Orthodox Catholics mark Feast of Epiphany

Chinki Sinha

When the Rev. James Guirguis, 28, faced his congregation Sunday morning, he thanked God for the “almost full attendance” at St. George Orthodox Church. 

It was the first time the priest, who moved to the area in August, led the congregation in prayers for the Feast of Epiphany to celebrate the baptism of Jesus Christ in the River of Jordan. 

“It is an awesome responsibility,” he said. “It is a very important feast in the life of the church. It is important because it washes away sins and our sinful nature.” 

For many Orthodox Catholics, the Feast of Epiphany is the most important holiday, Guirguis said. On this day, the priest blesses the holy water, re-enacting the baptism of Jesus. 

As Guirguis handed out small plastic bottles of holy water, he said he hoped the meaning did not escape parishioners. 

“Water plays such an important part in our lives,” he said. “In old days, all you could do was pray to God to bless you with water.” 

Anna Haddad, whose father was a founding member of the church, has always attended services on the day of the feast. 

To her, nothing holds more significance than the church and its tradition. 

“You sprinkle it in your house,” she said, holding the little vial of holy water in her hands. “It lasts all year.” 

St. George Church was founded by Lebanese immigrants at the turn of the last century to serve the Lebanese and Syrian communities in the region. The church is part of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church of North America. 

For the first-generation Lebanese immigrants, the church was a focal point of their lives. Through it, they asserted their culture, language and tradition. 

Until about 15 years ago, the services were in Arabic, said parishioner Louis Haddad, who is also on the church’s board. 

Now, some of the church’s 140 parishioners are descendents of these immigrants. But others have joined, too. 

“At the beginning, there were many immigrants,” Guirguis said. “Right now, we have more non-Lebanese people.” 

The services are in English so that children and non-Arabic speakers can understand. 

“We are a progressive church. I miss it though,” Haddad said of the Arabic Masses. “It reminded me of my grandparents.” 

Haddad’s grandparents George and Martha Haddad were among the group that founded the church in 1913 after they left Lebanon, he said. 

The church follows the Julian calendar or the old calendar to determine its fast and feast days. Other Catholic churches use the Gregorian calendar. 

George Albert, 11, has full faith in the powers of the holy water, he said. 

Once, he recalled, he was in the hospital suffering from dehydration when his mother sprinkled the holy water on his forehead. 

“Yeah, it worked,” he said. 

“It has the essence of God,” added Paul Nassif, 10, who was one of the several children that attended Sunday’s services. 

Louis Haddad remembered how his mother would keep the bottle of holy water high in the cupboard to be used only on important occasions such as the purchase of a new car or a sick family member. 

“It was always there,” he said. “I use it now to bless myself.”