Article 23: Saturday Night Breadmaking at the Church of St George

Toronto Department

Every Saturday night a holy ritual occurs off Don Mills Road between an LA Fitness and some industrial buildings at the Church of St George, an Egyptian Coptic church, where in the basement a group of young men gather to bake the Hamal - holy bread - the body of Christ.

My brother, despite not being Egyptian or Coptic, has been helping bake the bread with his Egyptian friends for a number of years now.

The many sensations of the bread-making room arrive all at once. It has bright white light like an restaurant kitchen and a high ceiling like it reaches into heaven yet is cramped at the bottom with equipment and six guys kneading dough elbow to elbow around a marble table. The air is sweet, humid, dusty, hot. The walls are decorated with tapped down posters of Coptic popes, saints, and Jesus, all painted in that strange kitsch style that makes them look both old and still to come. No surface escapes decoration - numerous saints can be tapped to a humidifier. The posters look supernaturally bright and vivid since every other surface of the room is coated in a thin white layer of flour. The dust floating in the air seems shaped by the melodically chanted Arabic that comes out of a grimy computer speaker atop a minifridge atop a countertop, and the room hums with the sound of these ceaselessly sung psalms.

The singers are across the hall in a small wooden-pewed chapel that smells of incense and has finely decorated altar. Three men sing into a microphone and their words get piped across the hall to the bread-making room to bless the bread throughout its making. Sometimes these chants combine with the sound of the dough mixing machine spinning loudly.

Other than the young men kneading dough, there is an older man, Uncle Atef, who the young men just call Uncle. He's the one who is in charge of the bread-making. He's the one who tapped up the pictures to the wall and the only one who can point to any picture on the wall and tell you who that saint was and what they did or which grey-bearded pope was which. When one of the young men leaves the break-making for good, moving say for school or marriage, Uncle Atef will pull down a poster of a saint and give it to them as a parting gift. Other than his faith, Uncle Atef holds no official religious title. He's in charge of the bread-making because he's done it for a long time, starting back in Egypt, and it's difficult work done late at night and he's the one willing to keep doing it.

There's only three ingredients: flour, water, yeast. The final addition is labor. "It's actually a workout," says one young man. My brother, Daniel, adds, "Some days, it's work." Someone else shows me a scar from accidentally touching the oven. To make the bread they use 10 kilos of flour a batch. So much is made because there are five masses a week and communion at each one. At the end of a service there is a thing called bouraka where all the bread that isn't blessed is broken up and given out. There's definitely a lot of skill to making the bread. From slapping the hamal on the table, then bending it over your palm, then stamping it with complex wooden cross patterns and putting little holes in it to let off steam. The end result will be a round, fluffy loaf of bread with crosses on top. 

"Round 2! All over again! Guys lets do it!"

As the night goes on there's more and more joking around. Overheard: "Oh baby let my people go Pharaoh pharaoh ohh baby yeah yeah yeah"; then some christian rap; "no it was when Spongebob ripped his pants..."

Daniel is holding a garden hose tube, cleaning the big mixing bowl. "Dude you's got ho's!" someone shouts. "No just one!" Everyone laughs. Someone else leans over and says, "And that's exactly why they have the chants: to go over us." Another guy looks at the hose seriously and says, "I remember one time I left it in and flooded the room." Daniel mimics a heavy Egyptian accent and pretends to act like Uncle when people are being bad and he is angry: "Get out! Get out!" Uncle probably has missed the meaning of the last few comments and just smiles. When Uncle's not looking, little balls of dough get tossed into each others mouths.

Eventually, the bread is all shaped and the next step, the baking, requires waiting for it to rise. Only two helpers need to stay for that portion. Everyone gathers in the hall and drinks orange crush and plays monopoly cards before heading out for the night. Daniel and his friend use the break to run over to a late night Chinese place and Daniel brings back some food for Uncle Atef, who keeps trying to pay him back the $7 for the chicken. Daniel refuses. "You've given me such a blessing Uncle."

Beneath a mosaic of Christ feeding the 5000, they eat their Chinese food from Styrofoam boxes. Soon they will have to finish the baking, and get home around 4 am.

--David Stokes