Congregation Faces Obstacles In Bid For New Church

Posted: February 22, 1990

The Rev. Samuel Thabet Samuel shares his office with a red baptismal font large enough for full-body immersion.

That is just one example why St. George Coptic Orthodox Church of Greater Philadelphia, in Conshohocken, wants to build a new church in Whitemarsh Township.

The church is seeking to have 2 1/2 acres at 2004 Spring Mill Rd. rezoned

from residential to institutional so it can build a $500,000 church. The proposed 44-by-75-foot building would seat 200.

The quest for a new church has been frustrating, Father Samuel said. Since May, church officials have been before township boards five times and have been sent back to the drawing board for various reasons. The township is now reviewing church studies on storm drainage, traffic, zoning impact and sewage capacity.

Neighborhood opposition presents another possible obstacle to approval. About 20 residents attended a Jan. 23 Whitemarsh Planning Commission meeting, most to oppose the plan. Several said a church would harm the residential character of the neighborhood.

In an interview Feb. 13, Father Samuel said the church, with only 75

families as members from throughout the Delaware Valley, would use the building only two days a week - for Saturday night vespers and on Sunday for services from 9 a.m. until noon and Sunday school following the Sunday service.

Since church members come from a large geographical area, only about three

families attend Saturday vespers, Father Samuel said. "It would never disturb the neighborhood," he said.

The 40-year-old bearded priest, wearing a long, black cassock and black hat, talked about the needs of his church. The two-story stucco building at 100 W. Third Ave. dates to the Civil War and is drafty and expensive to heat, he said.

The sanctuary has only 10 pews and folding chairs line every available space. Colorful paintings of the saints, including St. George slaying a dragon, line the walls.

St. George is the only Coptic Orthodox Church in the Philadelphia area and one of 38 in the United States, Father Samuel said. The word "Copt" is Greek for Egyptian. Father Samuel and his wife, Ebtesam, are natives of Alexandria, Egypt.

The Coptic Orthodox Church is one of the oldest apostolic churches in the world, according to church literature. It was founded by St. Mark the Evangelist in Alexandria in A. D. 61. After centuries of being confined to Egypt, the Sudan and Ethiopia, the church has spread not only to the United States but elsewhere in Africa and to Asia, Europe and Australia as well. About six million members live in Egypt, Father Samuel said.

The church is headed by Pope Shenouda III, who is believed to be the 117th successor of St. Mark. In matters of faith, Coptic Christians hold the same beliefs as Roman Catholics, including belief in the Trinity and the seven sacraments. The two faiths differ in some dogmas and rituals as well as in their choice of spiritual leader.

The local Coptic church was establised in 1969 and was incorporated in May 1973, Father Samuel said. Several Coptic orthodox priests served the congregation in churches of other denominations until 1980, when the Conshohocken building was purchased. Pope Shenouda assigned Father Samuel to head that church in September 1983, and Father Samuel and his wife and two children left Egypt and moved to Roxborough.

"You have two choices when the Pope tells you to go," Father Samuel said jokingly. "You go or you go."

Once a month, Father Samuel travels to Atlantic City to hold services for about 25 Coptic Christian families who have no church there. On some holy days, they attend services in Conshohocken, he said.

In Conshohocken, the church's Sunday school, with an enrollment of about 100 children, is crowded. The small classrooms are just outside Father Samuel's office. One of them is wide open, except for a partition.

"We are very crowded on Sundays," Father Samuel said. "In a new building we would not have to adjust to what we have. We could build what we need."

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