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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

to officiate.

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

can stay.

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

St. Mary Coptic Orthodox Church, 433 Riva Avenue, East

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.

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