Rest in the Lord, Father Marcos. A teacher in the Clerical College in Cairo, he was ordained as the first Coptic priest for the whole of North America in 1964. He is a pillar of the Coptic Church in Canada and father to so many. His legacy shines brightly.
Father Morcos’ compassion, grace, and unwavering love made St. Mark’s church home when my family first arrived in Toronto. He met me with generous guidance and encouragement when I, then an awkward master’s student, visited him in his office seeking records on the start of the Church service in Canada. I could not have completed my doctoral dissertation without our many hours together. Father Marcos and Tasoni Susan welcomed me into their home, confided so many delightful stories, and inspired me with their every word.
Born Wagdi Elias Abdel Massieh in Sohag, he immigrated to Cairo in the 1950s to attend university. He joined the Giza church and travelled across the country as a youth leader for Sunday school programming. With the support of his confessor father Makary al-Suriani, he received an exchange scholarship in 1958 to attend Princeton’s undergraduate ethnomusicology program. He then completed a Bachelor of Divinity and a Master’s degree in Religious Education at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut before joining Iliff School of Theology as a special student in Denver, Colorado. Wagdi befriended and prayed with Coptic immigrants scattered across US cities. On his return to Cairo in 1962, he was appointed as a teacher in the Clerical College under the newly ordained Bishop Shenouda. Bishop Samuel (formerly father Makary)—who had just returned in November 1963 from the inaugural meeting of the Coptic Association of America (CAA)—approached Wagdi and told him that he was the candidate selected by the Church and the CAA to be ordained for immigrants demanding a priest.
On a cold, snowy day in December 2016, I sat with Father Marcos in his home office in Toronto. He confided the trepidation he felt at taking on the hefty responsibility of being ordained for the whole of North America. Father Marcos recalled how Bishop Samuel insisted on appointing him, citing Wagdi’s spiritual education, American experience, and his service to immigrant Copts during his travels. These factors, Bishop Samuel told Wagdi, were vital to the success of any priest the Church would send. Yet Wagdi, hesitant, declined the offer. He cited his ailing father in Sohag and insisted that he was the only one capable of seeing to his parents’ needs. The Bishop replied: “don’t worry, I will see to their needs personally.” When his first refusal failed, Wagdi continued to explain that he owed a pledge to Bishop Shenouda to remain in the Clerical Collage and carry out his duties faithfully. Their meeting concluded.
Bishop Samuel did not give up so easily. He arranged a meeting with Bishop Shenouda and several members of the Holy Synod. In that meeting, he spoke of the importance of ordaining a priest capable of serving the needs of immigrants living and working in a foreign environment. He explained the losses that may result if an uninformed priest is sent. Bishop Shenouda asked: “what must be done?” Bishop Samuel’s response: “Wagdi is knowledgeable, he should be sent.” Recounting the story, Father Marcos turned to me and said “Bishop Shenouda was never one to be fooled by pretense.” Responding to Bishop Samuel’s insistence on appointing Wagdi, Shenouda responded: “Fine, take him!”
With Bishop Shenouda’s approval, Bishop Samuel once again called Wagdi to his office. With all his excuses remedied, Wagdi declined one final time saying: “Your Grace, I am not worthy.” In response, Bishop Samuel sent Wagdi to meet with H.H. Pope Kyrillos. The Pope personally requested him to accept the offer. Wagdi could not refuse.
On the eve of the ordination in August, Bishop Samuel penned a letter to Coptic families scattered across North America. The Bishop wrote of “our most beloved son” who was to be named Father Marcos:
“…an educated Coptic priest who understands the American mentality and appreciates the needs abroad that he may visit the Copts wherever they may be in Canada or any states. His house shall be a Coptic centre where he may be on call at any time and where we may be gathered around him and feel the unity that makes us one in the body of the one Christ. This centre shall be a headquarters for those in these countries to learn of the Church and the nation and to strengthen relations between all Churches.”
Father Marcos arrived with Tasoni Susan in November 1964. At the time, he was the only priest serving a three-point parish dispersed along Toronto, Montreal and the New York/New Jersey area. His dedicated service has touched the lives of so many migrants. Memory eternal.