On Thursday, a three-day celebration to mark the 50th anniversary of the apparition of the immaculate mother of Jesus Christ will begin at the Virgin Mary Church in the eastern Cairo district of Zaytoun.
Among the special masses scheduled, two will be led by the head of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church Pope Tawadros II – the first on Saturday evening and the second on Sunday morning.
The church, which was originally built in the 1920s, was the site of a miraculous apparition of the Virgin Mary in the spring of 1968.
"It was an amazing night, according to those who lived it. An attendant at a parking lot opposite the church woke up late in the evening to see the silhouette of a woman atop of the dome of the church. [She was] all bright and serene," said Bishop Bassilios, who serves at the church.
"At first, he thought it was a woman who was trying to commit suicide because the poor man had just seen a woman jump off the roof of a nearby school a few days earlier. But in a short while he realized it was not, because the silhouette was very stable on top of the curve of the dome. If it was a human being, she would have certainly slipped," the bishop explained.
According to the accounts of Bishop Bassilios and residents of the neighborhood who remember that evening, it was a matter of hours before “people realized what was really going on, and that it was the apparition of the divine mother of Jesus Christ."
"We heard that she had appeared and remained there throughout the night, so the following day we came hoping to see her and get her blessings. When we arrived, there were so many people, really so many people coming for hope and blessings,” said Wedad Mikhail, a parishioner at the church, after emerging from mass on Wednesday morning.
Mikhail is not a resident of Zaytoun, but has come to pray at the Virgin Mary Church every spring for fifty years.
“Since I saw her [the Virgin Mary] and I asked her to heal my son, I have been coming from where I live every year all through April and May, for four consecutive weeks, to pray here and ask for her blessings,” she said.
According to Bishop Bassilios, the church has recorded on video for the first time the testimonies of elderly men and women with direct memories of the day of the apparition.
He said that the church would screen the video prior to the mass to be held by Pope Tawdros II on Saturday evening.
"It has been fifty years and this is not a short period of time, but we managed to capture a few testimonies of neighborhood residents, Christians and Muslims alike, not just by those who attend the church,” the bishop explained, adding, “I know that some people question the apparition and say that it is only people's imaginations, but this was not a one-off. It continued happening for over two years and all attempts to inspect the nature of the apparition were made."
He recalled that the then-head of the Coptic Church, Pope Cyril VI, made an official announcement on the apparition that was featured on the front pages of Cairo's daily newspapers and also made several international papers.
Al-Ahram newspaper with the headline: 'Pope Cyril: The appearance of the Virgin is real'
The association of the Virgin Mary with this part of Cairo is as old as the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt. The Immaculate Virgin is believed to have passed through this part of the city.
"The story we heard is that the man who volunteered to build the church back in the early 20th century had had a dream in which the Virgin Mary told him that she wanted a church carrying her name in this part of the city,” Bishop Bassilios said.
According to the clergyman, in 1924, Ibrahim Khalil Pasha, a resident of Heliopolis who was known for his wealth, faith and charity, received a visit from a group of Coptic residents of nearby Zaytoun who had been trying for ten years to collect enough money to buy a piece of land in order to build a small church.
"The story goes that when they went to see him, they found him as if he were waiting for them to come. He then promised to build the church, but passed away before he managed to live up to his commitment," Bassilios explained.
"His son, Tewfik Bey, carried on the mission and built the church according to the will and wish of his father,” he said.
The church was designed by an Italian architect and was constructed and inaugurated in October 1925. Today, the white domes of the Virgin Mary Church stand over the entrance of Zaytoun.
On the opposite end of the street there stands a much bigger church that was built in the 1980s as an extension to the original.
"Things changed so much after the apparition. Many people began coming to pray and there were too many people for the old church to accommodate. The state allowed us to construct a new building on the same land, where the parking lot attendant first to saw the divine apparition,” said Bassilios.
The new church was opened in the late 1980s.
"But I love to come and pray here at the old church," said Nadia Kyrolos, an elderly resident of Zaytoun.
"This is where my heart is; this is the place of the apparition of Our Lady. I have been coming here to ask for her blessings for the last 50 years, and she never turned me down. I got married here and I baptized my children here and it is here that I want to have my funeral," she concluded.
Like others who attended the Wednesday morning mass ahead of the 50th anniversary celebrations, Kyrolos said she was hoping for “more blessings from the Virgin Mary to come our way to bring light and joy."
For Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Christians, the anniversary celebration of the apparition follows Tuesday evening's 50th anniversary of the return of St. Mark's relics, or remains, to Egypt.
The disciple is credited with bringing Christianity to Egypt in the first century CE, and his relics are now housed in Saint Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo's Abbassiya district.
In early June, Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Christians will commemorate the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt, and later that month, the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of St. Mark's Cathedral.
The anniversary of the apparition would have been celebrated on its proper date in April, Bishop Bassilios explained, but this would have overlapped with Holy Week, during which churches do not hold jubilees.