A week after most Canadian Christians commemorated the death and resurrection of Jesus this year, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church held it’s own particular celebration.
On Saturday night, more than 2,000 worshippers crowded into Toronto’s St. Mary Church to mark Fasika, the holiest day of the year for Ethiopian Christians.
The celebration in Toronto is the largest yearly gathering of Ethiopian Canadians in the country.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, a unique African form of Christianity, dates to the fourth century and is one of the oldest national churches in the world.
Festivities on Saturday night capped a three-day fast, during which believers neither eat nor drink. The highlight is a 45-minute procession when a sacred icon of Mary and Jesus, normally hidden from view, is paraded through the crowd. Hundreds of worshippers, holding candles aloft and wearing white shammas (prayer shawls), erupted into ululations and cheers as Head Priest Messale Engeda emerged with the image. The crowd chanted in Ge’ez, an ancient Semitic language still used in Ethiopian liturgy, and those who had earlier made a prayer request to Mary danced behind to the beat of drums.
The joyous songs and blaze of candles symbolizes the individual’s spiritual journey from darkness to light, as well as Jesus’s death and resurrection. A nearly three-hour service followed; at 1 a.m., worshippers finally repaired home to break the fast in all-night gatherings with friends and family.
For Ethiopian Canadians, this Fasika marks an important transition; It is the last time they will crowd into the old building, now too small for the growing community of more than 30,000, based mainly in Toronto. In the works for a decade, a $4.5-million cathedral is set to open in July. Situated next to the current church, it will be the first Ethiopian Orthodox cathedral in Canada. According to church program co-ordinator Alemayehu Zenebe it is also unique in North America because it is built in traditional style with a bell tower and copper-topped dome. The sacred images inside will be painted by Toronto-based Ethiopian artists.
St Mary’s congregation, begun by a single priest and handful of laypeople in 1984, was the first Ethiopian Orthodox church in Canada. At that point, recalls Mr. Zenebe, Ethiopians were not sure if they would stay here.
“But today,” he said, “we have all ethnic groups, all age groups and everybody feeling, this is my church, this is my home. So this [cathedral]is a blessing for Ethiopians in Toronto and not only Toronto – because we are the centre for all Ethiopian churches in Canada. … [This cathedral]gives our [Canadian-born]children pride and inspiration, too.”
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