THE CATHEDRAL AT THRESHOLD OF A CENTURY
By Hourig Papazian Sahagian
If only the walls could talk to us, these walls of St. Illuminator’s, they might echo the tune “Kele Lao” (Let’s go home)! But there was no home, no village for our parents and grandparents who were left behind in the mist of blood and anguish.
In the years following the genocide, St. Illuminator’s Armenian Apostolic Cathedral beckoned like a bright beacon of hope for a generation of survivors. After they landed on Ellis Island they quickly found their way to this modest church on a bustling street in the shadow of the “EL” where they searched for family members, village neighbors, and the anchor for a new life.
If only the walls could talk of that tiny reception hall with posts as awkward and unsophisticated as the refugees who gathered there, those posts-and people-that bravely supported the weight of the church above them. Yet despite her limitations, St. Illuminator’s plunged in, determined to fulfill her mission as a nurturing homeland of the spirit. The survivors saw in her a kindred image of the Statue of Liberty, which had welcomed them with loving generosity. Here was offered the Armenian haven of ancient light and succor: the Holy Badarak.
Those posts could tell many stories of joyous times, of families reunited, of young people finding love, of weddings, Christenings, and of the great classic celebration, the Hantess Khunjouyk! Later, inevitably, as the “pioneer generation” aged, they bid their last farewell before St. Illuminator’s altar.
In 1914, St. Illuminator’s members began to collect funds to purchase the church and its furnishings from the Methodists; six years later it came into Armenian ownership. In April 1921, St. Illuminator’s, at 221 East 27th Street, was consecrated as a cathedral. It, and the building next door, were ours. A new “homeland” at last!
Slowly, gradually, St. Illuminator’s parish took root. For our new Americans, there were triumphs great and small-of factory work, of learning English. Grocers, tailors, seamstresses, and shoemakers opened modest shops. Coffee shops, the “Armen Garo” Club, and a variety of Armenian specialty stores popped up along Third Avenue, some of which are still flourishing on that upscale street.
All the while, St. Illuminator’s parishioners, though they were living hard-scrabble lives, sacrificed time, money, and effort for their church. There were constant fundraisers by the trustees, the Ladies’ Guild, and other groups for the benefit of the genocide survivors, the orphans, the Calamity Fund, the Garmir Khatch (later the Armenian Relief Society), and the Gamavor Legion. However, unfailingly money was saved and sent back home to bring relatives “over.” Hearts trembled for news of loved ones. A letter from home was cause for celebration!
As family finances showed some improvement, naturally the urgent priority was to establish the Armenian school. Classes were held three days per week; absentees were rare. Then followed charitable, cultural, and political organizations. Evening events crowded the calendar with meetings of women’s groups, men’s political associations, youth activists and sports clubs, regional and village fraternal societies, and an outstanding choir and mixed chorus directed by the renowned Krikor Suny.
It was during the years 1917-20 when a call to arms went out to the newly minted Armenian American men. News had spread like wildfire that their “old country” neighbors were falling prey once again to the Turkish sword-another genocide! The gamavor was formed as an army of volunteers to train as a wing of the French Foreign Legion. A number of United States divisions were created with a single mission: “Return to Historic Armenia to rescue survivors and orphans.”
Old anxieties were revived in the hearts of St. Illuminator’s parishioners as they bid farewell to the gamavor legions in the church hall. These courageous men had barely found a foothold in their new country when they turned around and went back into the Turkish killing fields. They marched off to the strains of “Harach Nahadag,” a song composed expressly for the gamavor by the great Parsegh Ganachian.
When tragedy struck the adopted homeland in 1929, wiping out businesses and savings throughout America, Armenians endured with the resilience acquired through millennia of troubled times. For Armenians too proud to accept the charity of relief (welfare) from any source, St. Illuminator’s stretched out her arms, serving as an employment clearinghouse for her flock during those long dark years.
In the same decade, there was a political upheaval in the Armenian Apostolic Churches of the United States. Months of negotiations took place in the hall of St. Illuminator’s, which resounded with the voices of church and community representatives at endless meetings in search of reconciliation.
Despite turbulent times, this period ushered in decades of a Golden Age of culture in U.S. Armenian communities, particularly in St.
Illuminator’s environment in the heart of New York City. This flowering of Armenian artistic life developed well before the arrival of new waves of immigrants from the Middle East, Armenia, and Persia.
Music, dance, and dramatic productions featuring renowned artists appeared on the stages of Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera, and Town Hall. Celebrations and genocide commemorations were held in elegant venues such as Park Palace, Pythian Temple (later the City Center), and the Paramount Mansion, site of the New York debut of Alan Hovhannes. Week-long April 24th commemorations were also held in hotels in Atlantic City.
Upon General Antranig’s U.S. visit a fundraising campaign-reception was held in St. Illuminator’s Hall to benefit the Armenian Army. His comrade-in-arms and a heroic military leader, General Sebouh, became a familiar figure at St. Illuminator’s as he lived in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan. But it was the visit to New York of Franz Werfel, the author of The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, that topped all the events of the 1930’s. A gala black-tie reception held in his honor at the Waldorf Astoria just blocks from St. Illuminator’s created unparalleled excitement in the parish.
Meanwhile, as Europe teetered on the brink of World War II, American Armenians observed all the diplomatic and political machinations, chilled by the old fear of a coming conflagration. Painful scars of the first World War were still fresh in Armenian minds when Pearl Harbor struck, and the entire U.S. Armenian community met the demands of war with patriotic determination. Countless men from St.
Illuminator’s parish and thousands from the metropolitan area rallied to the defense of their country. They served, fought, and died with honor on every front.
After “the War,” the Communist juggernaut overwhelmed the Armenian homeland in a familiar historical pattern of tyranny and slavery.
Armenians fled by the thousands to any country that would accept them.
A great number were interred in refugee camps in Germany as “stateless persons,” many of whom were able to emigrate thanks to the Nansen Passport, issued in honor of Fridtjof Nansen, the great Norwegian humanitarian who had aided Survivors after World War I.
The U.S. Armenian community hastily rallied to the cause of bringing the refugees to our shores; the Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Armenian Relief Society, and the National Council of Churches joined forces, and thus was born the Armenian National Committee to Aid Homeless Armenians, the ANCHA.
St. Illuminator’s and St. Sarkis parishioners of all ages rose as one to meet the challenges of resettling wave after wave of newcomers.
Once again the Hall of Pillars of St. Illuminator’s rang out with the voices of workers in the colossal community effort that bridged two decades.
Cadres of volunteers stood ready at the New York docks where ships arrived from Europe to escort refugees to the St. Illuminator’s Hall.
There, another cadre welcomed them with a reception followed by briefing sessions. The new ANCHA “Hairengits” were fed-often clothed-by the army of volunteers who stood ready to leap into action at a moment’s notice. Traditional chicken-pilaf meals were prepared in the kitchen of the church hall by a legion of skilled ladies of the two parishes.
Newcomers were then processed through a labyrinth of interviews, often lasting days, with the committee. Many remained to take up residence in the tri-state area while large numbers were relocated to California. All were escorted to bus, train, or airport and, upon arrival, were greeted by their sponsoring families in destinations throughout the U.S. Parish youth of the Saturday and Sunday Schools provided the escort service, running errands, making phone calls, and delivering messages. One 16-year-old Scout, for his Eagle Scout project, prepared a brochure for the refugees, outlining the laws, duties, and privileges of U.S. citizenship.
Over the next 20 years, Armenians in academic life increased exponentially as leading universities on both costs established departments of Armenia area studies. Simultaneously, Armenian Day Schools emerged throughout the United States. In the late 1970’s, St.
Illuminator’s Day School was founded at the Armenian Center in Woodside, Queens.
For some time the Prelacy and the Armenian Relief Society had functioned as supervisory bodies for a network of single-day and day schools. They soon recognized the imperative of reaching an adolescent generation by sponsoring the Siamanto Academy for High School students for whom weekly lectures were offered by well-known Armenian educators. A three-year course of advanced studies earned them college credit-a major breakthrough in U.S.-Armenian education.
Over the years classes had been held in St. Illuminator’s Hall where, while closet bookshelves were being rearranged, an astounding discovery was made. An old Altar Curtain was found that, though it is beginning to yellow with age, is an outstanding artistic example of the crocheting art. The date “1920” of the cathedral’s acquisition had been worked into its heavy ancient threads. It was thought to have taken at least five years to complete this labor of love, and the ladies of the parish immediately assumed the responsibility of restoring the historic artifact for their beloved St. Illuminator’s Cathedral.
The earthquake of Dec. 7, 1988 struck Armenia like lightning striking twice. They were still reeling from a pogrom perpetrated by the Azerbaijan army in February 1988. Ten months later the earth opened up in Sumgait killing over 25,000 more.
Diaspora Armenians leaped into action as first responders. St.
Illuminator’s and the Woodside Armenian Center became the hub of a campaign for emergency aid and supplies. Physicians and specialists of the parish boarded the first “mercy” flights to Yerevan to begin the healing work which, sadly, continues to this day.
A short 36 months after the earthquake, Mother Armenia felt her power returning as she declared her second Independence, on Sept. 21, 2001, even as the Battle for Artsakh raged on.
In the interim, on April 24, 2000, a chapel was consecrated at St.
Illuminator’s Cathedral in memory of the martyrs of the genocide. The recovered bones of the Survivors of the Der Zor desert were encased in this contemporary reliquary as a final salute to their holy remains.
The 1920 Altar Curtain was accompanied by a brave companion during St.
Illuminator’s journey of a century: the building itself. Five generations had prayed, worked, and played in that blessed place. But the passage of decades began to weigh heavily on the walls, posts, and foundations of the cathedral.
Architects, construction, and metallurgy specialists were called upon to plan, design, rebuild, and renew the venerable space.
The balcony was replaced with lofty rafters that reflect the sparkle of several brilliant chandeliers. The walls then were raised to even greater heights. Now, as we pass through the Adyan, Tas, and Pem to the Khoran, the renewed cathedral continues to direct our path toward the light of a new day.
The tired old walls and posts might have taken away with them the imprint of memories and legends of our ancient homeland even as Turkey’s genocide denial today attempts to eradicate them. St.
Illuminator’s people meet that challenge with a national spirit that burns more fiercely than ever. Building on our historic legacy, we are inspired to create new memories and legends within the resurrected walls and posts of St. Illuminator’s Cathedral.