Celebrating a Courageous Vision

The timing was right. It was a different era in America. Dwight Eisenhower, the hero of the Allied effort in Europe during World War II was President of the United States. The Cold War that divided Europe and pitted the West versus the East was raging. The threat of nuclear war was real, and children were taught to hide under their desks in school as a precaution. Professional football and basketball were in their infancy in America, and baseball was still truly America’s pastime. Since late 1933, the Armenian community had been divided along political lines. The Diocese of the Armenian Church was the only organized central affiliation under the auspices of Holy Etchmiadzin. As a result of the schism, a number of parishes remained “unaffiliated,” as they were referred to during that period. My home parish, St. Gregory the Illuminator in Indian Orchard, was one of those parishes. During the difficult times of 1933-1934, parishes were controlled or in some cases awarded by the courts to various factions within our community. Those affiliated with the Diocese and Holy Etchmiadzin were also aligned with the Hunchakian and Ramgavar political parties. The most prominent party Dashnaktsutyun/Armenian Revolutionary Federation was active in the unaffiliated parishes throughout America. These churches survived the turmoil through the dedication of the survivor generation of leadership and a handful of clergy who traveled to communities administering to the sacramental needs of the faithful. 

It was an unfortunate time for the Armenian community in America as families and communities were divided. During the mid-1950s, most of the parishes in America were experiencing incredible growth. The first generation of those born in America had returned from the war to establish careers and start families. Many were now emerging in leadership positions in the church. Their children, who were of the baby boomer generation, were creating a need for additional infrastructure in the form of parishes, schools and centers. My father was a young deacon of our church and deeply involved with the future of his community. The Indian Orchard parish was still operating out of the original building literally built in 1934 by the men and women of the community. They realized the need to enlarge their facilities and embarked on an ambitious plan in 1956 to expand the sanctuary and social hall to accommodate the anticipated growth. This same dynamic was occurring in virtually every community from Providence to Fresno. The inter-parish cooperative arrangement of the “unaffiliated” parishes had served its purpose, but they had arrived at a crossroad pertaining to managing the growth of the community.

The options were limited. Given the political environment, the opportunity to reunite the churches in America was a non-starter. Although the church had been the strongest institution in the diaspora, we lived in our communities through organizational affiliations. As those affiliations became contentious over the status of Soviet Armenia, our church became a harbinger of conflict. The wounds were still raw in 1956. In 1952, the beloved Catholicos of Cilicia Karekin I passed away. Due to the ensuing political conflict and various factions attempting to control the Holy See, the seat of the Catholicos was vacant for four years. In 1956, despite a difficult environment, the faithful of the Holy See in Antelias were overjoyed with the election of a brilliant clergyman, Zareh I Payaslian, as Catholicos. He had previously served the Syrian Armenian communities as Prelate of Aleppo. Shortly after his enthronement as the successor to Karekin I, a delegation from the United States of the unaffiliated churches petitioned His Holiness seeking affiliation with the Great House of Cilicia. We should understand the magnitude of this request and the approval that was granted. Although these churches had been essentially ignored by Holy Etchmiadzin and had pressing needs for their survival, requesting affiliation with Cilicia was unprecedented and would surely heighten the conflict with Etchmiadzin, which considered the Americas under their exclusive affiliation. It was a courageous act by the American Armenian delegates, and equally by Catholicos Zareh I, who was constantly harassed by opponents during his tenure. In late 1957, His Holiness sanctioned the relationship between Antelias and the Americas. The Prelacy was born. He dispatched his official representative Archbishop Khoren Paroyan, then Prelate of Lebanon, to meet with the faithful in the United States and begin the organization of the Prelacy. 

My personal recollection of this visit is etched vividly in my memory. His Eminence Khoren traveled from community to community conducting either a hrashapar service or badarak during his visit. When he completed his visit to Worcester, he was escorted to Indian Orchard. The transfer point was the parking lot of the Mass Turnpike exit in Ludlow. As the son of the deacon, I was told to present roses to the Prelate and offer a short greeting to him. I was barely six years old, but you did what you were told. Even at that young age, I would do nothing to disappoint my father. The Archbishop was dressed in his flowing black robes and verhar. After my brief presentation, he hugged me, and I became momentarily lost in the darkness of his vestments. I can still feel the smooth velvet cloth of the robes against my face. I still remember his warm smile. Little did I understand the historic significance of his visit. During this visit, our home was filled with community members who were, as I recall, so happy and full of excitement. 

One of the first assemblies in 1957 when then Archbishop Khoren came to organize the Prelacy as the representative of Catholicos Zareh. (Photo: Armenian Prelacy)

Years later, I began to read and understand the significance. We were a small part of history. These men and women had a vision for a new future. This experience happened in a dozen communities with churches and a few that were planning on building an edifice. Looking at the picture of the assembled delegates and clergy with Archbishop Khoren in 1957, I can just imagine the remarkable nature of the deliberations. Most of us who attend either the National Representative Assembly or the Diocesan Assembly are often underwhelmed by the ceremonial and shallow nature of these gatherings. This certainly was not the case at that Assembly. It was a new and courageous beginning after 23 years of struggling. Most assuredly, there were a plethora of problems to overcome, but they were in growth mode. There were churches to build, clergy to assign and children to educate. There was an excitement that would neutralize fear and consternation. After experiencing the indignities of isolation, the creation of the Prelacy had restored their sense of dignity. In that delegate picture, one can observe that most but not all of the participants were of the survivor generation. It was a time of transition for the first generation born here who were beginning to emerge. My own father was 35 years old at that gathering. This was where the foundation was built. Each generation has added a floor to what is now a multilevel institution serving thousands in North America. As the phenomenal growth ensued, the western region became its own Prelacy in 1973, and the Canadian community followed that same path.

Many of us from the baby boomer generation owe a debt of gratitude to the Prelacy. My own journey in the Holy Apostolic church began with that chance meeting with then Archbishop Khoren. The Prelacy has provided a priest to my parish, Der Khatchador Guiragosian, who had a significant influence on my love of the church. Our Sunday School and Armenian School, which afforded us an important education, were organized under the guidance of the Prelacy. This nurturing foundation that I received was, aside from my parents, the single biggest factor in the path chosen. This experience was repeated literally thousands of times with my peers and the succeeding generations. Should we be disappointed that the Catholicoi have not resolved their differences and reunited the American community? Yes, we should. I will always have high expectations for our leaders. Given the choices of that generation relative to their children’s future, should we not be proud of what was established and built? Absolutely! The most significant impact of the church division has been the lack of inter-communal relationships between those separated. When our children in the same community don’t know each other and yet we claim to be fighting against assimilation, that is a tragedy. This is the environment that most of the baby boomer generation grew up in. Today, we have a new reality. The cooperation and outright friendships between local clergy and parishioners are encouraging. Young people from the ACYOA, AYF and AGBU YP regularly interact today and have social relationships. The churches cooperate on liturgical and communal matters. The walls have been torn down. We seem to have entered an era where we embrace each other without administrative unification. The days of disdain and isolation are over. Given where we were, I am thankful for this and pray for its continuance. The work continues in an atmosphere of respect.

We have come a great distance from the days of referring to the “unaffiliated” parishes as “separated brethren.” During the ill-fated attempts at unity in the 80s, the Prelacy advocated a period of cooperation to allow the separated to build relationships. Although that process failed, the intent did not. The seeds of cooperation and Christian fellowship took hold and have matured into a civil and pan-Armenian relationship at the parish to parish level. Perfect…no, but encouraging. The Prelacy began in 1957 with a vision to build the faith of a community in the traditions of the Apostolic church. It was a vision that thousands rallied behind as schools were built, churches were constructed and priests were ordained. As we celebrate this important milestone, we salute those courageous men and women who had the conviction to move forward in the face of adversity to build something special. Remember the souls of those in that picture who followed the great tradition of sacrificing for a better future.

The Prelacy has a long established reputation of a strong work ethic blending our heritage and faith for a sustainable identity. The establishment of the Prelacy also afforded many of us the opportunity to understand and contribute to the rich tradition of the Great House of Cilicia. The renowned seminary has produced outstanding clergymen for generations and has positioned the Armenian church as a leader in ecumenical campaigns. This is something that all Armenians should be proud of as we realize that Antelias is an Armenian treasure for all to embrace. Our four hierarchical Sees are unique and deserving of our love. The days of saying, “What church do you go to?” must be replaced with “Do you go to church?” We can all express our gratitude by participating in our local parish and contributing to the betterment of the Armenian Church.

Stepan Piligian

Stepan Piligian

Columnist
Stepan was raised in the Armenian community of Indian Orchard, MA at the St. Gregory Parish. A former member of the AYF Central Executive and the Eastern Prelacy Executive Council, he also served many years as a delegate to the Eastern Diocesan Assembly. Currently , he serves as a member of the board and executive committee of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR). He also serves on the board of the Armenian Heritage Foundation. Stepan is a retired executive in the computer storage industry and resides in the Boston area with his wife Susan. He has spent many years as a volunteer teacher of Armenian history and contemporary issues to the young generation and adults at schools, camps and churches. His interests include the Armenian diaspora, Armenia, sports and reading.
Stepan Piligian

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2 Comments

  1. An outstanding overview of the Armenian Church, particularly, the development and importance of the Prelacy in serving our people for the last 65 years in America.

  2. Stepan Piligian’s wonderful article about the visit of Archbishop Khoren Paroyan in 1957 to establisjh the Prelacy triggered a memory of thre Archjbishop’s visit to St. Stephen’s Church in New Britain, CT. My brother, Hagop Garabedian was a memer of the Board of Trusrees. He and his wife, Zaarouhi invited the Board of Trustees and the enmtourage with the Archbishop to Dinner at our house in New Britain. This was a two family house on North Street with narrow stairs leading to the second floor. My sister-in-law cleared out all the furniture in the front rooms and set up banquet tables. The women cooked. As I listened in the other room, I remember so well to stories, the stories the Archbiship told of the turmoil in Lebanon at Antelias. When I watched the Archbishop come down the stairs when he left, I thought to mysself, this is a Prince who belongs inm a Castle. This was such an exciting time or St. Stephen’s Church.

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