Father Youssef Halim’s eyes light up when he envisions and talks about it.
A brand new Monolithic Dome youth center – the first of its kind in New Jersey, complete with a three-story, mandatory car parking garage, rooms for actvities, and a small chapel – to neighbor the current St. Mary & St. Mercurius Coptic Orthodox Church building on Academy Street. Initial plans have been submitted to the township, and a fourth meeting before the zoning board will take place Feb. 2 regarding the new center.
"With each meeting,” says Father Halim, “the number of negatives decrease. We are solving their (the neighborhoods’) problems.”
“We need all the support for our new youth center,” says Sabry Solomon, a Belleville resident for 29 years and one of the church's founders. “We ask the neighbors, family and friends to give us the same support as we had in the early stages.”
The early stages were in 2002, when the nearest Coptic Orthodox Church in Rutherford was getting to be too small for the throng of attendees. The current St. Mary & St. Mercurius Coptic Orthodox Church had been a synagogue. It proved perfect for the new congregation’s needs.
“The beginning was very hard,” says Solomon.
"We made lots of changes here," recalls Father Halim, regarding the early renovations.
The Coptic Orthodox Church was founded in the first century by Saint Mark in Alexandria, and from then on the church has grown. The current Pope is Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria. St. Mary & St. Mercurius Coptic Orthodox Church, which is part of the Coptic Orthodox Church Archdiocese located in Cedar Grove, is served by both Father Halim and Father Luka Istafanous, celebrates Sunday Mass in Arabic and English languages from 8 a.m. to noon on Sundays, and also has a Sunday school.
Both gentlemen came from former careers. Father Halim worked in the pharmaceutical field in Egypt, and his partner was a former psychologist at UMDNJ for 10 years.
“I was promoted," says Father Istafanous with a smile. “When you graduate medical school, you treat the physical aspect. Then you’re promoted to treat the psychological aspects. Now, I’ve been promoted to treat the spirituality aspect.”
Adds Father Halim: “You feel it’s an invitation to serve God and dedicate your life to him and serve him and his children. That’s most important.”
Perhaps the Sunday school, which is held after Mass on Sundays, and the kids involvement in the church, is the most important. “Come on Sunday to see the number of kids," says Father Halim. "This is our main asset in the church. In the Orthodox tradition, you teach kids by having them in church. They’re practicing in the church, getting attention and growing.”
“Kids,” attests Father Istafanous, “are the heart of the church.”
According to Solomon, the new youth center is important in more ways than one.
“The building will be a good opportunity to have more business in town, and all will benefit," says Solomon. "It will be a landmark.”
St. Mary & St. Mercurius Coptic Orthodox Church, 125 Academy Street, Belleville, (973) 450-3003, www.snandsm.org