What is an Armenian parish?

Matthew Namee’s somewhat recent post concerning what constitutes a parish caught me by surprise, as I was preparing a very similar article of my own to illustrate a problem I’ve been having in continuing to tell the story of the Armenian Orthodox Church for SOCHA.  When I agreed to assist SOCHA in covering Armenian topics, I envisioned my first posting to be a quick narrative about the Armenian Church (which it was, you can read that here), and my second to follow soon thereafter, containing a listing of the first parish in each of the twenty-four states where the Armenian Church is found.  Matthew Namee, of course, did the same thing for the growth of Eastern Orthodox parishes, and I thought it might be helpful to our readers if I did, too.

I quickly found that writing such an entry was difficult, precisely out of the primary question Matthew posed in his entry:  What truly constitutes a parish?  I was consulting parish and diocesan websites, several books published by the church (dating back as early as the 1940’s), newspapers, and couldn’t find a set standard anywhere.  Some parishes gauged their founding from the building of their first sanctuary.  Others dated it from the first vestiges of a board of trustees, or the first time there was really any appreciable, united Armenian community.  Even more confusing are the so-called “Mission Parishes,” which ordinarily do not have (and probably never have had) either a permanent sanctuary or a priest, often both.  These communities tend to date their founding by the year in which they were formally recognized as a Mission Parish, which doesn’t seem to have been general practice until the 1970’s, even if an Armenian presence and some modicum of organized church life existed long before.

My home parish (when I’m not in Chicago), St. John Armenian Church in Southfield, Michigan, is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year.  That’s all well and fine, except the first evidence of a parish organization apparently dates to 1909, and first priest assigned to Detroit arrived in 1913.  There was no sanctuary, so the community met in a number of borrowed spaces, especially St. John Episcopal Church in downtown Detroit (which, interestingly, also housed the plenary sessions of the 4th All-American Sobor in 1924, for those interested in Metropolia/OCA history), until they could afford to purchase land and build a church of their own.  The movement to build the first church began in 1928, and it was ready for consecration in 1931.

So there’s three possible anniversary dates here if we look at when the community came together, when the first priest came, and when the first church was built:  1909, 1913, and 1931.  To give you an idea of what standard the parish ended up using, in 2006, we celebrated our 75th anniversary, and this year we celebrate the 80th.

Then there’s the situation of the Armenian community in Chicago, which seems to truly defy explanation, and gets at the root of the incredibly strange arrangements that combined to form the Diocese of the Armenian Church in America in 1898 (which I hope to cover later on).  The previous year, the entire country was separated into four “ecclesiastical districts:” Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Fresno (California), and Chicago, and the scant amount of Armenian clergy distributed amongst them.   This could be considered an odd choice, considering an 1898 list of the seven largest Armenian communities in the United States prepared by Bishop Hovsep Saradjian ranked Chicago dead last, numbering just 400 people.   Yet this was the biggest Armenian community in the Midwest at the time.  Fr. Khat Markarian was assigned to travel to Chicago, but a disagreement over his reassignment from his parish in Boston resulted in Markarian instead going to New York.  No replacement was named, and Chicago languished.

While other communities around the country rapidly grew, taking advantage of massive waves of immigration to build churches and the infrastructures of parish life, Chicago was a comparative non-starter.  Though he visited nearly every corner of the country, Bp. Saradjian never visited the city.  In 1901, he sent Fr. Vahan Messirlian to Chicago to organize a slate of trustees to establish a parish, and while he may have been marginally successful in the short-term, there were no representatives from Chicago at the 1902 Diocesan Assembly.   There were loose associations of parish life over the next decade, but there would not be a permanent priest assigned to Chicago until 1915.  St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Church formally dates its establishment to that year, and was the culmination of all that had happened in Chicago since 1898.  Since St. Gregory is the oldest Armenian parish in Illinois, is 1915 really the right year to pick for its establishment?

So, like Matthew, I’m struggling a bit with how one gauges the intricacies of parish formation, especially looking at situations that were anomalous both in geographical dispersal as well as the highly irregular way in which the Armenian Church in America constituted its hierarchical administration in its earliest years.  Long story short, I guess, that list I mentioned at the opening is forthcoming, once I can determine some kind of standard, and wade through the evidence enough to come to a consensus.

Until then, SOCHA readers, are there any particular issues you want me to cover about the Armenian Church?

This article was written by Aram Sarkisian.

3 thoughts on “What is an Armenian parish?

  1. Since an official ‘parish’ of either an Orthodox or Armenian (or RC or Coptic, etc.) church has certain canonical requirements, I think the idea of a ‘proto-parish’ meeting some minimal requirements would be enough to count when determining the date or identity of a ‘first’ – especially if that proto-parish went on to become a parish. If a proto-parish or religious society, religious association, etc. never got past a couple meetings, never held a prayer service of some kind, never attempted contact with a priest or bishop, never bought a space, etc. and then folded, then this should not be counted as a ‘first parish’ – though it’s worthy of an asterisk describing earlier attempts at organizing and parish.

  2. I would very like to learn more about the Armenian Church, in general. I know it has its own liturgical rites, distinct from other Christian churches, including other Non-Chalcedonians. Perhaps making note of any differences or changes in American Armenian churches from Armenia would be a good jumping off point to introduce others to some of the distinct features of Armenian Christianity in contrast to Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, etc. In general, the compare and contrast technique would work very well as a vehicle to share more about the Armenian church while also discussing the history and development of Armenian Christianity in North America. Suggestions for good materials that then introduce Armenian Christianity on its own terms without reference to Orthodoxy or Rome would also be helpful.

  3. Another good topic would be Armenian Orthodox relations with the Eastern Orthodox jurisdictions in America. I know there are dialogues today, but how have we interacted historically in America?

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