NEW YORK, NY—He was larger than life—a man dedicated to his family, his church, his profession and his countrymen. He generously gave to all with complete love, devotion, humility and always with a smiling face, even when he himself was suffering.
He was Dr. Raffy A. Hovanessian. He was born on August 16, 1938 and went to his heavenly rest on May 27, 2020 at the age of 81.
On September 10, hundreds packed St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral for a solemn yet celebratory service extolling Dr. Hovanessian’s exemplary life.
During the sacred Armenian requiem service, Onnik Dinkjian sang the soulful “Der Voghormia (Lord Have Mercy)” with deep heartfelt emotion. He was accompanied on the organ by his son Ara and a combined choir from St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral and St. Illuminator’s Armenian Cathedral, conducted by choir director Khoren Mekanejian. Soloists were Anoush Barclay, Hasmik Mekanejian and Anahit Zakaryan.
In an impassioned and inspiring eulogy, keynote speaker and Pontifical Legate of the Armenian Church in Western Europe Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, who had traveled from Rome, Italy to honor his longtime friend, recounted how Dr. Hovanessian, “a loved and admired man had fought the good fight, finished his race and always kept his profound faith throughout his life. He was always a man of action with an active mind, an outgoing personality that took him all over the world with incredible energy, and drove him in every endeavor – in medicine, community service, philanthropy, the arts.”
He also lived a “life of consequence, grounded in a foundation that is stable, secure and unshakeable in service to God, Christ and his church. This is what gave his life balance and conviction,” stated Archbishop Khajag. “It was his source of balance, conviction, strength and energy. And it was the inspiration for the great power of love that flowed from Raffy’s heart and touched every one of us.”
And it was evident in his “love for his parents and heritage, for his wife Shoghag – his precious partner in everything he did, his children and grandchildren, and his universe of friends from every walk of life.” He was “a dear friend, a trusted advisor who always spoke from the heart on any matter with confidence, openness and total honesty…a man who felt God’s presence at the very center of his soul.”
Archbishop Khajag recounted Dr. Hovanessian’s great friendship with the late Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin I. “He devoted the last decades of his life advancing Vehapar’s vision and spirit in our community. Raffy Hovanessian embodied the best in Armenian history and in the Armenian soul. It was Raffy’s conviction that the Armenian church with its ancient history had something profound to teach the world of today, and he was one of those teachers.”
A letter from Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia Aram I was read by Archbishop Anoushavan Tanielian, who remembered Dr. Hovanessian as a gentle and devoted man “for whom the Armenian church, nation and homeland remained of supreme value. He respected his circle and was respected by everybody without restrictions. This memorial event is eloquent testimony that he will keep on being the unforgettable and beloved Raffy for his family, friends and the multitudes who were fortunate to know him.”
Several family members and friends then presented loving remembrances of Dr. Hovanessian in loving tributes. Cousin Alex Yemenidjian performed the role of master of ceremonies with dignity. He called Dr. Hovanessian a “role model and great teacher” for him and for so many people.
His brother Dr. Reuben Siraganian lovingly remembered their childhood in Biskanta, a small village in Lebanon. He “was racing ahead of me as he always did, paving the way for others to follow.” Dr. Hovanessian was athletic and excelled in soccer and basketball at the American University of Beirut (AUB). He also loved playing the violin and listening to classical music.
An active church member, “Raffy did not distinguish between the two sides of the Armenian Apostolic Church or the evangelical churches. The church fulfilled not only his spiritual needs, but also provided him with the person he would cherish for the rest of his life, his beloved wife Shoghag. They would spend 55 years together. She gave him strength and friendship and stood by him especially in those last, hardest days of his illness.”
Close family friend Zaven Khanjian, executive director and CEO of the Armenian Missionary Association of America (AMAA), recounted how his father and Dr. Hovanessian’s father “were two young, orphaned, handsome, bald Arapgertsies who grew up to be artisans and family heads of large families.” “Raffy was an exceptionally brilliant student who skipped three classes and graduated from Aleppo College at age 16. His character and Christian values were solidified on the pews of the Armenian Evangelical Emmanuel Church Sunday School.” “For me, he has been a brother, friend, advisor, counselor and a man of God,” said Khanjian with obvious warmth.
In Beirut, Dr. Hovanessian with Bishop Karekin Sarkissian of the Great House of Cilicia who later became Vehapar Karekin I of All Armenians in Etchmiadzin, established the Armenian Church University Students’ Association (HEHOM) in 1963, fighting for the rights of Armenian students and students of all denominations to become members.
Another close family friend and professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Medicine Dr. Ara Tekian spoke with great fondness of the sterling qualities of Dr. Hovanessian, especially his special attention to his family, his patients and the multitudes for whom he served with patience and respect.
Cousin Dr. John Deirmenjian at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine spoke of Dr. Hovanessian’s role in Indiana to establish and lead the Asian American Medical Society and aid both Armenian and non-Armenian doctors in finding job opportunities.
“Philanthropy was in Raffy’s blood,” he said. “He was a team player, always consulting with Shoghag and working together on many charitable events. After the Armenian earthquake, they worked nonstop to raise funds and mobilized the entire Chicago community. Raffy also organized fundraising events for US politicians from both parties who supported Armenian causes.”
As the private physician to Vehapar Karekin I, Dr. Hovanessian maintained a close and trusted friendship, said Dr. Deirmenjian. In his private life, he deeply loved his family, having yearly celebrations with his grandchildren called the “Medzbaba Camp.” “Respect, love and spiritual values were the foundations for a blessed family.”
For Dr. Hovanessian, “the glass was always full, the future always bright with no unresolved issues. He was an eternal optimist which was infectious,” he stated.
Dr. Hovanessian’s personal physician at New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Dr. Paul Paik expressed gratitude for their seven-year friendship. “Suffering produces perseverance which produces character which produces hope. I will remember Dr. Hovanessian who navigated his suffering with grace, whose faith was encapsulated in his last words to me – ‘I am ready to go to Jesus.’ I know that he is home now, and I know that we will see him again.”
His children and grandchildren, Dr. Armen Hovanessian, Ani Hovanessian, Esq. and Aileen Agopian presented unforgettable remembrances. Foremost was that “family is everything.”
“He gave and helped all unstintingly, and always with his typically humble manner,” conveyed Dr. Armen Hovanessian. “Obsessively punctual, he was a man of his word and taught us the value of being trustworthy. Mentor to a vast number of people, he had the mind of a teacher, the heart of a healer and the soul of a preacher. He felt a duty to help and serve.”
Shoghag would give advice when Dr. Hovanessian was unavailable, said Agopian, adding that the “focus on education and being the best in your field was primary. Education is power. He was always on the cutting edge.” And he made “each person feel like the most important person in the room.”
Even as a “fierce risk-taker, Dad was always dressed in his suit, tie and his beloved, conventional Florsheim shoes,” revealed Ani Hovanessian. Displaying Dr. Hovanessian’s joyous side, she described how he loved telling jokes, playing cards, dancing with his family, singing Armenian and historic songs, and getting groups to sing at parties and regaling stories.” In the last days of his life, as his family surrounded him and decided to think of a family motto, each member “tried to capture the essence of our family. Dad went last, and he said without hesitation. It’s quite simple – love and respect.”
His eldest grandson Ara Kasparian enumerated “Medzbaba’s legacy” in a few choice thoughts. “The most valuable gift he gave was his time and his love of family life. I am the luckiest grandson in the world!”
A powerfully revealing video of Dr. Hovanessian’s life enumerated the highlights of his life in his own words: his birth in Jerusalem, his life with his hardworking and religious parents in Aleppo, his education at AUB and other universities where he excelled, his life in the church and his unbounding love for his family, patients and all who sought his help and advice.
Dr. Hovanessian’s face lit up when he paid tribute to his life partner. “I had gone to church during Vartanantz, and a girl came and stood in front of me. I knew – this is the girl. Of course, she was beautiful, tall and elegant. For the first and only time in my life, I waited after church to have a nice and good look at her and see if someone knows her. Her name is one that has always been romantic to me – Shoghag.”
Since Armenia’s independence, Dr. Hovanessian “has been one of the staunch advocates of Continuing Medical Education (CME) of healthcare professionals in Armenia. Recently under the banner of the AAHPO, he initiated a new project – the CME for doctors and nurses in Artsakh, and he designated the Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR) to implement it.” The Dr. Raffy Hovanessian Education Fund has been established at FAR by the Hovanessian Family.
Following the inspiring service, the Diocesan Kavookjian Hall came alive as all in attendance continued their remembrances of Dr. Hovanessian during a lavish dinner planned by the Hovanessian family.
The evening’s tribute which reflected the love of all who knew and loved Dr. Hovanessian was eloquently written by his youngest grandchild, 15-year-old Alessandra Victoria Agopian: “My Medzbaba is a legacy within himself shining and bright like God’s crafted stars. The gift of his love and his care for those who were both blood or not, lives on forever. This is my Medzbaba.”