and three years at the Lysee’s School of Fine Art
proved invaluable when Morgan entered the School of Architecture,
University of Cairo (class of 1958) at a time when few women were
doing so. "There were 72 in my class," Morgan explains,
I was the only woman in the entire department during the five years
that I was there. I had to compete with those boys, prove that I was
capable. I had studied drawing, art, so I was more prepared than most
of them in design and rendering. Plus my school was also very, very
tough in math and physics, which also helped me to compete in
After an internship in France, Morgan returned to Cairo
where she worked for the government for ten years. It was during this
time she married her husband, an architectural and industrial designer
and artist. They had two sons. Morgan explains the decision to
to the United States: "In Egypt there is a strong civil service
requirement, which is why I worked for them for so long a time. That’s
one of the reasons we left. We felt there was little freedom to grow
professionally or otherwise."
After three years in New York ("…with two little boys we
keep up with the city," she laughs) the family moved to New
Morgan worked with CUH2A in Princeton for a time, then took another
architectural position in Manhattan. Before opening her own firm in
her Lawrenceville home in 1993, she spent eight years as director
of architecture for Prudential Reality Group.
"I learned a lot working there," she says. "In most
firms, you are on one side and the owner is on the other side. You
never really get to see exactly what the owner wants. Working at
I got to work directly with the owner, a developer. Everything was
business with him. It gave a completely new dimension to my
perspective. You just don’t put a design to paper without considering
financing, the market, and other commercial variables."
Morgan began preliminary work for St. Mary’s in 1985. Another
was brought in after 3 years, and then Morgan was called back to
the final drawings in 1997. "Opposition from East Brunswick and
other neighboring communities caused many delays over the years,"
she says. When the community center was dedicated this past September,
however, the mayor of East Brunswick and other political and religious
luminaries were on hand to celebrate. The building was dedicated by
Pope Shenouda III, the 117th pope of Alexandria who arrived from Cairo
Morgan points out that very specific architectural considerations
are involved in the design of Coptic Orthodox churches. "When
building these churches, the longer axis of the church must run from
east to west," she says. "The church’s orientation — with
the altar as the main focal point — is always towards the east,
so that the congregation enters from the west, and sits facing east
at all times." The design of the church is symbolically related
to the shape of an ship, seen as a symbol of both salvation and
The traditional bell towers (added to the original church building
during the recent expansion) represent the sails of the ship from
which lookouts could direct the ship to safe harbor.
A tour of St. Mary’s highlights other traditional
Doorways in the church and chapel are arched. Men and boys sit on
the north side of the church (or the priest’s right when he faces
the congregation), women and children on the south. The baptistery,
a separate room with a mosaic wall, is behind the men’s section. In
back of the women’s section, is a good-sized "crying room"
with a two-way mirror facing the altar for women with infants and
toddlers. A large box of clean, freshly pressed scarves and mantles
is situated by the women’s section since they must cover their heads
during mass. The beautiful iconostasis — a wooden altar piece
richly painted with icons and scenes from the New Testament —
separates the three altars (men and women receive communion at
altars) from the main church. Seats for the deacons are set on the
small, raised section several steps below and in front of the main
The rites and the liturgy used in the Coptic tradition date from the
third century, and very little has changed, including the length of
the service, which is three hours. "All parts of the liturgy are
chanted, first by the priest, then echoed by the deacons, and then
the people respond," says Morgan. "Today the liturgy is
in three languages, English, Coptic, and Arabic."
Morgan designed the three-floor addition to extend gracefully from
the church with a central hub just beyond the chapel. The Pope
III Community Center includes a large, light-filled chapel, a
hall with a stage, a large kitchen, Sunday school classrooms, offices
for the three priests, meeting rooms, a bookstore, rooms for the youth
groups, and the Holy Bread room where bread for Holy Communion is
prepared. The top floor houses an apartment where visiting dignitaries
The Holy Bread room is an unexpected and remarkable space, complete
with bakery-sized bread mixers, ovens, and massive wooden surfaces
for kneading the round loaves. Morgan explains that the baker must
be a man. He begins baking in the wee hours of the morning before
a mass is to be said, reciting the Psalms throughout the entire
In addition to the communion bread, he also bakes smaller loaves that
are sold to parishioners for a dollar a loaf. "In a way, the
makes the bread a very spiritual thing," says Morgan. "When
people eat this bread at home — it’s really sort of a blessing
from the church."
With the completion of Phase I, St. Mary’s now looks forward to a
more modest Phase II expansion of the main body of the church. Morgan
adds that the priests are also hoping to pursue Phase III, which would
involve painting and further decorating the church in the Coptic
In the meanwhile, two exuberant women from the parish are decorating
the reception hall with wreaths and lights. They explain that the
church is offering a "Picture with Santa Claus" event for
the children and families.
Morgan says, "We continue with our own Christmas traditions, but
there comes a time — even when our own boys were little —
when most children want, more than anything, to belong. They didn’t
want to be different from the other children. So we decorate a tree,
we buy presents. Still, I think that every foreign child reaches an
age when they are shocked to realize that they really are different,
that they’re truly caught between two cultures, and then their
begins." And parents can only hope that some of the peace and
joy they are sure to experience this Coptic Christmas Eve remain.
— Tricia Fagan
Brunswick. Christmas Eve service, 732-297-9882. Singing of traditional
hymns starts at 5:30 p.m. Plan to arrive at 7:30 p.m. Thursday,
January 6, at 8 p.m.
Directions: from Route 18 North take Tice’s Lane to Washington Avenue.
Turn right at the light, take the first left and follow curvy road
to the end, then left onto Riva Avenue.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.