BY TALEEN BABAYAN
For centuries, Holy Etchmiadzin, the epicenter of the Armenian people and their deeply anchored Christian faith, has transcended its spiritual walls to become a beacon of inspiration, protection and prayer for Armenians around the world in the face of upheaval and historic tragedy. The significant mission and symbolic soul of the Mother See was venerated on Sunday, June 23 during the Feast of Holy Etchmiadzin, at St. Leon Cathedral in Burbank, California. The occasion served as the official launch of a global campaign to raise funds for the renovation of this ancient church to ensure its longevity as a sacred site and as the authoritative head of the Armenian Church.
Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, Primate of the Western Diocese of North America, served as celebrant of the Divine Liturgy, revering the glorious past of the Holy See, while conveying the importance of maintaining the structural health of the vital institution. Handpicked by His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians, Archbishop Derderian will lead worldwide fundraising efforts for this endeavor, coordinating and executing plans to shore up interest from Dioceses throughout the Diaspora. Under his tutelage, funds will be raised to reinforce the foundation of Holy Etchmiadzin and to restore its walls, murals and dome, while excavating archaeological findings.
A special Pontifical Encyclical commemorating the Feast Day was read by Reverend Khajag Shahbazyan, pastor of St. Leon Cathedral, during the Divine Liturgy. The message, written by His Holiness, highlighted the rich history of the Mother See and the critical need for renovation funds to procure the indelible presence of Holy Etchmiadzin, which traces its roots to the advent of Christianity.
Echoing the words of His Holiness, Archbishop Derderian focused his sermon on the fruitful legacy of Holy Etchmiadzin, and how the sentiments of the Pontifical Encyclical were shared with Armenian Churches from the Diaspora, to Armenia, to Artsakh, asserting that the institution was “born into the lives of Armenians in the fields of Ararat, where God descended with a golden hammer and selected the spot of where the first Catholicon would be established.”
“Etchmiadzin is God’s house and it is the home of our prayers today and for upcoming generations,” said Archbishop Derderian. “It brings the children of our nation together from all four corners of the world.”
He urged the faithful to visit Armenia and make an ookhd (vow) on the religious soil “to remain an Armenian Christian and to serve the Armenian Church and Armenian nation.”
“From the altar of Holy Etchmiadzin, we birthed our people’s identity and through God’s words we enlightened the lives of our faithful,” said Archbishop Derderian. “Because of Holy Etchmiadzin, our presence as a nation and as a people is secure.”
He elaborated further on the Pontifical Encyclical and the powerful directive from the Mother See that Holy Etchmiadzin is the “foundation of the Armenian faith” for close to 2,000 years and that renovation funds will help maintain the “golden bridge” between Armenia and the Diaspora. Archbishop Derderian noted that the reconstruction campaign is a monumental undertaking and careful planning is in place under the watchful eye of professional experts who came from around the world to assess the renovation needs.
“If every Armenian makes a contribution, we will succeed in this effort and the light will remain in Etchmiadzin,” said Archbishop Derderian. “It is in the church that we feel the breath of our homeland and our holy faith and where we instill in our children the Armenian language, religion and culture.”
A UNESCO World Heritage Site that attracts countless visitors, Holy Etchmiadzin has undergone a series of renovations since its founding in 301 AD. Major restorations during the 17th century included work on the dome, ceiling, roof, foundations and paving as well as the addition of belfries. A century later, the monastery was walled and separated from the city to create a fortress and keep the cathedral away from external harm. The last extensive renovation was completed in the mid-20th century, by virtue of the generosity of benefactors Calouste Gulbenkian and Alex Manoogian.
“The Cathedral of Etchmiadzin is, symbolically and actually, the rock on which the Armenian Church and our Apostolic faith rests,” said Stepan Khzrtian, Esq., Secretary for the Etchmiadzin Cathedral Renovation Campaign Committee of the Western Diocese. “To allow our Mother Cathedral to fall into a volatile state jeopardizes the very bedrock on which we are baptized, but also compromises the timeless leadership of our first Catholicos.”
The grace of Holy Etchmiadzin is not only in its distinct architecture and design, but how it has served as a source of unification for Armenians, particularly during times of oppression. Time and again the cathedral shielded itself against the hands of foreign aggressors, particularly during the tumultuous chapter of the Armenian Genocide, where close to 70,000 refugees found haven within its walls, and where the Armenian Near East Relief built a hospital and orphanage on the church grounds. From the shadows, Holy Etchmiadzin provided vigor, faith and inspiration to the Armenian forces who pushed back the Turks and defended what was left of the battered homeland during the victorious Battle of Sardarabad, which took place mere miles from Holy Etchmiadzin. The Cathedral continues to live and to strengthen the Armenian faith and people through its many wide-ranging functions.
“Etchmiadzin is our spiritual capital and has been a very important educational center where our intellectuals, spiritual leaders, educators, and historians received their education,” said Dr. Simonian, a board member of the Etchmiadzin Cathedral Renovation Campaign Committee of Southern California. “The Mother See enlightens the hearts and spirits of all the Armenians living in the Diaspora, which is so important to help us preserve our identity as proud Armenian Christians in these difficult conditions, thousands of miles away from our fatherland.”
Following Divine Liturgy, a procession was led to Turpanjian Plaza where the Barekamutiun International Dance Studio presented a cultural program celebrating Armenian song and dance. In his remarks, Reverend Vazken Movsesian shared his personal journey and the meaning of Holy Etchmiadzin in his life, which was ignited when he first traveled to Armenia at the age of 20, accompanied by Archbishop Vatche Hovsepian, former Primate of the Western Diocese.
“During the Soviet Union religion was suppressed, but there was a light in Etchmiadzin I saw with my own eyes,” said Reverend Movsesian. “Today we have all the ability and the ease to travel to an independent Armenia, but during those years Etchmiadzin was what was Armenia for us and it was what gave us our faith and hope.”
“Long live Etchmiadzin,” concluded Reverend Movsesian. “It has been our home, and I’m so happy that we can dance, sing, pray and be happy in our house.”
The construction and restoration specialists plan to finish renovations prior to the National Ecclesiastical Assembly in September 2020, which will take place in the holy sanctuary, barring no further discoveries are made to warrant additional renovations.
“The Cathedral of Etchmiadzin must be saved as a religious and national structure, as a spiritual and a cultural phenomenon, and also as the oldest continually-standing cathedral in the world,” said Khzrtian. “This salvation shall come from broad circles of the children of our nation because the words and teachings of the Armenian Church nourish the many and not the few, so its eternity shall be ensured by the many, and not the few.”
Donations for the Etchmiadzin Cathedral Renovation can be made securely through the Western Diocese by mail or in person (please, note the reason for the donation in the memo section). All donations made through the Western Diocese are tax-deductible.