Central Falls church marks 100 years as haven for persecuted

Father Mattias Alan Shaltan, 30, came to St.Ephraim Church, Central Falls, five years ago. The church
CENTRAL FALLS — On Sunday, the bright new bell in front of St. Ephraim Syriac Orthodox Church will ring out for the first time.

It will signal more than time for worship.

It will ring out in testament to a faith that has traveled a great distance and survived many tribulations.

And it will ring out in hope of an even stronger future.

The St. Ephraim parish is celebrating its centennial — 100 years of being part of Central Falls and 100 years of offering sanctuary to many Christians who have had to flee their homelands in the Middle East.

The Syriac Orthodox Church, the oldest Christian church in the world, began putting down roots in the United States around the turn of the century as its members were fleeing persecution in parts of Turkey, Syria and Lebanon, according to parish members.

Ephraim Doumato, a lifelong member the church, describes the parish as a close-knit family that shares religion, cultural traditions and love for this country.

The parish will celebrate the centennial most of this weekend with an anniversary gala Saturday night at the Kirkbrae Country Club in Lincoln and a special service performed by Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Mor Cyril Aphrem Karim on Sunday.

“I am so very happy to be part of this church and its pastor at this time,” says the Very Reverend Mattias Alan Shaltan, who has led St. Ephraim since 2008.

He says he is grateful not only to be part of the celebration but to share it with such devoted parishioners such as Doumato, who is the son of St. Ephraim’s retired, long-time pastor, the Very Reverend Abdulahad Doumato.

One visible sign that this is a special year is the gleaming new bronze bell on the front lawn of the modest yellow brick church on Washington Street.

There are about 35 Syriac Orthodox Churches in the United States, according to the websites of the two dioceses that cover the country.

Ephraim Doumato and fellow parishioner Pierre Ghazal, both of whom serve on the centennial committee, say that small number of Syriac Orthodox churches in this country adds to the feeling of family and connectivity with church leaders.

The Syriac Orthodox Church dates to 451 A.D. and is considered to be part of what is called the Oriental Orthodox family of churches.

Its spiritual leader, now based in Damascus, Syria, is called the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, and is currently His Holiness Ignatius Zakka I Iwas.

Doumato and Ghazal say that the St. Ephraim parish is growing, mostly due to an immigrant population as persecution of Christians escalates in the Middle East.

They said that the local community takes heart, however, in their religion’s history of resilience, and the legacy of devotion left by the five men who founded St. Ephraim’s in 1913 for just a few families transplanted to an American mill village.

St. Ephraim’s first two structures were destroyed by fire in 1939 and 1961.

The current church was completed in 1963 and its amber windows fill its simple interior with golden light.

The church, which traces its roots to St. Peter the apostle, has held tightly to its history with its services here performed in three languages: Arabic, the ancient liturgical language of Aramaic, and English.

Father Shaltan says that English is being used more and more now, particularly in special ceremonies such as weddings and baptisms, as the church looks for ways to keep its younger members who are growing up as Americans.

“They will decide our future,” he said, noting that some of the parish youths will be making a presentation as part of the Saturday night celebration and it is not by accident that the centennial event is titled “The First 100 years.”

It is a challenge for all churches to keep a focus on faith these days with all the distractions of the 21st century America, Father Shaltan says.

But, he and parishioners note that a strong love for this country and thankfulness for the refuge it offered earlier generations of Syriac Orthodox Church members are woven into the parish culture.

“Central Falls and Rhode Island have been a great home to our community over the last 100 years,” Father Shaltan said. “God willing, we will be here another 100 years.”