Michael and his wife Asteir had a good life in their home country of Egypt. They both worked as pharmacists and were living comfortably. However they were also adventurous types, and both yearned to live in a western democracy where they could enjoy maximum freedom.
They considered trying to emigrate to the UK and Australia, but they finally settled on Canada as the country was short of qualified pharmacists circa 1995. They had humble beginnings at first and lived a simple life, but all that changed and the couple decided it was time to give something back.
Featured Photo Credit: www.hermangoodden.ca
When Michael and Astier first arrived in Canada, Michael took a job as a pizza delivery rider for Domino’s Pizza. To make ends meet, he also worked in a gas station, but this was a far cry from his job as a pharmacist. The couple needed to upgrade their qualifications in order to practice medicine in Canada, and that’s exactly what they did.
Despite the initial hardships of moving to a new country and integrating into a new culture both Michael and his wife were pleased to have made the move. “It’s a beautiful country,” Michael said, according to a Star report. “It’s a rich country. Even just driving home, it’s dark and it’s winter but you feel your spirits are up. You are very lucky to be in Canada.”
Having passed the requisite exams, Michael and his wife were finally able to work as pharmacists and soon made a successful business out of it. Michael, who owns a store in Hensall for seven years, also worked in Goderich and Exeter as an employee before he opened his own place.
Michael knew that the small town needed a dedicated pharmacy and he loved the quiet life he was able to have there. Michael is also a devout Catholic and attends the Saint Elias Maronite Catholic Church regularly. He is also a director and the treasurer of the Church.
At a time when outlaying congregations are dwindling, the Hensall United Church was forced to officially shut their doors back in November. The United Church of Canada has been losing seven churches per year on average in Ontario, but fortunately, there was a savior at hand, just in time for Christmas.
Michael has made a lot of money over the years in Canada and having discussed it with his wife decided that it was time to give something back. To keep the Church as a place of worship, Michael is paying $250,000 for it and hopes to ensure it will become a thriving church community with the fullness of time.
While Michael is certainly a savvy businessman, he is aware that he won’t make a penny of profit from his new church venture. “I will never get one penny back of my money,” said Michael. “I did it for two reasons. One, and this is maybe 90 percent, I did it for religious reasons. I consider it a duty as a Christian to keep a church of Christ open. It hurt me to hear it was closing,” he said.
Michael explained that another reason he embarked on the project was to support the very people who supported him when he arrived in Canada. “Ten percent is for the people of Hensall who really support me. If I came here as a foreigner in this town and people said, ‘We are not going to support a business like that,’ within a month or two I would leave. But I felt very welcome. My heart is for this town. I felt like the pharmacy would be a success from day one.” He said.
While Michael is also worried about the age demographic in Hensall, mainly due to 20 percent of residents being over the age of 65, he wants his church to be all-inclusive and multi-faith. He wants the church to a religious communal hub where any person from any religion can pray and interact with the community.
Story of Hope
According to Rev. Tom Dunbar, a United Church minister from nearby Mitchell who was involved in the sale of the church, “This is very much a story of hope,” he said. “That’s what our faith is all about, and it has all these other threads in it, too, that are so wonderful, the idea of peace and working together and breaking down barriers when we’re in a time when it seems to be OK to raise barriers. This is definitely going against that flow.”
Tracy Cooper, a member of the Church, also spoke to reporters about the purchase of the building by Michael. “It’s cheesy, but it’s kind of a Christmas miracle. It couldn’t have happened at a better time,” she said. Many of the residents have a lot of respect for Michael and are amazed by his kindness and generosity.
Before Michael purchased the church and it was forced to close, the community tried hard to keep the church alive and kicking. Jeffrey Dale, Hensall United’s last regular minister, said the average age “was in the 80s,” and that in the end there weren’t enough funds to keep the church going on a weekly basis.
Wanting to Help
Rev. Dale also spoke about how thankful the community is for Michael’s stepping in to help in the way he did. “I think it is so amazing that somebody from the outside said, ‘I’m your neighbor. I see you struggling. Let me help you,’ ” he said. Michael spoke to a group of 80 members from the local community soon after the paperwork for the purchase of the church went through.
Michael addressed the packed room, telling the people there that he had plans to bring foosball and ping-pong tables to the church and to have movie and video game nights to attract young people. In explaining his vision, Michael said he wanted to bring back Sunday school which was once a main event for the church.
Michael said to the people at the meeting: “This church has millions of memories. I couldn’t imagine a truck would come and remove it,” he said. “This church is a historical treasure and holds a place in everyone’s heart in Hensall.” He even spoke about the prospect of resurrecting the church choir which once thrived in Hensall.
By the time the revival meeting was done, at least 20 community members had written their names down indicating they wanted to help Michael realize his vision. The community was simply lacking money, and when it came to the wire many people were desperate to save the church and to see it thriving once again.
Not an Option
One of the church members involved in organizing the event was Chuck Mallette who had been an active member of the church for many years. He explained that closing the church simply wasn’t an option. “The closing of the church, had it happened, would’ve been another gut punch to the village,” he said.
For his part, Michael said he always wanted to give something back to Canada for welcoming him and his wife so gracefully all those years ago. “But I never feel like I’m doing something great or amazing,” he said. “God put me in this town for a reason and maybe that reason came now. Maybe it is a Christmas gift for this lovely town,” he said.
Another keen churchgoer called Cheryl Radar explained to reporters that many in the community had sat back for too long and allowed the church to fall into disrepair. “We decided that if there was a way it was going to be saved, we were going to get involved,” says Rader. “We’d sat back long enough.” Other members are also optimistic about the future of the church.
Kathy Mann, another church member since 1962, used to teach Sunday school at the church many moons ago. She remembers the days when weekly attendance was more than 300 and was always the one to decorate the Church at Christmas time. She said she remains “cautiously optimistic” about her church’s long-term vision. “You’ve got to have faith and hope,” she said. “Never more than now.”