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Archdeacon Habeeb Guirguis

The Sunday School movement was a tiny seed planted and watered by men and women of faith, grew by the Almighty till it became a great tree giving fruit and shelter to countless many. Behind this institution lay a great army of selfless workers who were moved by faith and love for their church to arise and build with all the support and encouragement of the church leadership.

The most notable of the lay leaders of that age was Archdeacon Habeeb Guirguis, who was so outstanding not only because of his momentous deeds, but also because of the number of brilliant disciples he left behind, who followed his path and also wrote at length about his achievements since his death in 1951.

Early Years

Habeeb Guirguis was born in Cairo in 1876, his father hailed from the upper Egyptian town of Tema. He was only four years old when his father died, and his mother brought him up on Christian principles and nurtured his love of the church since his early childhood. If not for his upbringing, he would unlikely have had such burning love for his church and he would not have fought so hard to advance its cause.

He was ordained a deacon and remained at the side of Pope Kirollos V throughout his patriarchate. In July 1893, the Pope thought of establishing a theological college which would provide the opportunity of learning for those called to become servants of the altar. Naturally the establishment of such an institution required funds. For this the Pope chose his disciple, the bright young deacon, Habeeb Guirguis, who was seventeen years of age at the time, to tour the country in order to ask those who love their church to give what they can in order to establish the college.

The young deacon travelled the land, visiting church after another, preaching and enthusing the people about building the theological college, proving to all the importance of such an institution. He returned at the end of the trip with the considerable sum of eleven thousand pounds, half of which was donated by the bishops and the other half by the congregations. With that effort, the Pope was able to buy a large house in an area called Mahmasha, near the suburb of Shoubra which became house for the fledgling college.

Habeeb Guirguis was the first of twelve applicants who sought to become its first graduates. Because of his exceptional aptitude, and also due to a lack of eligible teachers, Habeeb was also asked to teach and thus he was both a student and a teacher in the college at the same time. On the 17th of March 1898, upon graduating from the college, Habeeb was appointed Master of Scripture at the college. And because of the Pope's great admiration of his talents, he also appointed him as a lay preacher.

That very year, Habeeb Guirguis started serving his church on two fronts, one as a teacher in the Theological College and the other as a traveling lay preacher. He was a truly gifted preacher, who possessed a strong voice, wide-ranging knowledge and, more importantly, a spirit that greatly affected his listeners. It is essential to note at this juncture that Habeeb Guirguis' life was one living sermon as witnessed by all his contemporaries. 

Serving - Teaching at the College

With his usual zeal, Habeeb proceeded to buy most available land and houses around the college until he managed to amalgamate an area of more than 5000 square meters. He once convinced an elderly neighbour to will 6 acres as a gift to the college and he proceeded to purchase 365 acres of land to add to the college estate outside the upper Egyptian town of el-Menia.

Habeeb Guirguis became the principal of the college in 1918, the year in which its previous principal, Youssef Mankarious departed this world. Pope Kirollos found no better than Habeeb Guirguis to take over. Habeeb, for 33 years, directed the collage with great capability. Habeeb Guirguis turned the college into a new beacon of the orthodox faith and protected it from all foreign influences.

Habeeb Guirguis worked very hard to bring the Coptic public to realize the importance of preserving the orthodox faith and finding capable and enlightened priests to nurture it. He met repeatedly with his associates in order to lay the foundation for the establishment of the college's "night school" for university graduates. The establishment of the night school was instrumental in gaining recognition for the college by the Egyptian Education Ministry as a college of Higher Education. That night school attracted many bright young graduates to join it, including a notable servant and Arts graduate called Nazeer Gayed who later became H.H. Pope Shenouda III.

It became obvious to Habeeb Guirguis that the college must have its own church so that its students may attend prayers and liturgies and practice preaching. He bought a piece of land for that purpose and the first mass was celebrated in the new church by Pope Yoannes 19th on the 6th of March 1931.

Serving - Sunday School

After only a few years of preaching, Habeeb Guirguis realized that a foundation had to be firstly laid with the children. The future generations of the church had to be taught from an early age so that Orthodox Christian values would permeate the depths of their personality and life. At this point we may catch a glimpse of one of the most monumental of Habeeb's achievements. The achievement in question was the founding of the Coptic Sunday School. He planted a seed and watered it, and the Lord gave increases so that the small seed became a giant tree full of fruit.

Before he became the head of renowned Theological Seminary, Habib Girgis felt that preaching and adult education were not sufficient enough for the advancement of the Coptic Orthodox Church.  He founded Sunday School in the year 1900, when he was 24 years of age, before there were even Egyptian public schools. He started by teaching the children in some Cairo churches and Coptic School halls. The increase in the number of children encouraged him greatly, and he sought the help of others who shared his love for the church and zeal to protect its teachings.

The Lord blessed this work so much that by 1908 Habeeb Guirguis organized a Central Committee to set the study curriculum and oversee the expanding work in that new fertile field, and also to ascertain the continued harmony of all who work in it. The number of the branches multiplied and extended from the north of the country to the far south. And by 1941 the increase was such that a conference was held for Cairo's Sunday School servants and was attended by around 500 servants.

Sunday School was so popular, thanks to the efforts of its founder and his co-workers, that it became an important organ of the living church, and it remained throughout the years a living testimony for Christ and the teachings of His orthodox church in young hearts and minds. His co-workers in the movement in turn shouldered the responsibility of continuing the march of the church out of the darkness to emerge back into the Christian world as a leading light, as it was in its golden age. Some of those servants, including the talented young poet and writer Nazeer Gayed, launched a very influential magazine in 1947 which was simply called "Sunday School." By the grace of God, the magazine still publishes till this day after 45 years.

 

 

Expanding Education

In 1907 the Copts pleaded with the Ministry of Education to introduce Christian education to government schools. The minister finally agreed on the condition that the government would not incur any expense in providing teachers or curricula. The Pope chose his beloved Habeeb Guirguis for this important task, who dedicated all his efforts to prepare a book in three parts entitled “A Summary of the Origins of Faith", published in 1908. The next step was to extend Christian education from primary to secondary schools. By 1927 he had written eight new books, four for primary schools and four for secondary schools.

Habeeb put his skills as a poet at work and wrote a book of hymns he called "Spiritual hymns and songs." Some of these hymns pointed to the glories of the Coptic church, like the famous "My Coptic Church, the church of God" (Kanisati-el-Keptia, kanisat-ulElah), which is well known till this day.

He translated many religious books from foreign languages to Arabic and published El-Karma periodical, to spread the facts of the faith in a positive way. He published many books, among them were: The Seven Sacraments of the Church, The Consoler of the Faithful, The Mystery of Piety, and many others. He taught and nurtured many generations of clergymen who flourished in the church and filled it with their sermons and religious publications.

Everlasting Remembrance

As he advanced in years and his health deteriorated, his house became full of his many faithful disciples. In a rare display of gratitude and love, they surrounded the bed to which he was confined, joining him in prayer and singing the hymns that he himself composed. When his spirit was finally released on the 22nd of August 1951, the news was heralded to the far corners of Egypt and thousands attended his funeral; members of the clergy, men and women of the various societies, Sunday School servants and the people at large, all came to express their gratitude towards the man who dedicated all his days to the service of the church.

In a memorial service held in his honour on the 28th of September 1951, many of his disciples stood up to express their deep feelings and respect for this great man. During this event, the relatively young poet Nazeer Gayed (H.H. Pope Shenouda III) stood to eulogize his beloved teacher with a most beautiful poem...

Such was your piety

Your faith and your love

Here is your world

All thorns and crucifixion

But who are you?

Are you a messenger?

For you are brighter than a messenger

You are the throbbing heart

The heart embracing a whole nation

A deep spring of compassion and charitable elation

O great saint!

What a strength without violence

Meekness without weakness

Nobility of temperament

Ever ready to forgive offenses

A father on whose chest we all crawled.

This giant of a man, who lived to the age of seventy-five, dedicated his whole life to the service of his church, even refusing marriage in order to channel time and many talents to its service. His vision was to see the resurrection of the glories of the church and he went about the task with unwavering love and enthusiasm. The main traits of his service were his perfection and comprehensiveness, and the combination of hard work with vision. In that he achieved the mark of greatness as stated by our Lord Jesus Christ, “...he who does (these commandments) and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of Heaven...”

Archdeacon Habeeb Guirguis was a most notable Archdeacons of the church since St. Stephen the Martyr. He still inspires all theology students, Sunday School servants and generations of Christians to come.

 


References:

The Renaissance of Coptic Orthodox Church after long years of Darkness by OCP (http://theorthodoxchurch.info/blog/articles/2010/06/the-renaissance-of-coptic-orthodox-church-after-long-years-of-darkness/)

Habib Girgis – Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Habib_Girgis)

Church Sign


أعلّمك وأرشدك الطريق التي تسلكها. انصحك.عيني عليك
مز 32: 8


I will instruct you and teach you in the way
you should go; I will guide you with My eye.
Ps. 32: 8



يا إله الفضائل أملنا اليك وأرنا وجهك فنخلص!ـ
القديس أغسطينوس



“Turn us again, O Lord God of Hosts, cause
thy face to shine; and we shall be saved"
(St. Augustine)


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