By Anahid M. Ugurlayan
An enlarged color photograph of Archbishop Ashjian holding a lamb at the center of the stage near the podium was the setting for what would prove to be an emotional evening.
As Archbishop Oshagan Choloyan would later explain–the lamb was a sacrificial one–but Archbishop Mesrob Ashjian had asked that its life be spared and helped take care of it until it grew to be a sheep. A small gesture–perhaps–but it is one that exemplifies Archbishop Ashjian’s kindness and charity that would be highlighted throughout the evening.
Family–friends–and supporters of the late Archbishop Mesrob Ashjian–who passed away on December 2–2003–gathered at St. Peter’s Church in New York to honor and pay tribute to him. The tribute was organized by the Special Committee of the New York Chapter of the Hamazkayin Armenian Educational and Cultural Society under the leadership of Chairperson Arevig Caprielian and under the auspices of Archbishop Oshagan Choloyan–Prelate of the Armenian Apostolic Church of Eastern US.
The program commenced with a video of Archbishop Ashjian’s pilgrimage to Western Armenia–vivid images of centuries-old churches destroyed or left to nature’s devices with no effort on the part of the Turkish government to preserve Armenia’s cultural heritage–Archbishop Ashjian praying for the souls of deceased relatives of pilgrimage-goers.
After the video presentation–Arevig Caprielian delivered the opening remarks–welcoming all in attendance and reminding them of Archbishop Ashjian’s innumerable achievemen’s for the Church and the Armenian people around the world–especially as the Prelate of Eastern United States and Canada for 20 years and in Armenia–his home during the last six years of his life.
Dr. Herand Markarian–the master of ceremonies–remarked that those who mourn the passing of Archbishop Ashjian are also "carriers of his memory," and that his spirit is ever-present as long as "we as a nation live his memory." Dr. Markarian introduced the video–Life and Times of Archbishop Mesrob Ashjian: Road of Achievemen’s–which was shown in two parts.
In the first part–His Eminence speaks of the importance of faith–how it guides to become a source of strength in one’s life–without which the meaning of life would be lost. He speaks of his childhood and his parents–both orphans of the 1915 Armenian genocide–who instilled strong Armenian values and the spirit of the Church–which would serve as the foundation for his future religious studies.
Archbishop Ashjian recounts his theological studies and his service to the community as Dean of the Monastery in Bikfaya–Beirut–as Principal of the Mardikian School in Antelias–Lebanon–as Prelate of New Julfa/Isfahan in Iran–and–finally–as the Prelate of the Eastern United States and Canada for twenty years (1978-1998). As Prelate of the Eastern United States and Canada–his achievemen’s included founding the Land and Culture Organization and educating Armenian youth about Armenian history and religion through the Siamanto Saturday program and the Datevatsi Seminars in Philadelphia each year in July. The video presentation also included excerpts of the 70th anniversary commemoration of the Armenian genocide in Washington–DC–where 800 genocide survivors were in attendance–his placing of a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in honor of Armenian-Americans who served in the military from WWI to the present–as well as a speech on Armenian Independence Day where he spoke as both a clergyman and a patriot–championing our national independence.
Despite Archbishop Ashjian’s humble demeanor–viewing himself first and always as God’s servant–his many achievemen’s and his spiritual guidance left a lasting impression on all who knew and worked with him.
One of these individuals–the Honorable Sarkis Teshoian–delivered the English message and spoke of his dear friend–brother–and leader. Judge Teshoian–who served as chairman of the Prelacy’s Executive Council during Archbishop Ashjian’s tenure in New York–recounted episodes from his many visits with the Archbishop–recalling his wise counsel and his insatiable thirst for knowledge–having authored numerous articles and at least three dozen books in Armenian and English. He spoke of how Archbishop Ashjian’s faith–hope–and love were evident in his unwavering commitment to the Church and his parishioners.
The program continued with a heartfelt rendition of "Nor Dzaghig" and "Yegeghetsin Haygagan" by mezzo soprano Hasmik Meikhanedjian–accompanied by pianist/organist Janet Marcarian.
Following the musical portion of the program–the second part commenced with a video presentation of Archbishop Ashjian’s work in Armenia.
This chapter of his life began when His Holiness Karekin I Catholicos of All Armenia’s’ offered–and His Eminence later accepted–the position of the Executive Director for the celebration of the 1700th anniversary of Christianity in Armenia. Among his memorable achievemen’s from this commemoration included his organized pilgrimages to Western Armenia to help reintroduce Armenia’s to their usurped homeland.
At one point–His Eminence asks: "How can we celebrate the 1700th anniversary of our Christianity and not visit our homeland?"
Among the numerous historic sites Serpazan visited was the Tiridates Stone–where St. Gregory baptized King Tiridates as the first Christian king of Armenia in 301 AD–and is especially noteworthy given that Serpazan presided over the commemorative events marking the 1700th anniversary of Christianity in Armenia. Archbishop Ashjian also visited his mother’s birthplace–Havav. In a private ceremony of symbolic unification of Sevan and lake Van–he poured water bought from Sevan into the lake Van–and returning to Armenia–he poured "Vana jur" into Sevan. In addition–His Eminence officiated at an Armenian wedding ceremony at Aghtamar’s Holy Cross Church. The sound of Armenian prayers was heard once again at this church and among the ruins of other churches and monasteries deserted during the genocide. One wonders what will become of these churches and monasteries in Serpazan’s absence.
While tending to his duties for the 1700th anniversary of the Armenian Church–Archbishop Ashjian diligently embarked on his charitable work–including the baptism of thousands of adults and children–the renovation of the St. Gevorg of Moughni church and monastery–the building of the Terchounian orphanage in Gyumri–and the publishing of hundreds of historical and literary books. In the video–the pastor of the St. Gevorg of Moughni church recounts how Archbishop Ashjian revitalized the village through the renovation of the church–the building of a community center and other significant improvemen’s. He notes that His Eminence’s devotion was not forgotten by the villagers who–when learning of His Eminence’s passing–renamed the main street of their village "The Archbishop Mesrob Ashjian poghots." Moreover–the local residents collected $300 and hosted another "hokejash" in his memory on Merelots after Easter Sunday.
The video continued with Archbishop Ashjian speaking of his last published book–The Etchmiadzin Chronicles–written on the occasion of the 1700th Anniversary of the Armenia’s adoption of Christianity–comprising excerpts of travel journals of those who visited Etchmiadzin over the centuries. Notably–His Eminence spoke of a flower that was mentioned by one of the travelers who visited Etchmiadzin and how the uniqueness of the flower spurred Serpazan to embark on a determined and eventually successful search for it. In fact–the invitation to the evening’s Memorial Tribute included a photo of Archbishop Ashjian holding a bunch of the coveted flowers–Iris Elegantissima. The touching nature of this photo is heightened when one learns that this was the last photo taken of Archbishop Ashjian in Armenia. Indeed–the photo reflects both the beauty of Armenia and Archbishop Ashjian’s spirit. As His Eminence speaks–one could sense the joy and satisfaction he felt in helping to preserve Armenian culture–as well as improving Armenia’s social condition.
The video presentation was followed by a message delivered in Armenian by Dr. Ashot Melkonian–Director of the Institute of History of the National Academy of Sciences of Armenia. Dr. Melkonian spoke of Archbishop Ashjian’s tireless charitable and scholarly work in Armenia and how he regarded Archbishop Ashjian as an invaluable mentor and a friend. Dr. Melkonian–who is a native of Javakhk–Georgia–explained that Archbishop Ashjian was the first clergyman to visit Javakhk in over 20 years and bless the inhabitants. Appropriately–the townspeople considered Archbishop Ashjian’s visit one of great significance–as if he were a Catholicos for them. Dr. Melkonian also spoke of a young man’s future rescued by Archbishop Ashjian during his visit to a prison. His Eminence baptized the young man–offered him guidance–and provided a home for his family–asking only one thing in return: that he lead a good life and attend church each Sunday. Since then–the young man attends mass at Holy Etchmiadzin each Sunday and visits Archbishop Ashjian’s library at the National Academy. Dr. Melkonian recounted how this story illustrates Archbishop Ashjian’s view of humanity–namely that everyone is equal in the eyes of God.
The personal memories of Archbishop Ashjian continued by Archbishop Oshagan Choloyan–who also delivered the benediction. Archbishop Choloyan reminisced of days as a student at the Seminary where he met His Eminence and their enduring friendship–but also touched on the great loss that his death represents for the Church–the Holy See and the Armenian community. He noted that His Eminence’s memory will live on–adding that St. Nerces "Parekordzagan" Organization–an organization that helps support orphans of the Karabagh war and other needy children–would be renamed as the "Archbishop Mesrob Ashjian Organization."
The program concluded with the singing of "Cilicia" and Archbishop Ashjian’s last message in which he spoke of how Christ helped everyone–regardless of social status and age–and how all of us should strive to find the good in all people. In addition–photos of His Eminence were shown on the screen–as well as the final photo of him waving goodbye as he descended a hill in Western Armenia–a symbolic farewell to the Armenian people and historic land.
Archbishop Ashjian’s work and accomplishmen’s are too numerous too recount–from serving as Dean of the Cilician Seminary–as the principal of the Mardikian School–to Executive Secretary of the 1700th commemorative events of Christianity of Armenia–to his ecumenical appointmen’s such as member of the World Council of Churches’ Faith and Order Commission. The sense of shock of Archbishop Mesrob Ashjian’s sudden death remains profound and is heightened by watching him in the video–as one could not help but feel that he was still among us. Yet his spirit remains and will endure–and his vocational achievemen’s and charitable work are surpassed only by his boundless humanity.
Archbishop Ashjian will forever serve as a role model for all Armenia’s and as a shining example of the unrelenting resolve of the Armenian people to triumph against all odds.