BRIEF HISTORY OF THE ARMENIAN CHURCH IN AMERICA

It is a matter of common knowledge that before 1870, there were individual Armenians who immigrated to the United States, coming here for a variety of reasons. History records that in 1656, the Governor of the Virginia Colony, Edward Diggs, issued a special invitation to two Armenians from Turkey, bringing them to America to establish and expand a silk raising and producing industry. The first known Armenian immigrant to the United States was named Khachadour Vosganian who was from Constantinople and who came to New York in 1834 as a student. In the period from 1840 to 1860, many young students from the Armenian provinces, Constantinople and Cilicia came to the United States to learn a trade, to establish commercial ties, or to secure their future at New York University, Princeton, Yale, or other institutions of higher learning by pursuing courses in religious, medical, or other scientific fields. Until the 1880s, individual and mass immigration of young Armenians coming to the United States continued.

As a result of the Hamidian persecutions and massacres of 1894-1896, and subsequently, the premeditated Armenian Genocide between 1908 and 1915, as well as the Russo-Turkish War, there was a general insecurity of life. Given the woeful living conditions, our people were forced to leave their fatherland to find a safe haven.

The unbearable conditions under communism in Armenia during the past century also contributed to the expansion of the Armenian communities in the Diaspora.

Upon the request of the Armenians of Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1888 The Very Rev. Hovsep Dz. V. Sarajian was assigned to serve as the parish priest of the Worcester community and other cities in the East Coast.

Father Sarajian was the founding pastor of Our Savior church in Worcester - the first Armenian Church in the United States built in 1890, and subsequently consecrated on January 18, 1891.

In 1894, Father Sarajian resigned from his pastorate and assumed new pastoral duties in Persia, where he served until 1898.

In 1898, Catholicos Mkrtich Khrimian, who extended his jurisdiction to the Armenian Church in America in response to Constantinople Patriarch Malachia Ormanian's request, consecrated Fr. Hovsep Sarajian as a bishop, sending him to Worcester, Massachusetts, where he had previously served in the capacity of an Archimandrite for four years.

It was Bishop Sarajian who also consecrated the Holy Trinity Armenian Church of Fresno on October 14, 1900. He also consecrated the St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Church in Fowler in April of 1910.

During that period, at the initiative of Bishop Sarajian, the Diocesan Headquarters of America was established in the city of Worcester, Massachusetts on July 17-18, 1901. The first Armenian-American Diocesan Assembly, which prepared the Diocesan By-Laws, was convened in Worcester, Massachusetts on July 12, 1902. Shortly thereafter, on September 6, 1902, His Holiness Khrimian Hayrig ratified the By-Laws with his encyclical.

Parallel to the East Coast, the Armenian population was growing in the West Coast quite rapidly. In 1910, responding to an inquiry from the diocesan office in Worcester, the Fresno parish reported 5,000 Armenians in California, of whom 4,000 were in Fresno.

To tend to the spiritual needs of the growing Armenian American community in California, the Diocese of California was established as a separate entity by the encyclical of His Holiness Kevork V, Catholicos of All Armenians, on November 28, 1927. The Diocese of California, later renamed as the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America, held its first Diocesan Assembly on October 28, 1928.

At the time of the establishment of the Western Diocese, 1927-1928, there were five (5) churches in California:

  1. Holy Trinity (consecrated in 1900 in Fresno)
  2. St. Gregory the Illuminator (consecrated in 1910 in Fowler)
  3. St. Mary (consecrated in 1911 in Yettem)
  4. Holy Cross (consecrated in 1923 in Los Angeles)
  5. Sts. Sahag-Mesrob (consecrated in 1924 in Reedley)

Bishop Karekin Khachadourian of Trabizon was the first elected Primate of the Western Diocese who assumed the office on May 26, 1928.

During the 1960-1980 period, we note that a new and stronger wave of immigration of Armenians from the Middle Eastern countries began to arrive in Los Angeles as a result of political unrest, civil war and social instability in the region. They came primarily from Lebanon, Iran, Syria, Egypt, and Iraq. Then, with the independence of Armenia from the Soviet Union in the early 1990's, we saw an unprecedented immigration of Armenians to the United States.

The influx of immigrants to Los Angeles made the city into the largest Armenian community outside of Armenia. Naturally, the characteristics of the Los Angeles Armenian community have undergone through major social, ethnic, cultural, spiritual, religious and organizational changes.

Along with these realities, new challenges and demands are created for the Armenian Church, requiring new approaches, methods and points of view.

In the summer of 1960, during the primacy of Bishop Papken Varjabedian, His Holiness Vasken I, Catholicos of All Armenians was the first Pontiff to visit the Western Diocese.

On Saturday, March 13, 1971, at St. Mary Armenian Church of Yettem, during the Diocesan Assembly, His Grace Bishop Vatché Hovsepian was elected to be the seventh Primate of the Western Diocese, succeeding His Grace Bishop Yeghishe Simonian.

The newly-elected Primate  immediately set about to secure for the Diocese its own Headquarters as the administrative center of the Armenian Church in the Western United States and to establish, as much as possible, a new religious mission with new perspectives and a new mode of thinking. The result of his efforts was the acquisition of the present building of St. John Garabed Armenian Church of Hollywood, which, at the same time, served as a parish church and the Diocesan Headquarters. The Diocesan Headquarters functioned in Hollywood until it was moved to the complex of St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Church in Pasadena in 1994, following the Northridge Earthquake.

As a result of Archbishop Vatché Hovsepian's serious and tireless pursuit, in 1997 the present Diocese building in the city of Burbank was purchased and the Diocesan Headquarters was moved to its new location as an appropriate center for the administration of the Diocese. It was during the primacy of Archbishop Vatché Hovsepian that plans for an adjoining cathedral were set forth.

On May 3, 2003, at the 76th Diocesan Assembly held at the Diocesan Headquarters in Burbank, Archbishop Hovnan Derderian was elected as the 8th Primate of the Western Diocese.

The primacy of Archbishop Derderian has thus far gained its own recognizable characteristics which are:

• Church and administrative reorganization

• Recruiting and preparing candidates for priesthood

• Expansion of Christian education and ethics in the community

• Regular conferences and lectures for the clergy

• New plans and projects for parishes and follow-up for their expeditious implementation

• Decisiveness in strategic implementation

• Honoring whose, who have made a difference in the life of the church and the community

These distinguishing characteristics of ministry portray Archbishop Derderian’s vison and the way he perceives the mission of the church in the 3rd millennium.

Throughout the historic existence of the Armenian people, the Armenian Church has always been a living phenomena. Each generation, to a greater or lesser degree, has grasped the idea that the Armenian Church is a spirit, which has lived for centuries in the souls of the Armenian people, and the Armenian people been an integral part of the existence of the Church.