Pioneer of Religious Education in Modern Times
This article was written by His Holiness Pope Shenouda III and was published in Watani on 18 August 1991,to mark the 40th anniversary of the departure of Habib Girgis. Originally translated by Saad Michael Saad.
He started his life in an era that was almost void of religious education and knowledge. At the time of the establishment of the Clerical School [seminary], they could not find a religion teacher after the sickness of Hegumenos Philotheos Ibrahim. So, students remained without religion courses for three years, until Habib Girgis was chosen to teach his colleagues. In addition, there were no preachers in churches so sermons were read from printed books or manuscripts. That opened the doors for other denominations to have influence in the church. “The earth was without form, and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep,” as the Book of Genesis describes.
“Then, God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” And the light was Habib Girgis.
He was born in Cairo in 1876. While still a child, his father died in 1882. His mother brought him up in the faith and he joined the Copts Secondary School in the Klot Bek district of Cairo. He was the first student picked to enroll in the seminary when reestablished in 1893. He was appointed religion teacher there while he was a student in the final year. He was the highest-ranking graduate of the seminary’s first graduating class of 1898.
He became the first professor of theology and homiletics in the seminary. He excelled in preaching and teaching.
He found no one to teach him, so he became devoted to the seminary’s library, reading, studying, searching, summarizing, authoring, and growing. He also received mentorship from Hegumenos Philotheos Ibrahim who was advanced in age and weak health conditions.
At the time, the seminary had no specialization in teaching religious subjects. So, he taught all subjects until Simon Silides, Ragheb Atiya (Hegumenos Ibrahim Atiya) and other pioneers of that generation came.
He was a contemporary of four patriarchs: these were H.H. Pope Kyrillos V, H.H. Pope Yohannes IXX, H.H. Pope Makarius III, and H.H. Pope Yussab II. He was very appreciated by all of them, as well as by all Metropolitans, pontiffs of the church, many of whom were his disciples.
He was the one who established the seminary in the modern era: It was he who bought its land in Mahmasha, and built a building for it, very magnificent by the standards of the time. It was he who established the School for Cantors attached to the seminary. He built a church for the seminary, which is now St Mary Church in Mahmasha. He went around the country raising funds for the seminary and was able to convince his friends to donate endowments. We mention among them the philanthropist and virtuous lady Roma Athanasius. She endowed 365 acres of land.
He was appointed Principal (Dean) of the Seminary in 1918 by a letter from H.H. Pope Kyrillos V on 14 September. He continued in this capacity 33 years until his departure on the eve of St. Mary’s Feast, on 21 August 1951 at the ages of 75
He taught in every venue and became the symbol of education in his generation and a mentor to all teachers.
He established many societies. Because there were not many churches, the importance of societies as platforms for preaching was obvious. Societies also provided social services and caring for the poor and orphans. Besides, it was these societies that established churches later on which was before 1959, when the law separating churches and societies was enacted.
Society of al-Nasha’a [Upbringing] in Haret al-Sakkayeen was one of the famous societies in which he preached.
He once delivered a famous sermon there in the presence of Pope Kyrillos V, who remained standing during the one-hour long sermon, expressing happiness for Habib and frequently blessing him with the sign of the cross.
He also preached in al-Iman [Faith] Coptic Society. He was the founder of that society and transferred it to al-Faggala. He was also the founder of al-Mahaba [Love] Society for Childhood Education. He was an active member in al-Khaireya [Benevolent] Coptic Society and was instrumental in establishing Friends of the Holy Bible Society.
From within the seminary he established societies for preaching including the Society of Church Soldiers, Society for Propagation of the Word of Salvation, and the Alumni Society. These societies operated in 84 centers for the ministry of the Word. In no time, they established churches in al-Suff, al-Quanater al-Khaireya, Ain Shams, Almaza, and other locations. These became large fields of ministry for the seminary students.
In 1938, the seminary celebrated forty years since its first class graduated. The festival was attended by a great number of Metropolitans. The others sent letters or telegrams of appreciation to Professor Habib Girgis. On this occasion he published his book The Seminary Between Past and Present. In it he described the establishment of the seminary and its buildings, the dormitories, and the increase in teachers numbers in many disciplines. Besides the many courses in religion, he introduced courses in logic, philosophy, psychology, Hebrew, and Greek. He also increased emphasis on the study of languages Arabic, English, Coptic and church hymns, which was taught by al-Mu’allim Mikhail, the chief cantor of the church.
Professor Habib Girgis established Sunday Schools [in 1900] and designed its curriculum. The Seminary and Sunday Schools became one educational entity under his leadership. He became the Deputy to the Pope, who was the Supreme Head of Sunday Schools and its General Committee. He printed for it elegant handout cards with a colored image on one side and the lesson of the week on the other.
In 1946 Habib Girgis established the evening seminary for university graduates. Many leaders of Sunday Schools from the Cairo and Giza churches enrolled.
Another burden of Habib Girgis was to write the religion curriculum and books for schools. In 1909 he wrote his book, Summary of Faith Fundamentals, in three volumes for elementary schools. It was well received by teachers and students. In 1937, he wrote eight new books in a series, Orthodox Christian Principles, to suit Elementary and High school age groups. Later he wrote three books in another series, Precious Treasure of Holy History. These became the formal textbooks in both government and Coptic schools. He also communicated with authorities in the Ministry of Education to increase attention to religious education.
Habib Girgis also paid attention to journalism. He published his famous magazine, al-Karma, in 17 volumes. Its deep and powerful articles and high caliber authors distinguished the magazine. Its first issue was in 1907, and he was assisted in its authorship by: the famous lawyer Gabriel Bek al-Tukhi, the famous judge Nassif Bek al-Tukhi, Professor Takla Rizk who taught religion and science at the seminary, Professor Yassa Abdel Messieh who taught Greek and Rites and was librarian at the Coptic Museum, Professor Simon Silides who taught theology, Quossa Bek Girgis the preacher and writer, Mr Kamel Girgis, Aziz Bek Marcus, and Dawoud Bek Ghali.
It was the first magazine to published translations of Patristic literature.
It became the best Coptic magazine of its time. It published research in church canon law, science and religion, biblical studies, doctrine and theology. Each issue included a powerful spiritual sermon by the teacher Habib Girgis and it is believed the magazine was discontinued in 1931 for it became a financial burden on him.
Habib Girgis was also a poet:
He employed this gift to write religious hymns and songs that had Orthodox teaching. Some were songs for Sunday School children. These hymns were compiled in two books, Orthodox Songs and Doctrinal Hymns, and Conscience Awakening by Songs of the Young. Habib also authored an anthem for the Seminary.
Habib Girgis authored many volumes:
Beside what we already mentioned, he wrote in the topic of theology his famous book, The Seven Sacraments of the Church. In comparative theology, The Orthodox Rock; and in church history, St. Mark the Evangelist and The Life of St. Paul and St. Antony; and in spirituality, he published several books, The Mystery of Godliness, Spiritual Views of Christian Life, Comfort to the Faithful, and The Spirit of Supplications. He also wrote on his dreams for reformation his book, Practical Means for Coptic Reformation.
Habib Girgis gained great fame:
People loved Habib greatly because of his care for education in all areas, and because of his spiritual personality. In elections of the General Community Council (Majlis Milli), he received the highest number of votes in most terms.
Habib Girgis will be remembered as the pioneer of religious education in our land in modern history. He was not only a teacher, but also a school, even a university. Most importantly, he was a symbol for positive work in the church, a symbol for the love of education, a symbol for meekness, zeal and many virtues.
Our celebration of Habib Girgis’ memorial is an expression of loyalty and commitment. We shall not forget the good deeds of Habib Girgis to this entire era and us.
Habib Girgis established a strong foundation, and many built upon it. Perhaps others were able to build higher, but without his foundation, they would not have been able to build at all. He was the one who labored and all of us have entered into his labor.