The History of St. Thomas Church in New Britain
The Assyrians of today are descendants of the ancient Assyrian people who played a major role in the foundation of the world’s civilization. Assyria is estimated to have been established about 3,000 years before Christ in Mesopotamia (the land between two rivers). The 1st Biblical mention of Assyrian is in (Genesis 10:10-12) “and the beginning of his kingdom was Babylon, Erech, Akhar, and Caliah, in the land of Sinar. Out of Sinar went forth the Assyrian and built Nineveh, and the city of Rehoboth, and Calah, and Resen which lies between Nineveh and Calah; the same is a great city.” In the same chapter verses 22 we read “the sons of Shem: Elam, Ashur, Arphakhashar, Lud, and Aram.” Assyrians are descendants of Ashur, one of Shem’s children.
The next significant mention of the Assyrians in the Holy Scriptures is in 2 Kings 17:3 “Against him came Shalmaneser king of Assyria, and Hoshea became his servant and brought him tribute. Shalmaneser the fifth, the king of Assyria 727-722 B.C., attacked Hoshea, the King of the Northern kingdom of Israel, at that time the Kingdom of Israel was divided into two kingdoms the northern kingdom, which contained ten tribes of Israel, was called Samaria. And the Southern kingdom which contained the other two tribes Juda and Levi was called Judea. “In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria took Samaria, and carried Israel away to Assyria and placed them in Halah and in Habor by the river of Gozan, the cities of media” (2 Kings 17:6). Also, we read in the same chapter verses 24-27, “and the king of Assyria brought people from Babylon and from Cuth and from Ava and from Hamath and from Sepharvim, and settled them in the cities of Samaria instead of the children of Israel; and they possessed Samaria, and dwelt in the cities thereof. And at the beginning of their dwelling there, they did not reverence the Lord; therefore, the Lord sent lions against them, which slew some of them. Therefore, they told the king of Assyria, saying, the nation which has carried captive and placed in the cities of Samaria do not know the religion of the god of the land; therefore, he sent lions against them, and, behold, they slay them because they do not know the religion of the god of the land. Then the king of Assyria commanded, saying, "Take there one of the priests whom you have carried away from there; and let him go and dwell there, and let him teach them the religion of the god of the land."
From these verses, we understand that Samaritans were Assyrians who dwell in Samaria and practiced the religion of the god of that land, which is Judaism. Jesus witnessed the faith of the Samaritan who was the only one who praised God from the ten leprosies whom Jesus healed, even Jesus resembled Himself to a good Samaritan.
Assyrians repented by one message carried unwillingly by Jonah, a Hebrew preacher. One message from God made the great king of Assyria to take off his crown, forget his thrown, and put on the clothes of mourn. He sat down on ashes pleasing God for forgiveness.
Isaiah recited the words of God saying “Woe to the Assyrian, the rod of my anger, in whose hand is the club of my wrath! I send him against a godless nation, I dispatch him against a people who anger me, seize loot and snatch plunder, and to trample them down like mud in the streets.” (Isa. 10:5-6). In chapter (31:8-9) “then shall the Assyrian fall with the sword, not with the sword of men; neither the sword of mighty men shall devour him, but he shall flee from the sword and his young men shall be discomfited. And he shall dwell in his rocky habitation, and his princes shall be defeated from before the standard, says the Lord whose fire is in Zion and his furnace in Jerusalem.” The Assyrians were defeated by the invisible sword of God, the merciful sword which Jesus brought “I have not come to bring peace but a sword” (Matt. 10:34), the sword which separates believers from a nonbeliever. Assyrians of Urhai (or Edessa) were the first people from gentile nations to believe in Jesus Christ. Urhai is the capital of Osroen, from the Assyrian word osrah means 10, because this kingdom was built by 10 Assyrian generals after the fall of Nineveh. St. Eusebius, the fourth-century historian, stated in his book “The History of the Church” the story of Thaddaeus (Mar Addai), one of Christ’s seventy disciples, whom St. Thomas sent to Edessa to fulfill the promise of our Lord to Abgar Uchama the Toparch of Edessa. St Eusebius translated the original copies of two letters from Syriac to Greek one was sent by Abgar to Jesus, confessing that Jesus is God and begging him to come and cure the disorder from which he suffered and to live the rest His life in Edessa. The other letter is Jesus’ reply to king Abgar, and it stated as follow: “Happy are you who believed in Me without having seen Me, for it is written of Me that those who have seen Me will not believe in Me, and those who have not seen will believe and live. As to your request that I should come to you, I must complete all that I was sent to do here, and on completing it I must at once be taken up to the One who sent me. When I have been taken up I will send you one of My disciples to cure your disorder and bring life to you and those with you.” Mar Addai was the disciple who fulfilled Jesus’s promise and went to Edessa, and from Edessa he Ordained Mar Mari and sent him to Babylon. Meanwhile, the 12 Apostles remained preaching in Jerusalem until the persecution of St. James, one of the twelve disciples, which was around 44 A.D., and after that event the apostles fled Jerusalem.
According to the Mingana Collection # 212, St. Peter, St. Thomas, and St. Bartholomew from the twelve disciples, and St. Addai, St. Mari, St. Benjamin, and St. Simon from 72 apostles came together to Assyria (Mosul) carrying with them letters to Jews who lived in Assyria. One of these letters was to a merchant who has a sesame mill. Because they arrived during the summertime when sesame was not ready to grind, he let them preach in the mill, later the mill became church Cepa.
All available histories show that Christianity spread among Assyrian in the early years of the first century. There is a tradition that says the church of Babylon established in 37 A.D., which means four years after the resurrection. The missionaries of this church spread Christianity west and they reach as far as the islands of the Pacific. Christianity became a special Characteristic attached to Assyrian, they carried their faith wherever they go. They preserved their faith despite all the persecution they went through.
One of the titles of the Assyrian Church of the East is the Church of Martyrs, for many Martyrs she gave through the ages. Persecution on the Assyrian church started during the reign of Shapur II (309-379), after he was defeated by Julian the Roman emperor, ever since the Assyrian Church of the East was in persecution. The latest massacre which our nation was afflicted with, was by Ottoman Government before and during W.W.I. which resulted in 750,000 innocent people losing their life, giving up our possession in mountain of Hakkari, and becoming scattered all over the world looking for safe haven.
New Britain was one of the shelters which provided a peaceful dwelling for Assyrian refugees. The first congregation, under the Persian Assyrian, appeared in 1905. This group held bible study classes and evening prayer at South Congregational Church in New Britain under the ministry of Rev. Elisha Adams. At the end of W.W.I. more Assyrian immigrants came to New Britain from Urmia, among them was Rev. Shimun Younan. On February 12, 1919, the Church of the East was established officially, and first Holy Communion was offered on the same day in the hall of John Sakritoliski on Broad St. For the several months, Rev. Shimon was busy performing baptismal, marriage, and communion services in the Episcopalian Church in Bristol. In July of the same year, Mar Youalah the bishop of Bet-Nohadra (Barwar and Sapna) came to the United States, and on December 19, 1919, he ordained two deacons, Shamasha Patros Yonan of Sat for New Britain, and Shamasha Eramia Bacos of Ardeeshe for Yonkers, NY.
Rev. Shimu Younan’s services did not last long for he became seriously ill. He went to Yonkers and then to Philadelphia where he passed away. At this time, Deacon Saul D. Neesan was being prepared for the priesthood, along with four others who would be ordained deacons. In December 14, 1924, His Grace Mar Timathous Metropolitan of Malabar and India ordained Deacon Saul Neesan to the order of Archdeacon and David Sargis, Isreal Benjamin, David Yonan, and Ephraim Ives to the order of deacon, during his visit to the United States.
Few years later, the parish purchased a home on South St. with the intent of razing it and building a church. Rev. Neesan and family took up residence there and religious instructions were taught, as well as Assyrian School and Bible study. The parishioners were unable to make mortgage payments due to the 1929 Great Depression and as a result, there was a foreclosure on the home. Once again, St. Mark`s Church received us with open arms to hold service and parish affairs until 1946.
In 1940, the parish purchased acres of land on Barbour Road and after clearing the bushes away by hand, the men of the parish prepared the areas so that a road was put through. A cinder block building to hold tools was build by Shakhoo Lazar. It was named St. Thomas Assyrian Church Cemetery. Funds for this land came from the use of ground on the opposite side where parish picnics were held in the summer months.
In the fall of 1940 word was received that the His Holiness Mar Shimon and his Family were set free from exile after 7 years in Cypress. Also, His Holiness paid a Patriarchate visit to New York and Connecticut. Mar Eshai Shimon XXIII, the 119th Patriarch of the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, in his journey to visit all parishes in the United States, on July 29, 1940, arrived at Christ Church Cathedral in Hartford by the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese, choirs of many voices, greeting Him with prayers of thanksgiving and special religious service. His arrival was like a dream for all Assyrians.
In 1942, His Holiness ordained Yonan Jones to the order of Deacon at St. Mark`s Church. He served the parish as a Deacon, Choirmaster, religious school leader, and youth advisor.
On July 3, 1943, while visiting our parish, his Holiness called the executive committee of the church and some faithful members of the church, and suggested to build a church. In that gathering, his holiness chose the following members of the church building committee: Soul Moshi (1st President), Yountan Isaac (2nd President), Nimrud Joseph (Treasurer), Sargis Gewarges (1st Secretary), Absolem Baba (2nd Secretary), and Enwya Essa, Pious Badel, Yountan Benjamin, Absolem Sayad, Babasi Enwya, Isaac Oshana, Joseph Sargis, Deacon Yonan Younatan as members. During the next visit from His Holiness on October 7, 1943, the land of the church was purchased for $1,600. The land was 111 feet wide and 167 feet long. His Holiness requested a general body meeting for fundraising to start building, three days later on October 10, the meeting was held in the basement of St. Mark Church. $7.000.00 was raised and St. Thomas was named the church by His Holiness Mar Eshai Shumon.
The building committee members tried their best for more than two years to overcome the difficulties of building procedures (requirements of engineers, obtaining permits, and the agreement of contractors) made the committee decide that if they use the amount of money they had to buy a house, to be used as a church and postpone building procedures for later will be more profitable.
Under the direction of our Patriarch, the Stanley Mansion was purchased in 1946 and the interior was gutted to make a chapel for Sunday worship, religious training, choir rehearsal, ladies meetings, and a kitchen to prepare food. There was also an apartment for the Pastor to use.
At this time in 1944, Rev. S. D. Neesan was transferred to Chicago with his family, and Rev. Sargis Benjamin of Iraq was brought to the U.S. by Deacon David Yonan became interim Pastor for the parish.
Rev. Issac Rehana, who served as a chapel priest for 27 years with the Patriarch in Cypress, arrived in New Britain in 1950 to take over the pulpit of St. Thomas parish and Rev. Sargis Benjamin returned to Iraq. His health began to decline and his eyesight was almost gone.
During the early years of Rev. Issac Rehana's service, which lasted from 1950-1987 (37 years), a new church building committee was established. By the efforts of the building committee members: Frank Younan, Al Sargis, and Sam Sargis, the effort of the congregation's support, Rev. Rehana’s quiet, unselfish, undemanding pastorate, and the Blessing Faith of His Holiness, the parish flourished. The vision of building another Assyrian Church of the East in Eastern United States was fulfilled.
St. Thomas Assyrian Church was consecrated on November 10th, 1957, one year to the day the first spade of soil was turned at Cabot and McClintock streets.
“Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it” (psalm 127:1). God built His house on the faith of its builders. The structure of St. Thomas Church is one of God’s gifts to those faithful people who participated in building it, for the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to them. When we are celebrating the anniversary of the church each year, in fact, we are honoring its builders. “whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him” (Matt. 13:12).