The old hall is just a dreary box of a building now, abandoned by carpenters who once held monthly union meetings there. The concrete structure, on Moorpark's Fremont Street where it dead-ends near a storage yard, seems an unlikely site for Mediterranean flair.
But in the next few months, a small group of Egyptians wants to transform the one-acre lot, reconstructing the meeting hall into an oblong church "shaped like Noah's Ark," one member said.
Cathedral ceilings topped with huge domes will replace the building's flat roof. A simple door frame will give way to a towering entrance. Floor-to-ceiling stained glass will fill the windows.
"You will feel Egypt. You will feel Coptic," said church board member Medhat Maximous. That feeling will be especially powerful in the building's interior, where about 30 families will rip up the building's cracked tile and lay down a deep red carpet to pray facing the East, consistent with a Biblical prophecy that the second coming of Christ will be in the East.
The Copts are Christians who believe in the divinity of Christ as well as the seven sacraments observed by the Catholic Church. Their liturgy most closely resembles that of the Greek Orthodox Church.
With a special permit approved by the Moorpark Planning Commission last week and their building in escrow, church members hope to open Southern California's 11th Coptic church within months. Called the Archangel Michael Coptic Orthodox Church, it would be the first in Ventura County.
Egyptians built the Southland's first Coptic church in 1970 in Los Angeles and today operate others in Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Orange counties. Orthodox Copts, a Christian minority in a country run by Muslims, established their church in Alexandria in the 1st Century. Today, they number about 28 million and live predominantly in Egypt, Ethiopia and the Middle East.
Several of the Copts already have been worshiping in the county, first in an Oxnard garage and later in space rented from other churches.
They chose Moorpark because of its central location in the county. At least eight Coptic families live in the city, and other parishioners will travel from Simi Valley, Thousand Oaks and Camarillo for the three-hour Sunday liturgy.
"We like to raise our children knowing our traditions and our church," said 42-year-old Soher Abdelmalik of Moorpark, an engineer for the city of Oxnard. "And having a church nearby will make it easier for us to go."
Added her husband, Philip: "You have to raise your children in a place like the church so they won't get involved in drugs and fighting."
Father Bishoy Mikhail of Los Angeles is one of the priests assisting the Ventura community until the Coptic pope, Shenouda III, assigns a permanent leader.
"The most important thing for a Coptic Christian is to have a place of worship," Mikhail said. Coptic Christians "will live in a very poor way and sacrifice to have a church. It is impossible to be a Coptic without worship."
Members donated money and held fund-raisers, including a yearly festival, to collect more than $350,000 needed to buy the building, they said. This year, they will need to raise at least $200,000 for renovations.
In the next seven years, church leaders expect to increase their membership from 30 families to 100.
"Once the church is situated, people are going to start moving into Moorpark and the surrounding areas to be close to the church," said Mikhail, one of the first American Coptic priests and a self-described former bodybuilder. "Once you put up a church, that becomes a magnet for the people."
Neighbors who attended a Planning Commission hearing last week were mostly positive about it, citing concerns only about the increased traffic on Fremont Street on Sunday mornings.
"I'd rather have a church down there any day," William Mahan, a resident of the street for 43 years, said this week. "I only have one objection and that's the driving on this street. I don't like fast driving."
But it is likely that the city will extend Majestic Court to serve as an alternate traffic route, city planners said. Maximous and other church members assured residents that church deacons would monitor traffic.
Many of the deacons and church leaders come from the parish's youth. The Copts teach their children the Arabic and Coptic languages as well as the traditions of the church. Most go to college, Maximous said, as shown by the high proportion of Copts in fields such as medicine, engineering and accounting.
"Our church will be a good asset" to the community, said Maximous, a civil engineer for the city of Thousand Oaks.
Copts help provide services to the community, Maximous said. The doctors of the parish may set aside a day to provide free health examinations to the poor in the neighborhood, Maximous said. The same could be done by accountants or engineers. Also, the church may provide day-care services in the future.
"That's part of how we can be a help to the neighborhood," he said.