When the services of the churches were organized during the time of the apostles, there were only bishops for cities where a sizable group of Christians resided. As Christianity spread throughout a region, the Bishop would ordain priests to help with serving the smaller communities in the area of his jurisdiction. Thus the Bishop is the designated shepherd of the city and the region. The term ‘Shepherd’ is reserved only for the Bishop. Where there is more than one priest in any parish church, the Bishop elevates one of them to the rank of Hegumen who would be responsible for coordination of services in that church.
In the Middle Ages, the choice of a priest was relatively simple. The most qualified person, who knew church hymnology and served as a deacon for many years, would usually be a priest’s son. Thus the priesthood, especially in villages around the country of Egypt, ran in families, which was not different from other professions. Due to lack of education among the populace in general, preaching was not an essential requirement for the ordination of a priest. Often, homilies from the early Church Fathers’ writings were read. A remnant of that period’s practices can still be found during church services of the Holy Week.
The beginning of the 20th Century witnessed a revolution in the approach to church services and personnel in Egypt. Archdeacon Habib Guirgis, who is considered the father of many recent services in the Coptic Church, established the foundation of today’s Church renaissance. Sunday school sprouted in the 1930’s and spread throughout the country within ten years. The School of Theology saw a revival and an expansion of programs with a rigorous curriculum. A new evening and weekend program was established to accommodate the people who wanted to study Church teachings in depth but had day jobs. Many were not necessarily attending the Seminary in preparation to become a priest, but for the knowledge itself. Women were also admitted to the Seminary.
To promote formal seminary education for incoming priests, many bishops made it a requirement to have a Theology Degree to be ordained as a priest. Thus, a new breed of university graduates, who also had seminary education, began in the late 1940’s. This trend expanded under H.H. Pope Kyrillos VI (1959- 1971) and much more so during the reign of the current Pope, H.H. Pope Shenouda III (1971-Present.)
The first priest to serve North America is Fr. Marcos Marcos of Toronto who was ordained in 1964 and used to visit various congregations around the U.S. and Canada about once a year, including Southern California. The first priest to serve full time in Los Angeles was the late Fr. Bishoy Kamel who arrived in 1969. He was instrumental in acquiring the first church in Los Angeles in 1970, and in promoting youth services, hymnology, Coptic language classes, and Sunday school for children. Even though he only stayed ten months in the area, he established a solid foundation for services which was built upon by successive priests who followed. The Church of St. Mark was the hub of Coptic Christians for many years. Several priests came for one- to two-year periods for such service, temporarily leaving their own parishes in Egypt, and returning after their tour of duty. Some of these priests returned later to California or other states to serve on a permanent basis. Many of those priests who served at St. Mark Church in Los Angeles are mentioned in the history of that church.
The first ordained priest specifically for Los Angeles was the Late Fr. Antonious Henein by H.H. Pope Shenouda III in October 1973. Fr. Antonious was an immigrant to the U.S. who arrived in 1968 and thus was well aware of the needs of Coptic immigrants.
After the historical visit of H.H. Pope Shenouda III in 1977, many more priests were sent to Southern California. They were well experienced priests mostly from Cairo and Alexandria, who came to establish new churches for the ever-expanding number of Coptic immigrants to the region. Southern California’s temperate climate, diverse economic base, and abundance of universities attracted many Egyptians to the region.
There were nineteen priests in the area, at the time of establishing the new diocese in December 1995.