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St. Ephrem Syriac Church
Language and tradition unite members  

by Shannon Scruby Henderson

St. Ephrem Syriac Catholic Church on Kernan Road in Jacksonville looks like no other place of worship in the area. Borrowing elements from a 4th century church dedicated to the martyrs Behnan and his sister Sarah in northern Iraq, the 7,000 square foot structure features crenellated exterior walls adorned with stylized white crosses. Connecting the church and its large social hall (its exterior is modeled after the 7th century Castle of St. Simon in Aleppo, Syria) is a traditional Eastern-style bell tower. Interior spaces are finished in a rich mix of deep reds and golds, faux marble, dark wood and abstract mosaics.

The Syriac liturgy is among Christianity’s most ancient. It uses the Syriac language as seen in the book below, an Aramaic dialect similar to that spoken by Christ to the Apostles.
  Dedicated on May 19, 2007, St. Ephrem Syriac Church was designed by Junck and Walker Architects and cost $3.5 million. The new church is located on Kernan Blvd. in Jacksonville.

The parish’s 250 families share a common background: their families emigrated from the Middle East - Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine - to find a new life in Northeast Florida. In most ways fully assimilated, they are deeply conscious of their unique religious traditions. Father Selwan Taponi built the new church with the help of a number of influential families in the Jacksonville area. “As a Catholic priest, when I saw people who were pushing me to tell their American children and grandchildren about their heritage, I had to act,” says Father Selwan, who, with his parents and siblings, moved from Iraq a decade ago.

St. Ephrem is the only Syriac Catholic parish in the South. Originally located on Stacey Road off San Pablo, the community secured a loan through the Diocese of Saint Augustine to build its permanent church on a five-acre campus on Kernan Road. The new church was formally consecrated on May 19, 2007. Father Selwan is the only priest in the diocese with two bishops - Bishop Victor Galeone and Bishop Joseph Younan, bishop of Syriac Catholics in the United States and Canada located in New Jersey.

Inside the sanctuary are statuary and sacramentals that would be familiar to all Catholics. The bound missalettes in the pew pockets would not. These books open, Aramaic-style, from back to front. Inside, prayers and liturgies are translated into English, Arabic and Aramaic. “Though only four or five people in the parish still speak Aramaic, the majority does speak Arabic,” says Father Selwan. “We try to keep these languages alive in our community.” The structure of the Mass is essentially the same. But feast days are often celebrated on different calendar days, so readings may differ from Latin Rite churches.

The interior of St. Ephrem Syriac Catholic Church is adorned with a rich mix of deep reds and golds, faux marble, dark wood and beautiful abstract mosaics.

A hallmark of St. Ephrem is its “very generous families,” says Father Selwan, noting for the record that a 30-year loan for the first parish complex was paid in just three years. “We are very touchy-feely people who share the same memories,” he adds. Future goals include a kindergarten through eighth grade school and a parish social complex with nursing home - “the most beautiful mission is to provide for our seniors who can be together in their old age,” he says.

St. Paul Parish at a glance
St. Ephrem Syriac
Catholic Church, est. 1986
4650 Kernan Blvd.
Jacksonville, FL 32224

Pastor: Father Selwan Taponi
Parishioners: 250 registered families
School: Pre-Kindergarten only

Who was St. Ephrem?
From St. Thomas to St. Peter, the Syriac Catholic Church shares many saints in common with the Latin Rite. Some, like St. Ephrem, are unfamiliar to most western Catholics - though Roman theologians have long recognized him as a Doctor of the Church. Few specifics are available about his life, but it is thought that Ephrem the Syrian was born in Mesopotamia in the early fourth century, a time when Christianity was under fire from several powerful heresies. Tradition has it that this talented musician created hundreds of poetic hymns to dispute heretical teachings and inspire a return to doctrine. He is credited with enlightening the church about the power of music and poetry to strengthen and spread the faith.

The Syriac Rite: An exotic yet equal form of Catholicism
Asked to explain the Syriac Rite to Roman Catholics, St. Ephrem pastor Father Selwan Taponi resorts to a poetic conceit. “Catholicism is like a big garden with different flowers,” he says. The rites are like the flowers - each with its own special fragrance.”

As one of the Eastern Rite Churches, the Syriac Rite enjoys the same respect within the Catholic Church as the much larger Latin Rite. In the two millennia since Christianity began, wars and persecutions dispersed members of Eastern Rite communities in Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Asia to countries across the world. The American seat of the Syriac Church is the Eparchy of Our Lady of Deliverance, located in Newark, N.J. It is presided over by Bishop Joseph Younan. The highest-ranking Syriac prelate is its Patriarch, His Beatitude Patriarch Ignatius Butros II, who is loyal to the Pope in Rome.

The Syriac liturgy is among Christianity’s most ancient. It uses the Syriac language, an Aramaic dialect similar to that spoken by Christ and the Apostles. Established in Antioch, the Roman capital of Syria, the Syriac church is second only to Jerusalem as the oldest Christian community on record. In fact, Antioch was where the followers of Jesus were first called “Christians” (Acts 11:26). By the second century A.D., the Bible had been translated from Greek to Syriac, a version that became a standard source of Christian teaching.

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