(First published in the Rocky View Weekly on June 14, 2016)

Nestled along the back roads of Balzac stands the high towers, crosses and domes of the St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church.

Father Agathon Melika-Abusefien, priest and head of St. Mina, said the word Coptic means Egyptian and with only four churches like it in Alberta, St. Mina stands as an important pillar as the province’s largest.

The spiritual home for 1,200 Egyptian descended Christians residing in the Calgary area, St. Mina has remained a destination of interest for residents of neighbouring communities.

“We are welcoming everyone to come visit the church and attend a service,” he said.

The Coptic church has a history as far back as Christianity itself, Melika-Abusefien said, when Saint Mark the Evangelist traveled to Egypt in year 48 C.E. to preach.

He established the church of Alexandria and became the first Coptic pope before facing martyrdom in the year 68 C.E.

“When people hear we are from the Middle East, they think we are not Christians,” Melika-Abusefien said. “We are the oldest church around the world.”

The Coptic Orthodox Church in North America, however, is relatively young, not making its way over until the 1960s, according to St. Mina Secretary Gamal Khalil.

St. Mina’s roots date back to 1977, he said, when a small rented facility along 17th Avenue S.W. and 42 Street became Calgary’s first Coptic church.

Though the name was already chosen by the time both Khalil and Melika-Abusefien joined the church, they said St. Mina is an important and famous saint to the Egyptians.

Khalil added many Coptic Christians practice their faith by praying to God through the intercession of St. Mina.

“Whenever they have a problem, they use St. Mina,” he said.

In 1992, the church purchased the rented building in Calgary and continued to run services until October 2010 when Khalil said the City of Calgary planned to develop a light rail transit line along 17th Avenue S.W.

“They had to demolish all that side of the 17th Avenue,” he said. “The church was one of the buildings on that side.”

Though the City negotiated with St. Mina for compensation for the building, Melika-Abusefien said the loss of its home for the past 33 years was a trying time for the church.

Father Agathon Melika-Abusefien is the priest for a congregation of about 1,200 Egyptian descended Christians at St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church in Balzac. Dustin Ruth/Rocky View Publishing
Father Agathon Melika-Abusefien is the priest for a congregation of about 1,200 Egyptian descended Christians at St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church in Balzac.
Dustin Ruth/Rocky View Publishing

St. Mina went on to rent space from a Catholic Church in Calgary’s northwest.

Though it was a helpful transitional space, Khalil said the church didn’t have the freedom it had in its own building.

“We started praying there every Saturday instead of Sunday because of course Sunday is busy with the other services,” he said.

St. Mina’s looked everywhere for a place to build a new church, but Khalil said the inventory of lots around Calgary was almost zero at the time.

When a realtor took church administration to the location in Balzac, he said it wasn’t long before shovels were breaking ground.

Melika-Abusefien still remembers walking through the doors of the church for the first time on November 4, 2011.

“It was a dream come true,” he said.

The 2,323 square metre-building flourishes with hand-carved, wooden shrines imported from Egypt and marble carved alters lining the interior.

A sense of tradition was involved with the overall design of the church, Melika-Abusefien said.

Some churches, like St. Mary’s Cathedral in Calgary, are built in the shape of the Ark of Noah to symbolize the Old Testament while others, like St. Mina with its long corridor and wings, symbolize the New Testament in the shape of the cross.

“We preferred to build a new church as a New Testament,” Melika-Abusefien said.

St. Mina would go on to be consecrated by Pope Tawadros the Second, 118th successor to St. Mark, on Sept. 14, 2014.

The second phase development of the church is scheduled to start in the next few months with the construction of an Olympic-size sports complex that Khalil said would be open to the public.

“We really want to be a part of the community and give back,” he said. “I believe it will serve the community well.”

Balzac home to Alberta’s largest Coptic church