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Toros Mangassarian is the Diocese’s 2018 “Armenian Church Member of the Year”

When businessman Toros Mangassarian traveled to Armenia with his family two summers ago, he read his children a passage from William Saroyan’s short story “The Armenian and the Armenian.” The Pulitzer Prize-winner’s words struck a chord with his youngest daughter, Gabriela, who said the message taught her about the “strength and resilience” of Armenians.

It’s a message Toros has been cultivating all his life.

The grandchild of Genocide survivors, the church was a second home for him from a young age. Some of the fondest memories of his childhood took place on Sunday mornings when he would walk hand-in-hand with his grandfather to the Forty Martyrs Cathedral in Aleppo, Syria, to attend badarak.

When his family moved to Lebanon’s Achrafieh neighborhood a few years later, his parents quickly found a home at St. Hagop Armenian Church, where Toros said it was “natural” to spend Sundays attending Divine Liturgy and playing with friends in the church community as an 8-year-old. As he grew older, he began to serve on the altar, where the seeds of his ties to Armenian religious life continued to flourish. He was actively involved, not only in the church community, but in the cultural arena as well, teaching French language at AGBU’s Hovagimian-Manougian and Tarouhi-Hagopian schools early on in his life.

In his late 20s, when Toros decided to move to the U.S. to strike out on his own, he once again sought out an Armenian cultural and religious sphere he could immerse himself in. He found his spiritual home within the St. Gregory community, led by the Rev. Fr. Karekin Kasparian, while living in Westchester County. In the mid 1970s, the church was still a mission parish (and still known under the name “St. James”)—years away from the consecration of its own magnificent edifice, to which Toros would later become an influential donor.

“The church is the foundation and the center of the Armenian culture,” said Toros. “The religion complements the culture and one needs the other to remain strong and influential.”

Build it for the Future

As his involvement in Armenian Church life progressed, so did his professional and family lives. He married his wife Gacia and they welcomed three children, Taleen, Mark and Gabriela. During the same time, he established the Nitron Group Corporation in 1982, a global trading firm specializing in chemical and agricultural fertilizers, where he currently serves in his dual role as chairman and Chief Executive Officer.

As Toros’s success continued to grow, his humility remained, particularly when his parish called on him to help lead efforts towards the creation of a physical church structure. Already an active parishioner and parish council member, Toros became involved in the building committee, searching for property and spearheading fundraisers.

While raising money for the church, Toros noticed the difficulties of securing funds and voiced his concerns to Fr. Kasparian. He questioned whether they should continue to build the church structure, despite the financial setbacks.

“Fr. Karekin responded to me by saying, “You don’t build a church for today’s generation. You build it for the future.”

Those words remained etched in Toros’s mind and soon enough, the community supporters galvanized and the parish unveiled its church in White Plains, N.Y., in 1998—over two decades in the making. Toros was named as one of the church’s godfathers.

“Toros is generous, kind-hearted, friendly, hospitable, deep thinking and good hearted,” said Fr. Kasparian, a close family friend who baptized his children. “He has been a parishioner of mine for a long time and has been helpful from the very beginning.”

While Toros has been active in his parish church, he also contributes on a Diocesan level, noting that “the Diocese is the head” and highlighting the importance of supporting the hierarchy to keep everything in check. He has been a contributor to the Annual Appeal, Legacy Endowment Fund and a major donor to the new St. Nersess Armenian Seminary campus in Armonk, N.Y., where a dormitory is named in honor of his family.

Toros is well aware that his contributions today will play a role in shaping the future of the church, which he feels should be “accessible” to all in order to usher in a new generation and combat assimilation.

“The church has to welcome everyone in order to continue to strengthen and grow,” said Toros.

A Certain Mystic Aura

Recognizing the need to provide support to organizations integral to the perpetuation of Armenian religious and cultural life, Toros backs many initiatives, including AGBU, admiring its global reach. He also contributes to Armenia through Armenia Fund, tying back to his love for his homeland, which he visited with his family for the first time in 2016.

“You feel proud to be Armenian when you are in the homeland,” said Toros, who noted that while visiting Etchmiadzin, he felt “a certain mystic aura that has attracted people for centuries.”

Having visited the Vatican, another well-known center of Christianity, he says he “wasn’t as emotionally involved or engaged as I was in Etchmiadzin.”

Toros felt equally moved when he visited the Armenian Genocide Memorial Dzidzeranapert, where he read his children that same Saroyan passage with its famous words:

“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.”

Reflecting on those words, Toros said: “I’m supporting the Armenian Church for the future. I want my children to be proud of their heritage and to continue to be involved throughout their lives.”

In addition to his family, it was a certain clergyman, who would later become Catholicos of All Armenians, who was a moving force behind Toros’ desire to serve his Armenian Church in more ways than one.

“I met His Holiness Karekin I, of blessed memory, on a few occasions when he was a young priest in Lebanon,” said Toros, who remained in touch with him throughout the ensuing years. “He always supported me and was a big inspiration for me.”

Of all the lessons His Holiness taught him, the one Toros remembers the most is: “Don’t lie to anyone; but most importantly, don’t lie to yourself.”

A Privilege, Not an Obligation

Toros comes from a generation that talked little but accomplished a lot. And like many of his contemporaries, he does so with a humble demeanor. When asked about his sizable donations to the Armenian religious and cultural communities, he says it is all for his children and the future of Armenians in the homeland and the diaspora.

“It’s a privilege, not an obligation, for my father to give back to the Armenian Church and community,” said Gabriela. “Christianity is at the core of the Armenian people and he believes that preserving the Christian faith goes hand-in-hand with preserving the Armenian identity.”

As for being awarded the Diocese’s 2018 “Armenian Church Member of the Year” distinction, which will be bestowed on him during the annual Diocesan Assembly banquet—held this year on Friday, May 4, and hosted by his home parish of St. Gregory the Enlightener—Toros says: “It is an honor—but more importantly it is a lesson to my children, for them to follow in my footsteps and for me to pass the torch onto the next generation.”

A lesson that has been well-heeded by his own children, who are all “incredibly proud.”

“My father has proven the importance of preserving the Armenian identity through past, present, and future,” said Gabriela. “We must make sure to carry on the messages of our ancestors, focus on embracing our current values, and ensure the Armenian Church and community is preserved and embraced for generations to come.

The 116th Diocesan Assembly will take place May 3-5, 2018, with the awards banquet on Friday, May 4—all at the Renaissance Westchester Hotel, in West Harrison, NY.  On that occasion, Toros Mangassarian will be honored as the Diocese’s 2018 “Armenian Church Member of the Year,” and Dr. Stephen Smith (of the USC Shoah Foundation) will be honored as this year’s “Friend of the Armenians.” A special award will be bestowed on Mr. and Mrs. Nazar and Artemis Nazarian, in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of St. Vartan Cathedral. Please note that the host parish expects high attendance for the banquet, and seating is limited—so reserve soon. Direct any inquiries to dawn@papalian.com.

By Taleen Babayan

 

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