Streams in the Desert: The History of Heliopolis Community Church
[Drawing of St. Michael’s Church where H.C.C. has been meeting for 35 years]
In your wanderings through the streets of Heliopolis, it is not likely you would by chance discover the building where Heliopolis Community Church meets. However, in a little street called Seti Street, just off Baghdad Street, you can find one of the more picturesque sights in Korba. Although the Church of St. Michael and All Angels is surrounded by a wall lined with trees, behind the iron gates is nestled a charming stone structure that is reminiscent of times past in Heliopolis. This is where Heliopolis Community Church (H.C.C.) has been privileged to meet for the past 35 years.
The history of English language worship in Heliopolis is a long one, and H.C.C. has played its own significant role in continuing to provide a venue where expatriates living in Egypt can find a community of fellow believers in Christ. The foundation stone for the Church of St. Michael and All Angels was laid on April 12th, 1925 by H.E. the High Commissioner Lord Allenby (you can still see the stone above the entrance to the church). However, English language services were discontinued in 1956 due to the departure of the British. Then, from 1962 until 1973, Bishop Ishaq Mosaad held English services once a month.
In 1979, the intern pastor at St. Andrew’s Church, Dean Bard, and the Provost of All Saints’ Cathedral, Derek Eaton, reached out once again to expatriates in Heliopolis and recommenced English-language worship services. Heliopolis Community Church was officially established, and today is still blessed to gather on the premises of St. Michael’s Church. One former member of H.C.C. referred to Heliopolis Community Church as an oasis, or “streams in the desert,” during their sojourn in Egypt, and H.C.C. continues to carry on the call to provide a community where expatriates can find friendship, fellowship, and above all a place to worship God in English.
Here is the story of the beginning of HCC in the words of Rev. Bard*:
I am delighted to have an opportunity to extend hearty greetings and congratulations in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ on this 25th Anniversary* of the Heliopolis Community Church. During the academic year 1978—1979, I served as an intern pastor at the English speaking congregations in Cairo, and together with the Rev. Derek Eaton, Dean of All Saints Cathedral, led the first worship services at St. Michael and All Angels that resulted in the formation of the congregation. At that time, English speaking expatriates living in the Heliopolis area had very little community resource to support and enrich their lives in Egypt. To help build community life, Ed and Sheila Knopp from Colorado State University, Fort Collins, together with other interested persons, organized monthly community events called the “Heliopolis Happenings.” This process led to the formation of a number of interest groups and organizations and also formed the basis for beginning worship services in Heliopolis. After I left Cairo in the summer of 1979, the Rev. Michael Shelley was sent as a missioner to Cairo with responsibility to continue building this worshiping community. At the time, I was told by long-term Presbyterian missioners in Cairo that HCC was probably the first Christian congregation to be established in the country during the past fifty years.
Pastor Mike Shelley, the first permanent pastor of HCC, and his wife Joanne share about the beginnings of the church*:
We remember our years at the Heliopolis Community Church with much fondness and happy memories. The HCC was the first church Mike pastored. In the early days, Derek Eaton (now a Bishop in New Zealand) was instrumental in getting the HCC going, and then worked with Mike for two years, coming out from All Saints’ Cathedral to share in preaching and leading the services on Sunday evenings. When we arrived in October 1979, the HCC was but six months old, and there was a church constitution to write, a council to be formed, a Sunday School to begin, along with other foundational work. Those were challenging days!
The HCC saw us through the birth, baptism and early years of our sons, Matthew and Timothy. We made many dear friends during those early years. Many brave souls took turns babysitting our little ones while Joanne attempted to take some Arabic classes. In many ways, the church was an extended family for us. Our sons had lots of honorary grandparents. Those years created such an amazing opportunity to get to know people from all walks of life and all corners of the globe.
Joanne remembers being involved with the choir, and still has wonderful memories of some duets and ensembles with Rebecca Atallah and several others. Being involved in the music was a great blessing for her. As a young mother, it helped her stay involved in her beloved field of music.
So much has happened since those early days of the HCC, in our lives and in the lives of all who have worshipped there. We are pleased to know that the HCC continues to play a very significant role in the Heliopolis community and as a church home for so many. We pray for God’s continued blessings upon its ministries, and for bountiful blessings upon all those who have and who continue to enter its sanctuary. “IL HUMDU LILLAH!”
Peace in Christ, Joanne and Michael Shelley
* From letters they wrote for HCCs 25th Anniversary in 2004