Inside Tbilisi’s Small, Yet Resilient Armenian Catholic Community

Just off Tbilisi’s Marjanishvili Street lies the beautiful Saint Peter & Paul church. This Catholic house of worship, built in the Baroque style as part of a Zubalashvili Brothers initiative, was completed in 1877. The parish has served as a focal point for the city’s Catholic community ever since—bringing together ethnic Armenians, Georgians, Russians, and Western expats around a common faith.

While some of the city’s lesser Catholic sites were closed by Soviet authorities, as were the many Armenian Apostolic churches, Saint Peter & Paul church survived until Independence. The church was later renovated in time for the official visit of Pope John Paul II, who celebrated mass there in October of 1999. This event was immortalized by the erection of a statue of the pontiff just south of the church entrance.

According to the hours posted on the front door, services are offered in English, Russian, Georgian, Armenian, and even Latin—a testament to the city’s cosmopolitan heritage.

Despite its official affiliation with the Church of Rome, Saint Peter & Paul has become the home for Tbilisi’s relatively obscure community of Armenian Catholics. Father Mikael celebrates mass there with his flock every Sunday at 1 p.m. sharp. Despite the size of the building, almost all the pews are full. These include the elderly, who lead the chants, families with small children, as well as young adults. Additional services are also held every morning.

Before gaining access to this Saint Peter & Paul, the Armenian Catholic community gathered in a much smaller house, complete with its own chapel, common room, and kitchen.

Legend has it that the Armenian Catholic Church lends its origins to the Crusades, when a number of Armenians living in Cilicia converted to Catholicism under the influence of the Frankish Lusignan kings. More likely, most communities across Western Armenia were the results of proselytizing by Jesuit missionaries in the early 19th century.

Armenian Catholic communities can be found across the Armenian Diaspora, but usually, make up no more than five-percent of the faithful. A disproportionately large number of Armenian Catholics live in the Shirak province of Armenia, as well as the Samtzkhe-Javakheti province of Georgia. Most are descendants of genocide survivors from the Erzurum area, a known region for Armenian Catholicism before the Genocide.

Though these communities are better known, Armenian Catholics have called Tbilisi home for several centuries. As Catholic Armenians living in Georgia, they effectively form a “minority within a minority.”

“The Armenian Apostolics don’t always consider us true Armenians,” says Harout (name altered), an altar boy. “The Georgian Orthodox don’t like us all that much either,” he continues. In this sense of double-isolation, they share a unique fate with another underreported-on community: Georgian Catholics.

With the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, Pope John-Paul II reorganized all Catholic communities of Ukraine, Georgia and Armenia into the care of the Armenian Catholic Church under the newly-formed ‘Eastern European Diocese’ based in Gyumri. Thus, the tiny Georgian Catholic community switched to the Armenian Rite liturgy.

Father Mikael says that despite the lack of visibility, the Armenian Catholic community is much more resilient than it may seem. By the looks of the gathered crowds in the sanctuary, he may be right.

Raffi Elliott

Raffi Elliott

Columnist & Armenia Correspondent
Raffi Elliott is a Canadian-Armenian political risk analyst and journalist based in Yerevan, Armenia. A former correspondent and columnist for the Armenian Weekly, his focus is socioeconomic, political, business and diplomatic issues in Armenia.

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