While the Coptic Orthodox church is amongst the oldest Christian religions in the world, a formal process of educating the younger generation only began in the early 20th century. The first Coptic Sunday School programme began in the early 1900s. The Saint-Archdeacon at the centre of this was Habib Girgis. Born in 1876 in Cairo, Habib was the eldest of four children.
An inspiring servant, Habib Girgis played a critical role in the education of Coptic Orthodox matters. He established a Clerical School to encourage students to become inspired by the word of God and contribute to the service. Amongst his most notable contributions to the service, was his founding of the Sunday School movement. His objective was to raise a generation that are attached to their Church, their culture and most importantly, their God (Nader Habib, Ahram Online, 2019). His passion for “reform and enlightenment” was like no other (Rami Atta).
In 1892, Habib Girgis graduated from the Greater Coptic School in Cairo, established by Pope Kyrillos IV. He became inspired to continue his studies and enrolled in the Clerical School the following year. He was passionate and became educated reading books found in the Patriarchal library, and therefore was appointed to teach Christian studies to the new students in 1898, before his formal graduation. Pope Kyrillos V appointed Girgis as the headmaster of the Clerical School in 1918. He was responsible for bringing new teachers to the school and introduced new subjects that could prepare the next generation of Coptic clergy. Habib Girgis not only began the Sunday School Movement for religious education of the youth but also designed Sunday School curriculums.
He was also responsible for founding the Church of the Virgin Mary for students of the Clerical School in Mahmasha in 1931. The Church and Clerical School grew in both attendance and service, where Pope Shenouda III was amongst the noble graduates. Habib Girgis became the first professor of theology and homiletics in the seminary.
His perseverance resulted in the Minister of Education in Egypt, Al-Sanhouri Pasha, to register the Clerical School as an approved institute of higher education. Habib Girgis profoundly believed in the importance of the younger generation growing up in accordance with Orthodox principles, and recognising their religious duties. St. Girgis sought the help of young, educated Copts to teach children and such service flourished over time. He recognised the lack of harmony in how our children are taught and the Orthodox principles they are familiar with. His goal was to strengthen the children mentally, physically, spiritually and socially, emphasising that they belong to a Church community. Overtime, these Sunday school classes became a part of every Church in Egypt. He was appointed by the Patriarch to become the first Supreme Head of Sunday School and its General Committee. In 1941, he organised the first Sunday Teacher Conference where 400 teachers attended, thus allowing the service to flourish with God’s grace.
He served with and was appreciated by many clergy members, including patriarchs: H.H. Pope Kyrillos V, H.H. Pope Yohannes XIX, H.H. Pope Makarius III, and H.H. Pope Yuosab II. His writings varied from church history to comparative theology and amongst the most famous of his books include: ‘The Seven Sacraments of the Church’, ‘The Orthodox Rock’ ‘St. Mark the Evangelist’, ‘A Practical Means for Coptic Reformation: Hopes and Dreams to be Fulfilled in 10 Years’, and the ‘Coptic Orthodox Clerical School, Between Past and Present’. He also wrote the books: ‘Summary of Faith Fundamentals’, ‘Orthodox Christian Principles’ and ‘Precious Treasure of Holy History’ for both government and Coptic elementary and secondary schools. Along with books, St. Girgis wrote many spiritual hymns and melodies, established several charities that catered to the religious, spiritual, social and health needs of the needy and published the first Coptic magazine ‘al-Karma’.
The beloved Archdeacon passed away on the 21st of August, 1951, at the age of 75. His memory lives on, and he will always be remembered as the pioneer of Coptic education and a truly inspirational servant with a love for his Church. Archdeacon Habib Girgis was canonised a Saint by the Coptic Orthodox Church in 2013.
Several resources are available for us to learn more about St. Habib Girgis including ‘A Vineyard of Red Wine’, by Rami Atta and ‘Habib Girgis: Coptic Orthodox Educator and a Light in the Darkness’ by Bishop Suriel.