On Thursday 9 December, 2010 I visited the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia, PA. It is approximately two hours away by car from the Coptic Archdiocese in Cedar Grove, NJ. A dear friend, Joseph Morcos graciously agreed to drive and spend the day with me. We agreed to leave at 6:30 a.m. to arrive by 8:30 a.m., which is the time the Society opens. I wanted to spend as much time there as possible.
It was an extremely cold morning, in fact it was about 20 degrees! (that's Fahrenheit for you Aussies reading this that means minus 6 degrees celsius!) The car battery would not start since the car was not in a garage and the cold weather affected it. This delayed us for about an hour, but by the grace of God we finally arrived at the Presbyterian Historical Society at around 10 a.m.
I am sure you are all wondering, "Why is a Coptic bishop so interested in visiting such a place so early in the morning on a cold winter's day that is a two hour drive away?" The answer is simple, "Archdeacon Habib Jirjis!" I am sure your next question would be, "What has such a Society got to do with Habib Jirjis?" Well, the US Presbyterian Church began a mission in Egypt in 1854. Their aims were to educate, preach and convert Muslims to Christianity. They were not successful in converting many Muslims and so they turned their attention to the Copts, whom they saw as following an "archaic faith," who were in need to be "saved" from their "old ways" and be converted to Protestantism. The Coptic church was going through many struggles at the time and there was a lack of theologians and religious educators in the church and so the Presbyterians were successful to some extent in converting some Copts.
There greatest success was in education and in the establishment of fine schools built upon solid educational principles and in establishing hospitals and in social welfare. So, the reason for my visit was to search the archives of this Society in Philadelphia for relevant material to my research. Material concerning education, curriculum, communications with Copts or even with Habib Jirjis. Relevant information on their mission in Egypt and their educational philosophy and how this affected Coptic education in Egypt.
I must say that I was most impressed by the facilities which serve as the archives for the Presbyterian Church in the USA. They have nine full time archivists and an annual budget of $2.1 million!!! Eighty percent of this budget is provided by their church and another twenty percent coming form donations and fundraising activities. The staff were polite and extremely helpful and very knowledgeable of their collections. It is very well organised and has a wealth of information about Egypt and their mission since 1854. This includes books, pamphlets, film, photographs, newsletters, hand written notes from missionaries and many reels of microfilm.
I thought to myself, I pray, hope and dream that one day I may see in the Coptic Church such a center in which we can preserve our rich archives of the Coptic church and make it available to researchers from all over the world and especially for our own community to benefit from and learn about our history. It also made me think about how things are organised in my diocese and for the need and importance of archiving all aspects of the ministry. This has always been something in my mind to have such a section in our Theological College Library. Certainly when we build the main library in the future there will be an archival section. Perhaps a few decades down the track there may be a need for a similar society to be established in Australia for the Copts and their history in that part of the world.
The day passed by very quickly and I did not even scratch the surface of discovery of the wealth of material available on the mission to Egypt. I was able to photocopy some useful material. I found for example the speeches given at the Coptic Congress held at Assiut on March 6-8, 1911. I also discovered the Program of Studies for the American Mission Schools for girls in Egypt published in 1921. I also found a booklet titled, "Theological Seminary American Mission, Cairo, Egypt. 1863-1913." There were also several journal articles on the work of the Presbyterians in Egypt.
I think I will need to come back and spend several days to sift through the microfilms for useful information for my research. It was overall a very fruitful experience and a most enjoyable day exploring how a church documents its work in a foreign country like Egypt. If any one lives in the area it is worthwhile making the trip and learning a much of how the Presbyterians established their mission and schools in Egypt.