Faith community keeps growing

Egyptian church strengthening ties to city

NASHUA – Sherine Iskander and her family used to attend liturgy at the St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church in Natick, Massachusetts, close to an hour’s drive from her Bedford home.

Now, they attend services at St. Mary and Archangel Michael Church in Nashua, one of the more than 200 families in the burgeoning faith community.

“It’s a beautiful church – it’s home,” Iskander said.

St. Mary and Archangel Michael draws people, mostly Egyptian immigrants, from four New England states for its parish community, said the Rev. Kyrillos Gobran.

“As far as Derry, Vermont, or Maine,” Gobran said.

The Coptic Orthodox Church has five parishes in Massachusetts, with the mother church in Natick. Gobran said as the parish community in Natick grew, they realized there were many people coming from the southern New Hampshire and northern Massachusetts region. About that time, the opportunity to buy the former St. Francis Church on Chandler Street presented itself.

The gothic-style Roman Catholic church structure was built in the 1898 for the then-growing population of French-Canadian Catholics who were immigrating to Nashua. Now, the building serves then new faith community of immigrants.

Iskander said most of the people in the parish are first generation immigrants, with relatives still in Egypt. Attending services at St. Mary and Archangel Michael helps keep the link to their home country alive.

“We feel we’re connecting with people,” she said.

The Coptic faith is similar to other Orthodox churches in practice, with Christmas and Easter celebrations scheduled for different days that then typical Christian calendar. Christmas is celebrated on Jan. 7, for example, Iskander said. This difference can be difficult on children trying to adapt to a new life in America. Being able to celebrate with other Coptics makes a big difference, she said.

“It’s nice for the kids to feel there are other people like them,” she said.

Gobran wants to see more connections made between the church and the greater Nashua community. The church is working with an architect to determine areas of need for planned renovations for the property. The roof is currently being repaired, he said.

The property was added to the New Hampshire State Register of Historic Places last year, and the church received a state Land and Community Heritage Investment Program grant for $390,000 to get the work started.

Part of the planned renovations involves turning the adjacent convent into a youth center, as well as a community center that can offer programs. Gobran wants to work with city officials to determine the best fit for the community, such as an English as a Second Language class or senior day care, he said.

“We want to see what the need is,” he said.

The community is also connecting with Nashua through the upcoming Egyptian Festival, set for Sept. 7-9. Iskander said there will be food, music, games for children, as well as Egyptian and Coptic goods for sale. People will also be able to tour the church and learn more about the Coptic faith.

Damien Fisher can be reached at 594-1245 or or @Telegraph_DF.