WOMEN IN THE COPTIC CHURCH
Egypt has known Christian women devoted to God since the early centuries of Christianity. St. Antony consigned his sister to women consecrated as virgins before he devoted his life to solitude and worship. Sources speak of female ascetics such as Amma Theodora, who lived toward the end of the fourth century in Nitria or Scetis. Her sayings were highly appreciated by many Church Fathers. The Apophthegmata patrum preserves 18 maxims attributed to Amma Syncletica and eight apopthegms under the name of Amma Sara.
Mary, the sister of Pachomius, became the “mother” of a monastery. Some 1,800 nuns were associated with the Monastery of St. Shenute under Shenute. The Monastery of St. Jeremiah at Saqqara was in close contact with a monastery for women. Dayr al-Banat (the women’s convent) existed in the region of al-Fayoum, probably until the beginning of the 11th century when it was destroyed, perhaps during the time of Caliph al-Hakim (996-1035). The Arab historian al-Maqrizi (1364-1442) mentioned four convents in Cairo. In the 19th century, there were five convents in Cairo.
Today, there are convents of St. Dimyanah at Bilqas near Damietta, St. George, St. Mercurius at Old Cairo, St. Theodore at Haret al Rum, the Holy Virgin, St. George at Haret Zuwaylah in Cairo, the Daughters of Mary in Beni Suef, St. Theodore at the west of Luxor, St. Pisentius near Naqqada, and St. Ammonius southwest of Esna. At present, Coptic religious women may be classified into three groups: contemplative nuns, active nuns and consecrated women, and deaconesses.
In 1997, the contemplative nuns numbered 450, and there were 90 active nuns and 500 consecrated women. A considerable number of them are graduates of universities. The contemplative nuns strive to research their old Coptic heritage and try to reach the ideal ascetic life of the saints mentioned in Coptic literature and Copto-Arabic literature. During fasting, Copts can eat neither meat nor animal extracts; nuns eat only one meal daily, usually at noon.
As a traditional monastic dress, the nuns wear the qalansuwah, which is a cap divided into two halves decorated with embroidered crosses. It is said that St. Antony used the qalansuwah. A number of convents claim that the Holy Family passed through their locations. They are decorated with icons and beautiful wall paintings. The production of icons is one of the convents’ income sources.
Mother Irini introduced anew the old Pachomian communal monasticism to her convent of Abu Sayfayn (Church of St. Mercurius). In addition to the Bible and the monastic traditional literature, such as the Garden of the Monks (Bustan al-Ruhban), contemplative nuns receive monastic education from the convents’ superiors and bishops.
In 1965, Athanasius, Bishop of Beni Suef, established a female religious group called the Daughters of Mary. The aim of that group was to commit themselves as active nuns for their whole life. Its members render service in clinics, schools, centers for children with mental health problems, and in senior citizens’ homes. This group was recognized by Patriarch Cyril VI, who declared that the community of the Daughters of Mary was special in its combination of ministry and the life of nuns.
The success and the papal acknowledgment of this group led to the foundation of other groups of consecrated virgins and widows in many other dioceses in the last three decades of the 20th century. Some of the groups lived in nunneries within the towns, others with their own families or in communities. The services of the active nuns and consecrated women extended to education in slums and remote villages, to drug addicts, and to literacy lessons for adults.
Pope Shenouda III encouraged women to study in the Clerical College and ordained 180 deaconesses in 1981, whose community center became the Convent of St. Dimyanah. During his pontificate, the Holy Synod issued the decree of the “consecrated women” in 1991. The virgin or widow who desires to consecrate herself to the diaconal service serves three years as “consecrated.” After five years, she could be promoted to “subdeaconess,” and it requires five more years in the service to become a “deaconess.” The Holy Synod confirmed that a “rite of consecration” should be performed in that official consecration.
The expansion of the Church’s activities in the patriarchate of Cyril VI, and his successor Shenouda III, means that more women are needed in the service of the Coptic community.
Female volunteers, especially university students and graduates, are recruited in the Sunday Schools, social works, and charitable institutions. Anba Samuel, bishop of social and ecumenical affairs, established many training centers where women in the villages and the poor quarters of the cities could learn skills and crafts.