Last weekend, parishioners at Holy Virgin Mary and Shoghagat Church of Belleville, IL, observed the 60th anniversary of the consecration of the area’s original church in nearby East St. Louis. Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Primate of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern), celebrated the Divine Liturgy, ordained altar servers, and joined the community for a banquet.
The weekend’s events began on the afternoon of Saturday, June 11, when the Primate met with the parish council and the Very Rev. Fr. Mesrop Parsamyan, parish pastor, to discuss current programming and plans for the future. The parish council has been working on a five-year strategic plan called “Vision 20/20,” which they shared with Archbishop Barsamian, who commended them for their hard work and gave his blessing for the successful implementation of the plan.
On Saturday evening, a special reception was held in the church’s Jamjamian Cultural Hall. Parishioners had an opportunity to meet with Archbishop Barsamian in an informal setting, to hear about the work of the Diocese, and to ask questions and share ideas about strengthening the Belleville parish.
On Sunday, June 12, Archbishop Barsamian celebrated the Divine Liturgy, with Fr. Parsamyan assisting on the altar. Also taking part in the service was the Rev. Fr. Yeprem Kelegian, who was deacon-in-charge when the community made the move from East St. Louis to Belleville.
The Primate ordained three altar servers—Ron Leap and brothers Mark and Gregory Marifian—to the sub-diaconate. The three have been working closely with Fr. Parsamyan in the past year to prepare for this new role in the Armenian Church.
In his sermon, Archbishop Barsamian spoke about the endurance of the Armenian people in the face of setbacks, and noted how an abiding faith in Christ has helped Armenians persevere and emerge to build anew. Turning to the Diocese’s theme for the year, “Legacy of Our Martyrs: A Gift to Carry Forward,” he encouraged parishioners to consider how they might continue to pass down the Armenian Christian heritage to new generations.
“Here, at the Holy Shoghagat parish, the spirit of our martyrs—the divine spirit of ‘overcoming’—has been exemplified by the people of this parish, through your service on the altar, your efforts in parish organizations, your outreach to the community and your ministry to each other,” Archbishop Barsamian said.
“Now we must look to the future, and share our rich Armenian Christian identity with our young people.”
Later that day, some 200 guests gathered at the Bellecourt Manor banquet hall in Belleville for a celebratory program. Master of ceremonies Garen Vartanian gave welcoming remarks and introduced the guests seated at the dais: Archbishop Barsamian, Fr. Parsamyan, Diocesan Council member Richard Norsigian, parish council chair Paul Nersesian, Dn. George Marifian, and anniversary committee chair Maggie Colliflower.
Mr. Nersesian recalled the original church in East St. Louis and the sacrifices made by the immigrant generation of Armenians who were determined to build an Armenian Church in the greater St. Louis area.
“Our church was founded by the survivors of the Armenian Genocide. The formation of this church was part of the healing process for the survivors, and they took pride in it,” he said. “Today we are not without our challenges, but we are moving forward, and I feel like we are gaining momentum in our efforts.”
He went on to speak about the community’s dedication in taking up the project of building a new sanctuary in Belleville, and noted the contributions of individuals and church organizations in realizing this dream in the 1970s. Today, he said, the community is looking forward to passing the torch to a new generation of Armenians.
Reflections were also offered by Fr. Kelegian, who was instrumental in the early efforts to secure land and begin construction of the current sanctuary in Belleville, and Mr. Norsigian, who is originally from the Holy Shoghagat community.
The newly ordained sub-deacon Gregory Marifian thanked Fr. Pasamyan for working closely with the altar servers to help them become better acquainted with the Divine Liturgy. He also recalled the late Very Rev. Fr. Shnork Kasparian, a longtime pastor of Holy Virgin Mary and Shoghagat Church, who he said first inspired him to serve on the altar.
“We take pride every week in seeing you in the pews, worshipping, praying, and participating in the Eucharist as our ancestors have taught us, and it is a blessing and a privilege that we get to serve you every week,” he said on behalf of the altar servers.
A short film highlighting the history of Holy Virgin Mary and Shoghagat Church and its present-day community was screened. Armenian musical selections were performed by parishioners Susan Norsigian, Ani Kramer, and Giselle Krikorian.
Fr. Parsamyan expressed his gratitude to the community for their warm welcome over the past year.
“Our ancestors built, sustained, and grew this parish with vision, determination, and love,” he said. “Let us carry this legacy into the future with their blessings.”
Archbishop Barsamian said he was heartened to see the energy in the local community, from the enthusiasm of the three altar servers to the dedicated preparation of the anniversary committee and all the parish organizations.
“I pray that God will continue to bless this community,” the Primate said. “May He continue to strengthen you and inspire you as you embark to write a new chapter in the history of this wonderful parish.”