American Armenian Church Changes Staff

May 23, 2003 11:54 AM EDT

The primate of the largest Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church diocese outside of Armenia, steps down after 32 years of faithful service. Archbishop Vatche Hovsepian, 72, will be formally succeeded by Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, 45, this coming Monday.

The passing of the position is coming less than a month after the church dedicated a spacious new diocesan center in Burbank, where church members plan to build a $5-million cathedral, April 30. The center, finished with marble floors and crystal chandeliers, is a far cry from the small rented building on Crenshaw Boulevard in which the church was housed in 1971, when Hovsepian began his tenure as bishop. For two years, he lived out of a suitcase, he said.

Since that year, the church has more than doubled the number of its parishes, from 12 to 27, and more than quadrupled the number of priests in the western region. The diocese includes all states west of the Mississippi River, but active parishes are limited to California, Arizona, Utah, Oregon and Washington.

The diocese owns a 160-acre conference center near Yosemite National Park. There are at least a dozen Armenian day schools, not all of them directly tied to the church.

Hovsepian estimates there are 500,000 to 600,000 Armenians on the West Coast many of whom are not affiliated with the church. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church with its 1 billion adherents of virtually every language and culture in the world, the vast majority of church members are of Armenian descent, with a few non-Armenian converts, mostly through intermarriages. The church, Hovsepian said, remains a "nationalistic church," one that stands as a guardian of Armenian culture.

The tension between participation in American life and remaining essentially Armenian was underscored in a series of reflections written by Derderian and published last year on the 1,700th anniversary of the church.

"It is quite a challenge to be a diasporan Armenian," he wrote. "One must fully integrate with the laws, cultures and language of the host country while never allowing assimilation to take place."

Given the strong pressure for assimilation that American society and culture exert on all ethnic groups, his statement is bold.

The church is both the steward of Armenian culture and the "spiritual bridge" that links the homeland with the "permanent reality" of the Armenian diaspora, Derderian said.

A native of Beirut, Derderian was ordained as a priest in 1980 and holds bachelor's and master's degrees from Oxford University in England. He is also a graduate of the Theological Seminary of the Holy See of Etchmiadzin in Armenia and the Theological Seminary at Antelias, Lebanon.

A diocesan assembly on May 3 elected him to succeed Hovsepian. The election was confirmed the next day by the Armenian pope, His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians in Armenia.

In a joint interview this week, Derderian and Hovsepian expanded on the church's role and place in the United States.

America, they said, has been a blessing to Armenians in general and to their church. "North America has become for us a fertile soil, the ground which has helped us to strengthen our church and the church mission," Derderian said.

"Inasmuch as we are challenged with assimilation, we are also blessed in many ways to see that the church is continuing the mission which helps our children to maintain their identity," he said.

The diaspora has also been a boon to the church in Armenia, they said, accounting for perhaps half of the mother church's annual budget, and often paying more than 90% of the costs of building new churches and schools. But there are inexorable pressures, both archbishops said, in maintaining Armenian identity in the New World. Succeeding generations of Armenians speak only English. While there is as yet no shortage of priests overall, there is a shortage of English-speaking priests, a problem as Armenians move beyond the population base in Los Angeles County, particularly Glendale and Burbank, to outlying regions.

"When you come to expand, when you go to Riverside, there's no way I can send a priest who speaks only Armenian," Hovsepian said. "Over there you have mixed generations, both recent immigrants and only-English-speaking people. Gradually, every priest will have to speak English."

The church here serves several different groups of people, Hovsepian said.

One is made up of people whose ancestors arrived in the United States in the 19th century. Few of them speak Armenian.

A second generation comprises the more recent immigrants of the last 20 or 25 years. In many cases their children go to Armenian schools, but the parents do not attend church, in large part because church was actively discouraged or denied to them in Armenia before the fall of the Soviet Union.

For their children, "one foot is in the old country, one foot is in the new country," Hovsepian said. As for their parents, "Their body is in this country. They still 'live' in the old country."

Hovsepian has been active in ecumenical and interfaith activities and civic functions in Southern California, a fact borne out by the many non-Armenian religious and civic officials who attended a testimonial dinner for him May 3. Derderian said he plans to be active here as well. Hovsepian will formally introduce Derderian to the Council of Religious Leaders, made up of the leading bishops or other authorities in various churches and Jewish organizations, next week.

While many other Christians and non-Christians alike are unfamiliar with the Armenian church, it holds a special place in the history of the faith. In AD 301, Armenia became the first nation to declare Christianity the official state religion when St. Gregory the Illuminator converted Armenia's King Trdat.

That was a dozen years before the better-known conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine, who became a Christian after winning a battle against a rival. Constantine credited the Christian God for his victory, and Christianity became the official state religion of the Roman Empire.

"For 1,700 years we've lived the Christian faith and we've chosen to be Christian, and Christianity has been for us the way of life," Derderian said. "I think we have to inspire our children. We have to make sure that their Christian faith becomes for them the purpose of their lives. If we are able to transmit this message, I think we will continue to be the living church for our children."

"We never cut our ties to our homeland," Hovsepian added. "But 100 years, 200 years from now, what will happen? God knows!"

By Pauline J.