Clergy Reflect on Their Paths to Ministry

Holy Priesthood in the Armenian Church

Over the past year a number of dedicated Diocesan clergy reached milestones in their ministries. And their respective communities commemorated these ordination anniversaries.

Expressing gratitude to the parishes they’ve served across the country, several of these priests reflected recently on their service to the church, the faithful to whom they have ministered, and how their priesthood has evolved throughout the years.

From veteran clergy who have served over 40 years, to those who are commemorating a decade of service, each priest has received as much fulfillment as they have given to their parishes and to the Armenian Church as a whole.

“It has been a joy and a privilege,” said Rev. Fr. Yeprem Kelegian, the retired priest of the St. Mesrob Armenian Church in Racine, WI.

Having recently marked the 40th anniversary of his ordination, Fr. Kelegian states that one of the most beautiful aspects of being a pastor is following his parishioners through all stages of their lives, from birth to adolescence to marriage and, ultimately, the baptism of their own children.

Sharing the Deepest Spirituality

“People share their deepest spiritual beings with me,” said Fr. Kelegian. “I have come to experience an epiphany of God through their eyes and their prayerfulness.”

He remarks that every priest he has known has taught him something new, as have the lay people who have “kept me going with their love, support, advice, and prayers.”

Kelegian now does the same for the next generation of priests, offering them support and teaching them lessons and knowledge he acquired during his vocation. As the spiritual director for many of the St. Nersess Armenian Seminary Graduates, he firmly believes “they will carry on magnificently.”

The ordination milestones also give priests the chance to assess how they have grown as clergyman.

“When I look back I see the richness of a full life, brimming with both accomplishments and failures,” said Very Rev. Fr. Oshagan Gulgulian, pastor of the St. Sahag and St. Mesrob Church in Wynnewood, PA. “Although I have made sacrifices in the path I have chosen, I feel spiritually uplifted whenever I am able to help my Armenian family in their time of need.”

Celebrating the 30th anniversary of his ordination, Fr. Gulgulian said that this milestone “is a powerful time for spiritual renewal.”

Fr. Gulgulian’s strong religious beliefs are rooted in his childhood and in his grandfather’s devout faith. At a young age, Gulgulian would read the Bible passage his grandfather had handwritten on the wall of his childhood home in Beirut, Lebanon. Gulgulian fondly remembers the quote from Matthew 11:28-30: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke on you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and my load is not hard to carry.”

“It was the first passage I learned to read in Armenian and it was a quiet undercurrent that influenced my thinking and became an inspiration for me throughout my youth,” said Fr. Gulgulian.

Although his grandfather traveled to Jerusalem to become a priest, his circumstances were difficult and he was unable to continue his studies. His grandfather’s faith, however, never wavered and he continued to read his Bible—so much that Fr. Gulgulian remembers “seeing the worn and marked pages he would turn to over and over.”

Gulgulian’s path to the seminary was also influenced by academia and he pays homage to his Armenian schoolteachers at Vahan Tekeyan School in Beirut, who instilled in him a love of the Armenian Church, Armenian history, language and culture.

“Sometimes still today I can hear my teachers’ voices describing Saint Vartan or Gregory of Narek or the battles of Avarayr and Sardarabad,” said Gulgulian. “So, as you can see, when it came time for me to choose a vocation I did not hesitate to choose the seminary.”

Of his journey in the priesthood, Gulgulian said his greatest joy and highest honor was being ordained in the Armenian Church on the altar of Holy Etchmiadzin, a memory he said he will “cherish deeply until the end of my life.”

Challenged to a New Perspective

Fr. Gulgilian’s priesthood continues to evolve over three decades, punctuated by moments of happiness and of sorrow when ministering to his flock. Challenges also came his way, such as when His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians, sent him to India to serve as the manager of the Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy, an experience he is now grateful for and one that became “deeply woven into the fabric of who I have become as a priest.”

He adapted to his new environment and in addition to being a “Hayr Sourp” to the children, aged eight to twenty, he also became an administrator of the school and a de-facto brother and father.

“That experience challenged me to change my perspective, and as I look back on my experience in India, both good and tough, I recognize and honor how it shaped me into the priest, the father, the brother I am able to be with my Armenian family today,” said Fr. Gulgulian.

During this period of growth, Fr. Gulgulian said he learned how to be more than a clergyman and focused his efforts on genuinely ministering to people, talking to them, being a friend as well as a source of comfort.

“As I set my sight forward, I realize these past thirty years are really just the first part of my story,” said Gulgulian. “There are chapters yet unwritten in my service to God and the Armenian people, and I look forward with faithful anticipation to the path God prepares for me.”

Patience, Forgiveness, Love

Over the past decade, Rev. Fr. Hratch Sargsyan is grateful for the “patience, forgiveness and love people have for clergy.

Commemorating his 10th anniversary, Fr. Sargsyan, pastor of the St. Gregory of Narek Church in Cleveland, OH, recalls the most powerful moment of his priesthood was when he celebrated his first badarak as an ordained priest.

“My most joyful moments always were and still are administering the Sacrament of Holy Baptism,” said Fr. Sargsyan.

He also finds inspiration in the spiritual insights and strength of lay people, especially in difficult times.

“One of the most rewarding experiences is seeing people’s breakthroughs in their spiritual lives,” said Sargsyan. “When they rise from the ashes of tragedy or loss and become a deeply spiritual person.”

He remarks that one simple conversation with a clergyman when he was 15 years old completely changed the course of his life and he soon embarked on a six-month study period to prepare for seminary exams. Once he entered the Vaskenian Seminary in Lake Sevan, Armenia, Bishop Bagrat Galstanyan served as his mentor, who had a “huge impact on my formation as a clergy.”

Over the past 10 years, Fr. Sargsyan noticed the shift within him of transforming from a clerical priest when he was first ordained, to a more pastoral one today.

“I’ve come to understand that my single and most important task is to reflect Christ’s love for his people,” said Fr. Sargsyan. “My task is to live the Gospel of Christ myself before I begin to preach and teach it.”

Connecting to People

Another priest celebrating his 10th anniversary ordination is Rev. Fr. Mesrob Hovsepian, pastor of the St. Gregory the Enlightener Church in White Plains, NY, who notes that this anniversary is that much more meaningful because of the people who were involved in his ministry along the way.

“Certainly, the years blessed me with great experiences, and most importantly with connections to people who are truly blessings for our communities and for our nation,” said Fr. Hovsepian.

Of the more memorable moments in his priesthood, Fr. Hovsepian said performing the sacrament of marriage has always been rewarding for him.

“One of the greatest joys as a priest is the ability to unite two lives together, with the blessings of our Lord, and watch the formation of a new family with new additions and baptisms who later become the integral part of the future of the community.”

Coming of age during the collapse of the Soviet Union, Hovsepian said he saw people in his native Armenia trying to “revive their spirituality and reconnect with the church” after decades of being governed by a secular state.

As a 15-year-old boy, he too began to search for more meaning in his faith and religion. During that time, his mother influenced and guided him in his “first steps to connect with the church.”

Later, he joined a group of faithful on a pilgrimage during the Feast of the Assumption of St. Mary, walking 12 miles from Yerevan to Etchmiadzin. The goal was to reach the St. Mary Mother of God Armenian Church in Etchmiadzin on time for the morning service.

“The pilgrimage became a life-changing experience for me,” said Fr. Hovsepian, which led him to serve as an altar boy before entering the seminary

The evolution of his priesthood came on the heels of serving in three communities in the United States after graduating from seminary, including the St. Gregory the Illuminator Church of Chicago, IL; St. James Church of Richmond, VA; and St. Gregory the Enlightener Church of White Plains, NY—which “became my second home and contributed immensely in the enhancement of my experience as a clergyman.”

Seeds of Faith

On the 20th anniversary of his ordination, Rev. Fr. Vartan Joulfayan, pastor of the St. Mary Church in Hollywood, FL, said it was his parents who “sowed the seeds of faith in me.”

He believed it was God’s call for him to enter seminary and since then he has continued his service to God and the Armenian Church.

“My joy has been to serve and feel spiritual contentment,” said Fr. Joulfayan. “Let God reward you, not men.”

Ordained a priest four months before the consecration of the St. Hagop Church in St. Petersburg, FL, where he currently serves, Rev. Fr. Hovnan Demerjian now sees the “beautiful parallel development in our church and within me” in the decade since his ordination.

Fr. Demerjian remarks that his ministry is the reflection of the people he nurtured and supported in his vocation, particularly within the St. Hagop parish.

“My own call to ministry has matured along with that of the St. Hagop parish, the two are interconnected,” said Fr. Demirjian. “I believe that one’s church can only grow as spiritually mature as the clergy and lay leaders of that church.”

His key lesson has been learning to “get out of God’s way and my own way in discerning the movement of the spirit.”

—Taleen Babayan

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