DALLASTOWN, Pennsylvania — The Coptic Christian community in this part of the United States is growing so fast that it may soon outgrow even this new home.
They’d already left their homes in Egypt and landed at a Catholic Church in York, Pennsylvania, coming a distance of almost 6,000 miles.
After almost two years of worshipping in downtown York, a community of 80 Egyptian Coptic Christian families has found a new home for now — this time, in Dallastown, about seven miles down the road.
Incense wafted in the air, cars were double-parked in the lot outside and shoes sat in piles here and there on a recent Saturday as about 250 people gathered for the first Coptic Orthodox service in Dallastown’s old Trinity United Methodist Church.
Previously, the Copts gathered at St. Mary’s Catholic Church of York, where they conducted their Mass on Saturday mornings to avoid interfering with St. Mary’s own services. The Copts also used St. Mary’s Sunday School building throughout the week for studies, classes and plays.
“It became evident that they kept growing,” Father Jonathan Sawicki, of St. Mary’s, said. “They grew from a couple families to 80 families, sometimes peaking to over 200 people on a Saturday morning.”
Ragaa Thabet, who moved from Egypt in 2009 with her husband, Hany Thomas, said more people are coming from Egypt every year.
“We’re looking to pray Sundays, and if we stay at St. Mary’s, they use the church Sundays,” Thabet said.
Housing two congregations under one roof became particularly tricky during Easter week when the Copts and Catholics needed to share St. Mary’s facilities on the same days, resulting in challenging parking logistics.
“Praise God, there’s two active congregations, but they need a place to call their home,” Sawicki said.
The old Trinity building, operated by Dallastown’s Bethlehem United Methodist Church since it and Trinity merged in 2002, became available after Bethlehem recently completed construction on a new auxiliary building.
After a series of visits by Thabet, various Coptic congregants, a Coptic priest from Harrisburg and finally His Grace Bishop Karas from Conshohocken, the Copts agreed to a subsidized lease to use the old Trinity building.
When Bethlehem’s Rev. Roger Mentzer announced in mid-January that the Copts would use the building, he said his congregation clapped with joy.
“We are nothing but delighted,” Mentzer said. “We are absolutely delighted that it remains a house of worship and that it is being used by a community of Christian people that is among the most persecuted Christian people in the world.”
Mentzer said though he hadn’t previously known how large the local Coptic community is, he hopes to forge a relationship with them.
“I would love to take some time in worship to interview some of them in front of our people so we understand where they have come from, what dangers they faced, what sacrifices they made on behalf of their families to come, how life in Egypt brought them to a place of crisis that they decided to leave their homeland,” Mentzer said.
Thabet said she is grateful the Copts have a building for their own use, especially because they’d so frequently used St. Mary’s cafeteria and classroom facilities. At the same time, she is concerned they will soon outgrow the old Trinity building.
The first service there was so crowded that Thabet’s husband opened a couple windows at the beginning of Mass, despite 30-degree conditions outside.
“This is temporary,” Thabet said. “It’s too small for us. It was full and not all the people came.”
Thabet said many parents work on Saturdays, which prevents some families from coming to services. She thinks even more Copts will fill up the old Trinity building if they have their own priest and can hold Sunday services.
Currently, Coptic priests travel from Harrisburg, Conshohocken and elsewhere to rotate conducting Saturday services for York’s Copts.
“Our people increase so fast — so many people are coming from Egypt,” Thabet said, adding that some Copts are coming from out of state. “We are the only group that uses this church now. This is a good place for us until we find someplace for sale in York, a bigger place.”