Genesis of the Syriac Community in North America

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Genesis of the Syriac Community in North America

This article was originally written by His Eminence Mor Polycarpos Adib Aydin, and later updated by The American Foundation for Syriac Studies.

The presence of the Syrian Orthodox Church on American soil goes back to the late nineteenth century when religious persecution forced many faithful to leave their traditional homelands in Ottoman Turkey and emigrate to the United States and Canada.

We have no records of who the first Syriac person was to arrive on American soil, but we know of some individuals, such as Dr. Abraham K. Yoosuf, a native of Kharput, Turkey, who arrived in the United States as early as 1889. Dr. Yoosuf was born on December 12, 1866, and received his higher education at Central Turkey College in Aintab, where he graduated in 1886 and worked as instructor until 1889. The same year he came to the USA and worked his way through Baltimore Medical School, graduating with high honors. He then settled down in Worcester, where he began his practice and in 1897 organized and served as president of the Assyrian Benefit Association. Dr. Yoosuf was a prominent figure who played an important role in the life of the Church, people and adopted nation before passing away on December 26, 1924. We shall return to Dr. Yoosuf in the following chapters.

In regard to Canada, luckily we know the identity of the first Syriac immigrant there. His name was Mr. George Jarjour, a native of Mardin, Turkey, who arrived in Montreal in 1893. He is considered the pioneer of the Syriac immigrants to Canada and his settlement in the New World paved the way for his family and relatives to join him in Canada.

Life and Settlement

The early immigrants with few exceptions were simple weavers, merchants, craftsmen and farmers by profession and often settled down in different places according to their skills and professions. Those who came from the city of Diyarbakir in southeastern Turkey, were mostly qualified as silk weavers and settled down in New Jersey, a major area of the silk industry. The families from Kharput, also in southeastern Turkey, settled mainly in Worcester, Massachusetts. The faithful from the region of Turabdin, also in southeastern Turkey, established themselves in Central Falls, Rhode Island, as workers in the local mills. During the same period of time, faithful from Mardin, Turkey found their way to Canada and settled in Montreal, Sherbrooke and Quebec. Syrian Orthodox families from and around Homs, Syria, came to settle in the Detroit, Michigan area.

The Early Beginnings: Fr. Hanna Koorie &
The Assyrian Church of the Virgin Mary

The first immigrants were very conscious of their spiritual roots, and the Church played a central and decisive role in their life. They had fled their ancestral lands as a result of religious persecution, hardships and atrocities carried out against them by the Muslim Turks and Kurds (the massacres of 1895 in Diyarbakir, followed by the massacres of World War I, especially the year 1915, known among the Syriac people as Sayfo ‘the year of the sword’; to a certain degree, persecution continues until this day). They were forced to take a refuge in the New World, where they encountered religious freedom and liberty. They found better means and opportunities to offer their children a bright and secure future.

The situation in the homeland became more and more difficult and unbearable both economically and otherwise. Therefore, the number of Syriac immigrants to the New World increased. It was now clear to these immigrants that the New World was to be their permanent homeland.

The next natural step for these immigrants, who hungered for spiritual nourishment, was to organize their religious life and find a suitable candidate to become their priest to celebrate the liturgical services for them and take care of their spiritual needs. This way, they thought the flock would be kept in the fold of Christ and prevented from going astray or being absorbed by other ethnic communities and religious groups. Thus, the community, according to their custom, signed a petition and suggested that Hanna Koorie, the son of Khoorie Mirza, a priest in Diyarbakir, Turkey, be their candidate for the priesthood. Taking the signed petition with him, Hanna Koorie traveled to Jerusalem to seek priestly ordination. On May 20, 1907, he received the laying on of hands from Archbishop Mor Ivanios Elias Haloulei at St. Mark’s Monastery in Jerusalem. He returned to America in 1907 as the first priest of the Syrian Orthodox Church in the United States and was assigned for the service of the Syriac families of the New Jersey area. His first Divine Liturgy in the United States was celebrated at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Paterson, New Jersey.

The lack of a priest having been solved, now the challenge for the community was to have a place of worship of their own. It was necessary and important for them to have their own church. In building up a sanctuary for the Lord, the decisive role that Syriac women played in its accomplishment is immense. In the spring of 1909, under the spiritual guidance of Fr. Hanna Koorie, the Assyrian Ladies Aid Society was formed in order to raise financial means for the first church building. Through the hard work of the Assyrian Ladies Aid Society, a church was purchased in West Hoboken (now Union City), New Jersey. As years went by the number of the faithful increased, and by 1915 the population of the community reached a point where a new, larger church building was needed. After an appropriate location was found and all the legal and other necessary steps were taken, the first Syrian Orthodox church in America was built by the Syriac faithful from the area of West New York, New Jersey. The church was consecrated in April of 1927 by Archbishop Mor Severius Ephrem Barsoum (later Patriarch Ephrem I Barsoum), in the name of Yoldath Aloho Maryam (Mary, the Bearer of God). The consecration day was a landmark in the history of the Syriac community in America. The real meaning of that day, which marked a new beginning of their spiritual journey in the diaspora, is best described in the poetic words of the Psalmist: “This is the day which the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm, 118:24).

About the same time a new priest was ordained to take over for Fr. Nahum Koorie, who had taken over for his brother Fr. Hanna Koorie in 1922. The new priest for the parish was Fr. Elias Sugar of Worcester, Massachusetts. He received the laying on of hands from Archbishop Mor Severius Ephrem Barsoum in 1928 and served the congregation of about 450 families faithfully until his death in October of 1963. Following the death of Fr. Sugar, Fr. Albert Samuel was appointed as temporary priest for the parish, which he served for three years. As the parish further increased in number and grace, a need was felt to move to a new and larger place in order to accommodate all the faithful. The parish eventually relocated to Paramus, New Jersey, as the community built a magnificent new church whose cornerstone was laid on Sunday, September 17, 1967, with a colorful ceremony celebrated by Archbishop Yeshue Samuel, assisted by the new priest, Rev. Fr. John Khoury (now chorepiscopus), the current pastor of the Assyrian Church of the Virgin Mary.

During the same period, parishes had been formally established in various other places of North America such as Worcester, Massachusetts, Central Falls, Rhode Island and Detroit, Michigan. Here, I shall give a brief account of the early established parishes and their pastors, to shed some light on the situation of the early Syriac immigrants and their dedication as well as their zeal for maintaining the faith and tradition of their forefathers in the New World.

The Parish of St. Mary, Worcester, Massachusetts

The parish of St. Mary in Worcester, Massachusetts was established by the Syriac faithful originating from Kharput, Turkey, who had come to flee religious persecution and to offer their children a better future. In 1922, they raised about $60,000 to build a church at 17 Hawley Street, which was completed in 1927 and consecrated by Archbishop Mor Severius Ephrem Barsoum. The consecration was a great event, and many Syriac faithful from all over America gathered to witness this sacred and joyful moment. Even the local newspapers dedicated an article for this event. On the eve of the consecration, the Worcester Telegram and Gazette announced the dedication of St. Mary’s and published an interview held with the Archbishop about the consecration of churches in the Eastern rite and the historic significance of the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch. The article also comments on the Archbishop’s distinctive oriental attire and mentions the lectures that His Eminence delivered in America. It states, “His Eminence has given lectures on the psychology of the Assyrian people in the United States. His mission has been to create an understanding of the Assyrian people by Americans, because most of them, although well-educated in Assyria have been forced by a changed atmosphere into menial occupations.” The article concludes with the following statement about the peace conference of 1919 held in Paris and attended by the Archbishop, which is worth quoting here for historical purposes. “During the peace conference he appeared to demand indemnity for the Assyrian churches sacked during the World War, and on this occasion was presented with a gold-headed cane by President Doumergue of France. He is also a familiar figure in the educational centers of Europe such as Oxford, Paris and Vienna.” Dr. Abraham K. Yoosuf, one of the early immigrants to America whom I mentioned in Chapter I, was a World War I hero and one of the Assyro-Chaldean delegates to the peace conference in Paris with the Archbishop Mor Severius Ephrem Barsoum. Dr. Yoosuf was also very instrumental in building the church and a good leader and administrator.

The Very Rev. Fr. Favlos Samuel, the first pastor, was sent from Kharput, Turkey, to Worcester based on the request of St. Mary’s parish to Mor Ignatius Elias III, the Patriarch of the Syrian Orthodox Church at the time. Fr. Samuel was also the priest for many of this congregation in Kharput, Turkey, from where many of them immigrated. He served this church from 1927 until 1933. In 1933, Fr. Peter Barsoum of Central Falls, Rhode Island, took over this parish, which he served from June 30, 1933 until his death in April of 1963. This parish remained without a priest for three years until the arrival of Rev. Fr. Shamoun A. Asmar (now chorespiscopus) who served St. Mary’s Church from 1966 until 1988, when he was transferred to New Jersey to become the pastor of St. Barsawmo’s Church in Mahwah, New Jersey. The current pastor is Rev. Fr. Joseph Shamoun, a graduate of St. Ephrem’s Theological Seminary, in Damascus, Syria. He was ordained by Archbishop Mor Cyril Aphrem Karim in Aleppo, Syria. He arrived in October of 1988 to assume his duties as the new pastor of St. Mary’s Church, Worcester, Massachusetts.

The Parish of St. Ephraim, Central Falls, Rhode Island

The early Syriac immigrants to Rhode Island arrived before the turn of the twentieth century. Faithful immigrants from communities in Mardin, Midyat and Diyarbakir in Turkey and from Mosul in Iraq first moved to Beirut and Zahle in Lebanon as well as Aleppo and Jazireh in Syria. Later, they moved from these locations to Rhode Island. Prior to the opening of St. Ephraim’s Church, the people had organized an association which was established in 1913 under the name Assyrian St. Ephraim Association.

The Association bought a house which was used as a meeting place for the members and functioned also as a chapel for the faithful. Prior to the arrival of a permanent priest, liturgical and sacramental services were being fulfilled by clergy from the New Jersey area. Later, when the church was given a charter, the first priest to head the parish was Rev. Fr. Peter Barsoum. He was born and grew up in Edessa (today’s Urfa in Turkey). In 1896, he entered the Teachers College and the Syriac Seminary in Edessa. In 1923, he was ordained to the priesthood by Mor Ignatius Elias III, Patriarch of the Syrian Orthodox of Antioch. Fr. Barsoum was perhaps the last parish priest in the Blessed City of Edessa (capital of the kingdom of King Abgar who corresponded with Jesus, as recorded in the legend of the Apostle Addai).

The Church of St. Ephraim was consecrated in 1927 by Archbishop Mor Severius Ephrem Barsoum during his apostolic visit to North America. This was the same year that he consecrated the church in Worcester, Massachusetts and that in West New York, New Jersey.

Fr. Barsoum assumed the pastoral duties of St. Ephraim’s Church on September 1, 1927 and served the parish until June 30, 1933. Because of the American Great Depression of the 1930s as well as a problem in the church of Worcester, Massachusetts, Fr. Barsoum was transferred to St. Mary’s Worcester Church in 1933 and served there until his death in April of 1963. Fr. Favlos Samuel of Worcester then became pastor of St. Ephraim’s in Central Falls, Rhode Island, for two years. Beginning in 1949, the late Archbishop Mor Athanasius Yeshue Samuel made frequent visits to sustain the faith of the members of St. Ephraim’s parish.

In 1950, His Holiness Mor Ignatius Ephrem I Barsoum ordained Fr. Abdulahad Doumato specifically for St. Ephraim’s Church, but it was not until August 15, 1952 that Fr. Doumato was finally able to come to Central Falls to fulfill his parish assignement. At the time of his arrival, membership had dwindled to a mere thirty families and only a few young people were involved in the church activities. Fr. Doumato, supported by the mothers of the parish, successfully involved the youth in church services and the life of the church. A tragic fire destroyed the original church in 1961, but the determined parishioners, motivated by Fr. Doumato, succeeded in building a modern stone structure on the site of the former church. The new church was consecrated on June 9, 1963, by the late Archbishop Samuel, assisted by the Archbishop Malatius Barnaba of Homs, Syria.

On August 30, 1970, Fr. Doumato was elevated to the rank of chorepiscopus by the late Archbishop Samuel in recognition of this dedicated service to the church and several religious and historical publications. In 1991, he was awarded the Holy Cross of the Archdiocese; and in 1999, St. Ephrem’s Patriarchal medal was bestowed upon him. After having served his church with faith and dedication, he retired in August of 1999. He was succeeded by Fr. Gabriel Daoud, a graduate of St. Ephrem’s Theological Seminary in Damascus, Syria. Fr. Daoud was ordained to the priesthood by the Patriarch Zakka I Iwas on May 30, 1999 in Damascus, Syria. He arrived on July 20, 1999 to assume his duties as the new pastor of St. Ephraim’s Church, Central Falls, Rhode Island.

The Parish of Sts. Peter & Paul, Southfield, Michigan

The existence of the Syriac community in the Metropolitan Detroit area goes back to the early 1900s. Several families from Fairouzah and Zaidal, Syria, immigrated to Detroit in the first decade of the century. The lack of clergy, however, led many families to look to other Christian denominations. The local Roman Catholic clergy did not accept them, as they were not practicing Catholics. The Episcopal Church, on the other hand, opened her door and heart to the several families.

With the increase of immigration in the following decades, along with the increase of Syrian Orthodox people on the East Coast, His Holiness Mor Ignatius Ephrem I Barsoum ordained Rev. Fr. Estefan Durghali to look after the Syriac families in Detroit area. Due to several factors, such as the Great Depression and the consequent federal limitation to immigration, Fr. Durghali was only able to arrive in Detroit in 1937. Initially, services were conducted on a regular basis in a basement of a local house, centrally located among the families. As immigrants from Mosul, Iraq joined the community in Detroit, the number of the faithful increased and paved the way for building a church on the east side of Detroit. In 1949, the late Archbishop Mor Athanasius Yeshue Samuel consecrated the church ‘under the protection’ of St. John the Baptist. In 1967, in part due to the social instability and high tensions of the period, the church building was sold. Until a new permanent church was founded, the community worshiped in a rented hall. Fr. Durghali, the parish priest, also looked after the increasing number of Syriac families in Miami and Jacksonville, Florida. Fr. Durghali retired in 1968; however, he was always present to serve until his death in 1991.

In the 1970s, a new wave of immigrants, from all over the Near East, to Detroit led to the need of a permanent church. A church was built alongside Behnan Hall (donated by Mr. Aziz Behnan Jardak), and a parish house in Southfield, Michigan was acquired. The construction of these facilities was made possible by generous donations from the faithful as well as from contributions by the Iraqi government. The new church was consecrated in 1981 and dedicated to Sts. Peter & Paul by His Holiness, Mor Ignatius Zakka I Iwas, the current Patriarch of the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch. The late Archbishop Yeshue Samuel appointed Rev. Fr. Abdulahad Shara as pastor of the parish, which he served until 1986. The current pastor is Rev. Fr. Edward Hanna, who received the laying on of hands from the late Archbishop Yeshue Samuel on December 18, 1988.
Development in North America

As the number of the Syriac faithful in North America increased both in number and grace, they settled down permanently in the New World. They founded churches and established benevolent associations. Clergy were appointed to serve those parishes and minister to the spiritual needs of the faithful. It was now time to establish an Archdiocese to oversee and manage the ecclesiastical affairs of the growing Syriac community in North America. In 1928 the number of the Syriac community in North America was estimated to be around 2200 individuals and in 1948 was thought to be around 3000.
On January 29, 1949, Patriarch Ephrem I Barsoum sent Mor Athanasius Yeshue Samuel, Archbishop of the Holy Land and Jordan, to North America as an apostolic delegate. The Archbishop explains the story of his mission and its purpose, which is worth quoting at some length:

On October 19th, His Holiness [Patriarch Ephrem I Barsoum] sent an encyclical to the faithful in America, asking them to support their brethren in the devastated Holy Land. For the sake of easing the task, His Holiness sent me as an apostolic delegate to the United States and Canada.

USA and Canada Become a Patriarchal Vicariate

On May 12, 1952, His Holiness Patriarch Ephrem I Barsoum appointed Archbishop Mor Athanasius Yeshue Samuel as Patriarchal Vicar over the United States and Canada. The community was given a period of two years to prove that they were capable of meeting financial and other requirements for a diocesan bishop; and upon fulfilling this challenge, they would receive Archbishop Samuel as their permanent spiritual leader in North America. In 1953, the community secured a residence for the Archbishop in Hackensack, New Jersey, and this was officially opened on October 18, 1953.

On June 23, 1957, the supreme head of the Syrian Orthodox Church, His Holiness Mor Ignatius Patriarch Ephrem I Barsoum, passed to his heavenly rest. The death of the Patriarch was indeed a great loss to the Syriac Church. He was a man of God and a prolific writer who brought a spiritual awakening and revival into the Syrian Orthodox Church in the twentieth century.

On October 14, 1957, the Holy Synod elected Archbishop Mor Severius Jacob to succeed Patriarch Ephrem I Barsoum as Patriarch of the see of Antioch. His enthronement took place on October 23rd of the same year, and he received the title Mor Ignatius Jacob III.

Creation of the North American Archdiocese

It was under the spiritual leadership of Patriarch Jacob III that the North American Archdiocese for the Syrian Orthodox Church was created. His Holiness, in October of 1957, officially declared the Syrian Orthodox jurisdiction of the United States and Canada as an Archdiocese of the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch in the diaspora. This was the first archdiocese to be inaugurated in the New World. Mor Athanasius Yeshue Samuel was appointed as the first archbishop of this archdiocese in 1957.

As a result of the creation of the archdiocese in North America, the Syriac community felt the need for a cathedral for the newly appointed archbishop. Therefore, the community purchased a church in Hackensack, New Jersey, which was consecrated on September 7, 1958, as St. Mark’s Cathedral, recalling St. Mark’s Syrian Orthodox Monastery in Jerusalem, which is believed to have been the site of the Upper Room, the place where our Lord had the Last Supper with His disciples. It was likewise at St. Mark’s Monastery where His Eminence Archbishop Samuel had made his religious profession and resided for a quarter of a century. In 1994, St. Mark’s Cathedral parish relocated to Teaneck, New Jersey, and the new cathedral was consecrated on December 8, 1996.

That the Syriac community in the diaspora grew to the point of becoming an archdiocese with a permanent resident archbishop and a cathedral was indeed a sign of growth and promise for the future of the Syrian Orthodox in the New World. However, this journey was not without its challenges. No doubt the challenges were partly due to the community’s search for a new identity in the New World.

The early Syriac immigrants to North America used the name Assyrian in English to define themselves. This was the official title used for both their religious and cultural institutions. A quick glance at the literature of this time will immediately show the use of the name Assyrian as a description for the language, people and churches of the Syrian Orthodox community in North America. In fact, all the early Syrian Orthodox parishes and institutions established on the American soil used the name Assyrian. As a witness to this usage, one can show the church of the Virgin Mary in Paramus, New Jersey, which is the only parish that still keeps the name Assyrian as its official title.

The Syrian Orthodox Church in North America also used the name Assyrian officially until early 1950s. As an example one can cite the official letter issued from the office of the Archbishop Mor Athanasius Yeshue Samuel, dated August 12, 1952, and addressed to all the faithful of the archdiocese. The letterhead reads Assyrian Orthodox Church, and in the letter, the Archbishop addresses the faithful as Assyrian rather than Syrian or Syriac. But in following years, the title Assyrian presented itself as a problem to the Syriac community in North America, to such an extent that the Patriarch Ephrem I Barsoum was requested to issue an official document in order to clarify any ambiguity and explain why the name Assyrian was not the correct self-designation.

The Patriarch addressed the issue in a lengthy article written in Arabic and Syriac and later was published together with an English translation by the Archdiocese of the Syrian Church of Antioch in the United States and Canada. The sealed document of the Patriarch is dated December 2, 1952. In conclusion, the Patriarch states that historically it would be incorrect to use the title Assyrian for the Church. This also would be contrary to the already established tradition of the Fathers and that of eminent scholars in this field. Furthermore, it was pointed out that this would create an ambiguity and estrangement in the Church if the Church in the diaspora used the title Assyrian while in the homeland and India it is referred to as the Syrian Orthodox Church. Therefore, he asserts that the correct designation is the name Syrian. But he knew that this title was already in use by the Rum Orthodox (Antiochian) Church in North America. Therefore, he suggested that the confusion would be eliminated if the name Aramaic was used to refer to the Syriac language and the word Aramaean to refer to the Church. In other words, the name Assyrian was to be categorically avoided. As we shall see below, after much pain and difficulty, the Church in North America finally replaced the name Assyrian with that of Syrian as an official self-designation.

Before discussing how this change came about, let us first examine the issue of identity and find out how the name Assyrian emerged and the way it is used both by the East Syrians (Church of the East) as well as the West Syrians (Syrian Orthodox Church) in North America. Also, we shall address the reasons that led to its use and adoption as a cultural and religious identity in the diaspora.

The name Assyrian came to be used in English for the Church of the East during the nineteenth century. It became very common especially among the Anglicans, who sponsored a mission to the church and wished to avoid the pejorative term Nestorian. That church itself has now officially adopted the title Assyrian Church of the East. By itself, the term Assyrian (Syriac, Othuroyo) came into use around 1900 to denote the ethnic group historically represented by the Church of the East. It is now a common belief among Assyrians that they are descendents of ancient Assyrians of Nineveh. In the case of the Syrian Orthodox, on the other hand, the story is different. One can give two different reasons for this self-designation by the members of the Syrian Orthodox Church. The first is that some Syrian Orthodox want to ally themselves with Assyrian nationalists (from the Church of the East) for political, ideological or other similar reasons. Second, they may simply want to avoid the word Syrian because of its misleading reference to the modern State of Syria and therefore call themselves Assyrian. However, the Syrian Orthodox Church does not officially sanction this usage. In fact, in North America, the use of the name Assyrian gave a rise to dispute with church authorities. The late Archbishop Mor Athanasius Yeshue Samuel had insisted that it be changed to the correct designation Syrian Orthodox. The issue, however, was not solved easily. There was much resistance on the side of the congregation. Two parishes (Church of the Virgin Mary in Worcester, Massachusetts and that of Paramus, New Jersey) refused to change and prevailed in keeping the name Assyrian by registering their parishes independently in the name of a group of trustees. The current hierarch Archbishop Mor Cyril Aphrem Karim has changed the name of the church in Worcester, Massachusetts, very recently, leaving the church of the Virgin Mary in Paramus as the only sole parish bearing the name Assyrian.

The change of the name from Assyrian Orthodox Church to the correct self-designation as the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch and its registration with United States authorities led to another problem. This time the dispute was with the Rum Orthodox Church in North America, which already had been using the title Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch as an official title for their Church. This dispute led to a civil court case between Archbishop Mor Athanasius Yeshue Samuel, Archbishop of the Syrian Orthodox Church, and Metropolitan Bashir of the Rum Orthodox Church. Finally, the court resolved that the title Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch was the correct designation for the Syriac community. The Rum Orthodox Church then had to relinguish the title Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch in favor of the name Antiochian as her official title here in North America, though in the Middle East she still enjoys the title Rum (or Greek) Orthodox Church.

The ambiguity about the name Syrian is to be found in the limitation of the English language. Unlike Syriac and Arabic, English does not have different words for the modern country of Syria and the Syrian Orthodox community. The term Syriac which properly denotes the language nowadays more and more is used as an adjective applied to the Syriac-speaking Churches, writers etc. Most of the Syriac scholars employ the term in their writings and encourage its use. In fact, the Syrian Catholic Church has now officially adopted the title Syriac Catholic Church and the Maronite Church in Lebanon uses the title Syriac Maronite Church. Also, the Syrian Orthodox Church is moving in that direction. The Holy Synod of the Syrian Orthodox Church convened in Damascus in the last week of March 2000 with the title of the Church again on its agenda. The hierarchs in the diaspora, especially the ones in North America, requested that the name Syrian be replaced with Syriac in order to avoid confusion and the misleading reference to the modern state of Syria whose population today consists mainly of Muslim Arabs. His Eminence Mor Cyril Aphrem Karim, who strongly advocated the change of the name, announced that the Holy Synod passed a decree that the name Syriac be officially used as a title for the Church in the diaspora. The decree of the last Holy Synod concerning this item is going to be released in the Patriarchal Journal, the official magazine of the Church.

Institutions

A sense of permanence in the Syriac community was signaled first by the establishment of communal institutions – places of worship, publications and associations. Leadership in founding these institutions was assumed by the more enterprising and prosperous men and women in the community. Here I shall give an account of the major institutions that played an important role in the life of the Syriac community in North America and that helped to preserve the faith, culture and language.

The Assyrian Ladies Aid Society

In May of 1901, in the city of Hoboken, New Jersey, a group of dedicated women met, and together with the assistance and guidance of Rev. Fr. Hanna Koorie, their pastor, formed the Assyrian Ladies Aid Society. The society was one of the first associations of the Syriac community in North America, and its aims simply were to raise funds and eventually purchase land upon which to build a church. The society grew steadily in number and later founded several branches in Paterson, New Jersey (1910), Long Island, New York (1926) and Newark, New Jersey (1929) to help continue to raise funds for building a church. The tireless efforts and earnest dedication of the Assyrian Ladies Aid Society and their true love for God and their Church helped in raising enough funds for building the first Syrian Orthodox Church in North America, which was completed in April of 1927 and consecrated as the Assyrian Apostolic Church of the Virgin Mary by Archbishop Severius Ephrem Barsoum. The society celebrated its ninetieth anniversary on May 1, 1999. It has been a source of great accomplishments in the life of the parish over the past nine decades and continues to work diligently to ensure the well being of the church. As Louise Dartley Hallak, the President of the society, said in her message for the ninetieth anniversary: “Over the decades, the members of the Ladies Aid Society have offered their God given talents and expertise to ensure that our church will thrive and flourish. These ladies demonstrated a tremendous degree of loyalty and devotion for which we are all deeply grateful.”

The Assyrian Orphanage and School Association of America (T.M.S.)

The association was formerly known as the Assyrian National School Association of America. The story of the association is as follows. During the massacres of 1895 in Diyarbakir, Turkey, many Syriac people fled and sought refuge and freedom in the United States of America. The majority of these immigrants settled in the New York-New Jersey area and began the process of building and adjusting to life in the New World. They continued to maintain the close ties and friendships they had nurtured in the old country where most social and cultural activities revolved around the parish church and its community.

After they settled and established themselves in America, a group of eleven gentlemen met on October 8, 1899 in Sterling, New Jersey with the purpose of establishing a social and cultural association. The initiation fee was set at one dollar and the weekly dues were five cents. Members met regularly on Sundays for socializing, Bible reading and singing church hymns.

Gabriel Boyajy, one of the new members who had newly arrived in America from Diyarbakir, informed members about the hard and difficult conditions back home and suggested they work for the purpose of establishing a school in Diyarbakir for the members of the Syriac community there. The members agreed to raise the necessary funds to support the school. They also agreed, at the suggestion of Gabriel Boyajy, that the association be called the Assyrian National School Association.

Membership grew rapidly as new immigrants joined the association. Later they formed several branches and members met in their respective localities. By 1908, there were three separate branches: College Point (later known as the Long Island Branch), Paterson and Sterling. These branches formed an executive body and the association was legally incorporated in the State of New Jersey.

During World War I, Turks and Kurds subjected the Syriac community to countless atrocities. Massacres, persecutions and diseases forced many to flee their homes and towns and seek refuge and protection in cities such as Adana, Mosul, Qamishly, Aleppo, Damascus, Beirut and Jerusalem. Recognizing the urgent needs of these poor and homeless refugees, the association decided to expand its charitable and educational support to include all needy Syriac communities wherever and whenever possible.

The association enjoys a commendable record for charitable and philanthropic acts in reaching out to help the orphans and the needy of the Syriac community and providing them with necessary education and other means of life.

Some of the noble accomplishments of the association follow. In 1919, with the assistance of the French High Commissioner, a much-needed Orphanage was opened in Adana, Turkey. The association contributed considerable funds towards its operation and maintenance until it was closed in 1921. The orphanage, under the leadership of Mor Ignatius Elias III, was moved to a safer place and reopened in 1923 in Beirut, Lebanon. The association has been continuously supportive of the orphanage and its School until this day.

In January of 1921, it helped in the purchase of Syriac metal type; and, in 1923, the association bought a printing press to facilitate and to insure the continuation of the original Beth-Nahreen publication. It also supported the publication and distribution of the Assyrian New Beth-Nahreen throughout the early 1930s.

In 1955, the association’s name was changed to “The Assyrian Orphanage and School Association of America, Inc.” The new name reflected more accurately the association’s goals and scope of activities. Today, the association continues to support a wide range of worthy causes throughout the Middle East. The aid is extended to Syriac schools, orphanages and theological seminaries in Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. Financial aid is also extended to the devastated and impoverished Syriac community in Iraq.

The association’s legacy of caring and giving, especially during the early decades of the twentieth century, when the scattered Syriac community in the Middle East was fighting for its survival, played a crucial role in preserving the Syriac language, identity and traditions. The Syriac school of T.M.S. and the orphanage in Beirut produced generations of Syriac scholars and educators who played an important role in teaching and spreading the Syriac language in their respective communities and elsewhere.

The association celebrated its diamond jubilee in 1999 and continues to fulfill its noble mission by helping the poor and needy and bringing hope and joy to the life of many orphans in the Middle East. Mr. Arthur Asfar, the president of the association, in his message for the centennial celebration said:

It gives me tremendous pleasure when I think of our accomplishments in the last 100 years. We have survived civil wars, world wars, anarchy, and even enemy threats. It seems that nothing can stop us from continuing and hopefully expending our help to the thousands of needy children and orphans in the Middle East.

Beth-Nahreen Newspaper

The Beth-Nehreen (Mesopotamia) newspaper was established by Na‘um Fa’yeq (1868–1930), one of the most outstanding writers and poets of the Syriac language in the twentieth century. He published the first issue of Beth-Nahreen in 1916 in New Jersey. It circulated bi-monthly and then weekly in the following languages: Syriac, Arabic, Turkish and later in English. The newspaper communicated the social, cultural and religious news and events of the Syriac community both in the homeland and the diaspora. Thus, it tried to maintain a link to bridge the gap between the two communities and to inform her readers about Syriac culture and heritage. The newspaper stopped circulating in 1961 when Na‘um Fa’yeq became the general editor of another newspaper, Huyodo (Union), which continues to be published today in Sweden by the Syriac community there.

The newspaper played an important role in the life of the Syriac community in North America by maintaining the link with the homeland, informing the members of the community about the affairs of the church and community as well as enlightening them about their culture and heritage.

The Aramaic American Association

During the 1970s, the Syriac community in America swelled with a new wave of immigrants fleeing the economic, political and social uncertainties of the Middle East. They came to settle down in the United States. As these new immigrants began the process of building and adjusting to life in the West, they longed for the community, friendships and cultural activities that they left behind.

Soon the idea to establish social and cultural organizations similar to the ones in the old country began to take form. By 1974, a committee was established and organized as the Aramaic American Association. The association grew rapidly in membership and in April of 1975 bought a building for its cultural and social activities in Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey. In December of 1976, a constitution, with emphasis on the cultural and linguistic heritage, was drawn up. Then different subcommittees were formed to deal with the various aspects of the organization’s activities, such as language, sports, music, folklore, publication and entertainment.

The Aramaic American Association grew rapidly and, through its numerous social, cultural, educational and other activities and events, played an important role in the life of the Syriac community in North America. It became a source of strength, joy and enrichment for the community especially in the New Jersey area.

The Aramaic American Association has changed its constitution and shifted its entire focus to the Mor Ephraim Syriac School, which was formed in February of 1975. The association now endeavors to establish a full-time day school where the Syriac language and culture can be taught and the students nurtured in the true faith of their Church. The association is working towards the accomplishment of this goal. The first step in this direction was the meeting of the Education Consultation Committee, which consisted of scholars and educators in the field of Syriac studies and religious education. They met on April 17 and 18, 1992 in Hackensack, New Jersey with the purpose of drawing up an educational plan for the establishment and creation of a Syrian Orthodox School, whereby the language and culture of the Syriac community might be advanced. In the report of the consultation committee, one can see that almost all aspects for the creation of a Syrian Orthodox School were discussed as well as plans and suggestions for working out the details. One hopes that one day the plan will be accomplished.
The American Foundation for Syriac Studies (AFSS)

This is an organization recently founded in New Jersey by a group of Syriac people who are concerned about the Syriac cultural heritage, and who would like to explore and share the wealth of the Syriac tradition with the community and American society at large. The key objective of this organization, as defined by the founders, is “to generate interest in Syriac cultural heritage, which spans a wide range of disciplines, such as theology, philosophy, history, literature, art, science and medicine.” The AFSS is planning and endeavoring to accomplish this by setting up committees to look into ways of encouraging American and Syriac-American scholars and researchers to explore the origins, modes, characteristics and orientations of Syriac thought and the important role played by it in medieval Byzantine, Persian, Arabic, and European cultures. Additionally, the AFSS is aiming to set up funds for carrying out research pertaining to the field of Syriac studies as well as founding a library to make Syriac books and scholarly works dealing with Syriac language and literature accessible to researchers and the public alike. Finally, through sponsoring lectures and symposia as well as by means of important publications, they hope to realize their goals.

The AFSS has already embarked on the course of its mission through its quarterly publications, and has sponsored several lectures delivered by scholars, both American and Syriac-American. The AFSS is still in its infancy, and therefore it is difficult to make a critical evaluation of it. However, one can say the AFSS is a firm step in the right direction and gives hope and encouragement for a bright future.

Relationship with the Homeland

We have already touched on the relationship with the homeland in previous chapters, where we talked about the religious and cultural institutions of the Syriac community in North America. After all, the sojourns of the early Syriac immigrants to the new World were undertaken in the hope of a better life for themselves and those they left behind. Furthermore, the bond of unity and solidarity was renewed and strengthened as new waves of immigrants fled the old country and settled down in the New World.

The relationship of the Syriac community in the diaspora with the homeland has been characterized by different factors and maintained on different levels. One may describe this relationship in terms of church, financial dependence and globalization.

First, on the ecclesiastical level, the Syriac Church in North America is dependent on the Mother Church in the homeland in many respects. First of all, most of the clergy and the hierarchs of the church are still brought from the old country. Secondly, the Syriac community in the diaspora is spiritually under the auspices of the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate in Damascus, which means that there are regular contacts with the Patriarchate and frequent visits from the Patriarch and other hierarchs to the Syriac faithful in North America.

Secondly, the economic, political and social instability of the Middle East, coupled with religious persecutions in some countries, has often made the homeland financially dependent on the good will of the Syriac people in the diaspora for supporting their major religious and educational institutions as well as cultural charitable foundations.

Thirdly, with the advancement of technology and convenience of transportation, the world has become what sociologists call a global village. This has facilitated contacts with the homeland and strengthened relationships. Today, there are more pilgrimages and trips to the old country as well as more frequent holiday visits to family and friends. All these factors contribute to and shape the nature of the relationship with the homeland and create a bond of unity and solidarity between the two.

The Future of the Syriac Community in North America

After the passing of Archbishop Mor Athanasius Yeshue Samuel in 1995, by a decree of the Holy Synod, the North American Archdiocese was divided into three separate Archdiocesan Patriarchal Vicariates: Eastern United States (including the Midwest), Western United States, and Canada, each with a resident hierarch. Today there are approximately 40,000 Syriac faithful residents in North America that comprise twenty-five parishes.

Challenges & Opportunities

Large-scale emigration from the traditional homeland in the Middle East to the New World in the West has brought problems and challenges to the Syriac community. It has, nevertheless, led to greater awareness among other Christian churches both of their existence and of the richness of their tradition. While the challenges that face the Syriac community at the beginning of the millennium are numerous and formidable, new opportunities are nevertheless also present. Here, I shall first identify what these challenges and opportunities are and then say a few words about each one of them.

Before dealing with the current situation, a word or two about the first Syriac comers to America is in order. The first comers, being molded in the centuries-long Orthodox faith and tradition, held to their faith strongly as a source of spiritual strength as well as a sign of identity and security. Language within the community was not a problem, and values were shared in common. The first generation maintained very strong ties with their brothers and sisters in the homeland. However, like other immigrant nationalities, the first Syrian Orthodox families faced practical problems of language, mentality and cultural differences with Americans. As the Very Rev. John Meno, the pastor of St. Mark’s Syrian Orthodox Cathedral, has noted: “The children and grandchildren of this first generation of the Syrian Orthodox were to find themselves in the reversed role regarding later immigrant faithful from overseas.”

The children of the first generation had managed to keep some of their linguistic, cultural and religious heritage without being totally assimilated into the American culture. The generation of grandchildren, on the other hand, lost much of their linguistic and cultural heritage and became assimilated into the American melting pot, as it were. Many, through inter -and mixed- marriages, having very little or no knowledge about their faith and tradition, have been lost to the church and the faith of their forefathers.

Having said this, I shall now look at some of the challenges that face the Syriac community in North America today.

I – CHALLENGES

1. Pluralism
The Syrian Orthodox Church, to a large extent, is still an immigrant church and considers herself as an ethnic or a national church. In the homeland, living in a dominant Muslim society and state as a millet, it was much easier to keep the faith and preserve one’s identity. However, in a pluralistic society such as that of America, it is extremely hard for the small and hardly noticeable Syriac community to maintain and preserve its faith and identity. This poses a real challenge for the parents and especially the leaders of the community. It is important not to repeat the same mistakes of the past; in this regard, one should learn from the success and achievements of other Orthodox communities in this country. Fellowship and solidarity with other Orthodox communities is integral for the preservation of the Orthodox faith while maintaining at best some Syriac identity. What matters and is more essential, however, is the Orthodox faith, and not so much the ethnic or national identity of oneself.

2. Secularism
The word secular is defined differently by different people and may be viewed as something positive or negative, largely depending on the culture, political state or background one comes from. For instance, a Christian who comes from a minority group in a dominant Muslim society, such as Turkey may view secularism as something good and positive, because this state of affairs works for their benefit. In a secular country, due to a separation between state and religion, people, to a varying degree, are free to live their faith and express their religious convictions. On the other hand, for a Christian who comes from a traditional Orthodox country like Greece or Romania, secularism may be seen as something negative and in opposition to the church. In the case of the Syriac community in North America, secularism has a more negative connotation than a positive one. While it is true that we should be grateful to God that we live in a country like America, where we are free to worship and maintain our faith in the way we want, nevertheless secularism poses for us a real challenge and difficulty. This is because secularism is removing the church from being at the center of people’s life, leaving it to play a lesser role in the life of the community. Furthermore, this burdens and places more responsibility on the shoulders of the parents and the clergy to direct the faithful in the right way, the way of God. But in the secular state of America today, usually the tide is against the church.

3. Assimilation and Identity Problem
Back in the homeland, generally there is no dichotomy between the religious and national identity of the person. Furthermore, national identity is a Western concept that emerged with the French Revolution and until recently was a foreign notion to Middle Easterners. In other words, it was the faith and the religious aspect that largely determined the identity of the person and not the ethnic background. For example, if a member of the Syrian Orthodox community converted to Islam, s/he would no longer be considered a Syriac, but a ‘gentile’.

As has been stated above, the first and to a greater degree the second generation of the Syriac faithful immigrants to America became Americanized and have been lost to the Church and the faith of their forefathers. This was because the Church was not in a position to address their needs and meet some of their challenges in the New World. Here, for the sake of convenience, one has to make a distinction between the spiritual identity and ethnic or cultural identity of the person. The church may have gone wrong because she emphasized preserving the cultural identity over the spiritual one and consequently lost most of her faithful. From a Christian perspective, there is nothing wrong with becoming Americanized, but it is certainly wrong for a person to lose his/her faith and spiritual identity. In fact, if the church is able to preserve and maintain the Orthodox faith and nurture this in her children, she will not only preserve the spiritual identity of her children but may also gain some of their cultural identity as well. This is because some of the cultural elements in Orthodoxy are ‘baptized’ and have become part of the tradition. Again, here one has to be very careful as to what constitutes one’s spiritual identity. One should be very cautious since many traditions that have no relevance whatsoever to the Orthodox faith today have been considered or seen as part of the essential tradition. It is very important not to fall into this trap.

4. Preserving the Syriac Language and Aramaic Heritage
It is a challenge for the Syriac community here to preserve her Syriac language and Aramaic heritage in the so-called diaspora and keep continuity with the past, maintaining a degree of relationship and affiliation with brothers and sisters overseas. On the one hand, one may argue that it is good and rather necessary to preserve the language at any cost since this is part of the identity and a strong link with the past. But on the other hand, this is going to be very costly to do, and so far experience has shown that the church has not succeeded in accomplishing this task. Furthermore, stressing the importance of the linguistic element over the faith may hinder the mission and role of the church, thus putting a barrier between the community and outsiders who would like to share the faith of the church, but do not know the Syriac language. However, it should be stressed that since there is a wealth of biblical, theological, patristic, spiritual and monastic literature in Syriac, it is important always to have some people in the community who are competent in this language and are able to translate it into English and put it in a contemporary context for the sake of the new generation and make it available to share with other Christian traditions for the enrichment and benefit of all. This is one of the sacred duties of the Church, namely, to offer and share her treasures with others.

5. Adaptation of the Liturgy into English and an American Setting
Much of what has to be said under this subheading has already been said above. But one has to say a few more words about this. Since Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic, not much different from the Galilean Aramaic that our Lord Himself would have spoken, many people in the Syriac Church feel that the liturgy should be conducted in this ‘sacred’ language no matter what. But, as has been said above, what matters first is the salvation of the faithful and not linguistic pride or liturgical ornamentation as it were. Secondly, it is very important to translate the liturgy and the liturgical symbolism into a language that is comprehensible to the people, especially the new generation and the generations to come. One should be more concerned about the spiritual needs of the faithful than preserving the language as a liturgical ornament. It is very important and rather vital to the church here to have a profound vision of the Fathers who possessed a real sense of Christ and His place in our life and world yesterday, today and always. The church here should follow their example in professing a faith for all centuries, a faith that is embedded in the living and dynamic Christ. It should be said that the church in North America has translated various Syriac liturgical books into English with explanatory notes for the sake of her faithful who no longer understand or read Syriac. Also, as the Very Rev. John Meno has remarked: “The Church is now struggling with the question of liturgical reforms and a reinvestigation of the church’s canon law and its relevance to the current situation of the Church’s life”.

II – OPPORTUNITIES

Better Education and Brighter Future
Education has become one of the most important and vital tools of our day. When it comes to education, North America has some of the best educational institutions in the world and offers excellent education and training in various fields and disciplines. This presents a golden opportunity for the members of the Syriac community to excel in education and prepare a bright future for themselves and generations to come. Also in the area of Orthodox theology and Syriac studies, America has many prestigious institutions that offer this type of education, which is not available in the homeland. In the area of education, the community has already begun to establish foundations and raise funds for the better education of her faithful. For instance, there is now an American Foundation for Syriac Studies (AFSS), which strives to inform the Syriac community and the American public about the rich cultural and religious heritage of Syriac Christianity. Also, use has been made of the internet, and now there is an electronic academic journal titled Hugoye for Syriac studies. In brief, North America has many resources, excellent academic institutions, libraries and networks for the use of her citizens; and, the Syriac community in North America can greatly benefit from them.

Religious and Political Freedom
In the traditional homeland, religious and political freedom to a varying degree was restricted for the Syriac community and other Christian minority groups living there. This of course varied from one country to another, largely depending on the size of the community and the ruling party in the country. America, on the other hand, offers more religious and political freedom for all communities regardless of their religious or cultural background. Furthermore, and most importantly, in North America one has the freedom to share the faith with others. Thus, the Church has the opportunity to fulfill her missionary role and do theology in the public square.

Link to the World at Large
In the Middle East, the Syriac community was hardly noticeable by the world at large. Her presence both in the ‘New World’, namely Europe, Australia and the Americas, has led to greater awareness among other Christian churches both of her existence and of the richness of her tradition. This has better facilitated ecumenical dialogue with other Christian churches. Today, early Syriac Christianity has become very relevant in our time and there are many institutions, both religious and cultural, that have become interested in the richness and the antiquity of the Syriac culture and heritage. As an example, one can show the documentary about the Aramaic heritage of the Syrian Orthodox Church, which is being undertaken by Trans World Film Italia under the leadership of Giacomo Pezzalli in collaboration with Dr. Sebastian Brock and his team of scholars. Also in Austria, Prof. Hans Hollerweger ten years ago founded ‘Freunde des Turabdin’ to promote Syriac Christianity and tradition in the West and support the community in Turabdin, the heartland of Syriac Christianity in southeast Anatolia, Turkey. In fact, quite recently Prof. Hollerweger published an excellent photo album about Turabdin disclosing the hidden pearls of that rich and blessed region.

Strengthening the Syriac Community Overseas
Political and economic hardships followed by internal conflict and wars in the Middle East have paralyzed the region’s economic stability and trade. Consequently, the people have suffered much, and this has made them largely dependent, financially, on their brothers and sisters living abroad. Also, they rely on the philanthropic acts of fellow Christian churches and relief agencies in the West. In North America, the Syriac community, faithfully for a century, has unfailingly supported the benevolent institutions and orphanages and schools in the Middle East. A good example of this is the Assyrian Orphanage and School Association of America (T.M.S.) which in 1999 celebrated its centennial anniversary. The philanthropic work of T.M.S. has borne sweet fruits. Graduates of the schools and orphanages have become teachers and clergy in the Syrian Orthodox Church both in the homeland and the diaspora.

Conclusion

By way of conclusion, I would like to say that it is true that emigration from the land of the forefathers in the Semitic world, where the Bible and Christianity sprang, has depopulated the area of Christians and their witness to Christ and left many sacred and cultural monuments of great beauty and magnificence to be destroyed and left in desolation. Nevertheless, the diaspora has opened new horizons and offered many opportunities for the Syriac Church to witness to Christ in these new lands and to flourish once again as in the past and play an important role in the life of Christendom and the world alike. But the real challenge is to bridge and transform the glorious past to the present world reality and present it in a new and appropriate context to the current world.

From the 1960’s through the 1980s, new Syrian Orthodox parishes were established in California, Southfield, Michigan; Chicago, Illinois; West Roxbury, Massachusetts; Portland, Oregon and Long Island, New York as well as in Montreal, Quebec and Toronto and Hamilton, Ontario together with congregations in the Washington, DC area and in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. In 1980, the Archdiocesan residence was moved from Hackensack to Lodi, New Jersey.
Following the death of Archbishop Samuel in 1995, the Holy Synod of the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch divided the North American Archdiocese into three separate Patriarchal Vicariates: the Syrian Orthodox Archdiocese for the Eastern United States under His Eminence Mor Cyril Aphrem Karim, the Syrian Orthodox Archdiocese of Los Angeles and Environs under His Eminence Mor Clemis Eugene Kaplan and the Syrian Orthodox Archdiocese of Canada under His Eminence Mor Timotheos Aphrem Aboodi.
Under the spiritual guidance and direction of His Eminence Mor Cyril Aphrem Karim, two new congregations have been established in the Eastern United States, one in Jacksonville, Florida and a second in Brooklyn, New York. The parishes of the Archdiocese for the Eastern United States are presently served by ten pastors and together number several thousand faithful.٣٤