In Loving Memory of the Very Reverend
Father Rafail Guirguis
First Shepherd of St Anthony Coptic Orthodox church in Medford New Jersey
May 1, 1932 – October 24, 2019
Introduction: (written by Mrs. Mariam Makar)
I wish I had photographic memory so that I could go back in time and remember every detail my father told us about his childhood and later adult hood.
But, I’m thankful for all the memories that we do have that we are able to put down on paper.
Where and When Father Rafail Guirguis was born and Early life:
Father Rafail Guirguis was born on May 1, 1932 in a town in Upper Egypt to a devout, Christian family. His mother’s name was Alexandra and his father’s name was Abdelmessih. He was one of twelve siblings and he was the youngest of the boys in his family. He often recalled how his older sisters were the ones who raised him as his mother passed away when he was only 4 or 5 years old. When it came time to go to college, he decided to study accounting. After graduating, he worked in an accounting firm for several years. During this time, and throughout his life he was always very involved in service in the church. He and his family attended St. Mary’s church in Alexandria where he was a deacon and had several roles including teaching hymns to younger deacons, leading Bible studies and giving sermons to the congregation.
Getting Married and his first calling to be ordained a priest:
Father Rafail told stories often about how his friend at the accounting firm introduced him to Tasoni Amal’s family and how he spent time with her and her family at their home several times before he asked her father for her hand in marriage. On July 21st, 1968, Father Rafail and Tasoni Amal got married and soon after they had their daughter and named her Mariam. When Mariam was about six years old, Father Rafail was asked for the first time by Bishop Dioscorus to become a priest. At the time, the church was in the season of Lent and the bishop requested that he be ordained before Holy Week. After praying and speaking with his wife, Father Rafail went to request that the ordination hold off until after the Resurrection Feast as this was a huge life change to pursue so quickly. When Father Rafail went to talk to Bishop Dioscorus he found that he was sick; he told the bishop “When you become well, I will do as you wish.” The Resurrection Feast came and went and Father Rafail heard the news of the bishop’s passing to heaven. Father Rafail used to say that it was not God’s will for him to be a priest at that time.
Getting the second calling:
About one year later, in March of 1977, Father Antonious Sabet (The representative of H.H. Pope Shenouda III) called Father Rafail and asked him to go to St. Athanasius church to meet with the priest there, Father Samaan. He obeyed and went to attend liturgy with Fr. Samaan; after liturgy Father Samaan requested that he become a priest in his church. He told Father Samaan, “if it’s God’s will!” As is custom in order for a lay man to become a priest, Fr. Rafail known as Rafail at the time went to serve several times in St. Athanasius church in order for the people to get to know him. After several weeks, the congregation voted unanimously for him to become a priest. Father Rafail and Tasoni Amal often recalled something that happened around that time. Tasoni Amal was worried about the change, she too knew that it was God’s will but found it difficult to accept so easily. She went to church one day to ask for God’s guidance and clarity, she opened the Bible – unknowingly to Luke 19:2 “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few, therefore pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.” She came home and told Father Rafail the story and they knew this was God’s will for their family.
On July 10, 1977 Father Rafail was ordained as a priest of the Coptic Orthodox Church on the church of St. Athanasious in Seiouf, Alexandria by His Holiness Pope Shenouda III. Pope Shenouda ordained him with his original birth name, Rafail. Following the ordination, Father Rafail and the other priests ordained with him traveled to the Monastery of Syrian in the desert of Egypt. He often recalled a story where he rode in Pope Shenouda’s new car with him, driven by his chauffeur, to get to the monastery. It was a special memory for him as Pope Shenouda always had a special place in his heart, he felt blessed to share that time with him. After completing his 40 days in the monastery, he returned to his church St. Athanasius to begin his service.
A Calling in the United States:
In November 1980, Pope Shenouda asked Father Rafail to move to the United States with his family to serve in St. George and St Shenouda in Jersey City, New Jersey. He immediately obeyed as he was always quick and willing to do as was asked of him. A few years later in 1986, Pope Shenouda asked him to go serve St. Mary’s in Minnesota in 1986 where he served the congregation there for 12 years. Around the mid 1990s, several families had moved to the South Jersey area and began requesting a priest and their own church from Pope Shenouda. Pope Shenouda asked Father Rafail to come to South Jersey to begin a church there, he moved to South Jersey in May of 1998.
The Start of a New Church:
When Father Rafail first arrived in South Jersey, the congregation was small and rented out space in a community center. Shortly after he arrived, they began to look for a more steady location that they could use to pray in. They found the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Cherry Hill, NJ – there they encountered a group of people that were very generous with their church space. The congregation was able to pray all Sunday liturgies, weekday liturgies, holidays and host church activities in their building for almost 10 years. Throughout the years at the Seventh Day Adventist church, the congregation grew quickly and they continually searched for land. In 2005, the church bought a beautiful piece of land in Medford, NJ. The congregation prayed their first liturgy there in May of 2007 and in 2008 Pope Shenouda came and consecrated the church. As the church continued to flourish, Father Rafail saw a need for another priest and requested this of Pope Shenouda. Maher Bishara, now Father John Bishara was nominated and began to get to know the congregation in Medford. Father Rafail and the congregation loved him and he was ordained as Father John Bishara in May of 2010.
A Dedicated Life:
Father Rafail served the church of St. Anthony’s faithfully for over 20 years. Those who encountered him immediately recognized his gentle, loving nature and those who knew him saw him as a loving, sacrificial and joyful father. He was open-armed and welcoming to each person and was known for his “I love you’s” and big hugs to the young children. He had a child-like joy about him and was often heard giving the youth nicknames or singing as he went along his day. He was always known to be supportive and encouraging of his congregation and his children. He was dedicated wholly to the service and to the Lord; despite his age and illness he was always present at asheya, weekday liturgy and Sunday liturgies. He truly embodied the words found in Isaiah “Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” Isaiah 40:31 He was humble in heart but strong in his faith in the Lord and in His goodness, he was often a man of few words but he lived by example, his presence brought incredible peace and comfort and for that he is incredibly missed. In May of 2019, Father Rafail was diagnosed with advanced cancer. He spent the last several months of his life with as much joy, peace and involvement in his beloved church as ever before. In the final days of his life when he was suffering from various pains he was continually heard saying the words “Ashkorak ya Yasou” or “Thank you Jesus”. His final week on earth was a perfect summary of his entire life – a life that wholly trusted in God and a heart at peace, full of joy and eager to serve and love others. On October 24, 2019 the Lord called him home to heaven. We miss him dearly and remember him always. May he remember us in front of the throne of the Almighty God and may we, his children at St. Anthony’s follow in his legacy of faith, service, love, humility, sacrifice and joy.
Abouna we love you… we miss you very much…
Abouna please remember us before the throne of the Almighty.