50 Years of Cathedral History, Told in Pictures

The storied history of midtown Manhattan’s St. Vartan Cathedral will be told through photos and artifacts—some never displayed before—in a special exhibition to honor the 50th anniversary of St. Vartan Cathedral.

The exhibittitled, Image of a Living Church: 50 Years of Faith at St. Vartan Armenian Cathedralwill open on Saturday, May 5, at the Diocesan Center in New York, as part of the cathedral’s anniversary weekend.

Striking images, some dating back to the early stages of the cathedral’s conception in the 1940s, trace the evolution of the first Armenian cathedral in the Western Hemisphere, from its construction, to its consecration, to the many dignitaries who have entered through its sanctuary doors—including Aram Khachaturian, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The vision of the exhibition committee—Sandra Shahinian Leitner, Melanie Dadourian and Shoghag Hovanessian—was to portray the influence of the cathedral’s presence not only among Armenians, but also of greater New York and the larger community. The exhibition, designed by the New York-based Johanna Goldfeld, depicts the cathedral in artistic terms, while providing key information and historical notes.

Built through the efforts of Armenian Genocide survivors, the cathedral was officially consecrated in 1968 after decades of fundraising. Modeled after the ancient St. Hripsime Church in Armenia, the cathedral bears the name of St. Vartan, who died defending Armenian Christianity during the 5th-century Battle of Avarayr.

“From their early days in this country, the Genocide survivors knew that an Armenian house of worship would be their home; their place of peace; and the emblem of centuries of faith that held them together as a community of believers,” said Sandra Shahnian Leitner.

An Architect’s Vision

St. Vartan Cathedral, designed by the renowned, prize-winning architect Walker O. Cain, soon became known in the city for its strikingly unique beauty.

Architect Samuel G. White, whose grandfather founded the prestigious McKim, Mead & White architecture firm, remembers conversations he had with his father during the cathedral’s construction. Cain was a family friend who would eventually take over McKim, Mead & White.

“My father told me that Walker advocated the design of the cathedral to respect the geometric underpinnings of Armenian Church architecture, but that it could have a more contemporary aesthetic,” said White, principal of Platt Byard Dovell White Architects.

Noting Cain’s logical mind, White said he was able to convey to the lay leadership that the cathedral “shouldn’t be a replica, but have a much more contemporary interior.”

“He was a product of the days of modern architecture as truth rather than as a style,” said White, who was a summer intern in Cain’s office in 1966 and 1967. “He was interested in the purity of line in the cathedral.”

A number of the photos in the exhibition depict the cathedral’s construction, one of which caught White’s eye.

“It was wonderful to see the raw structure, especially of the intersecting steel arches representing the crossing, onto which they clad stone.”

A Journey into the Past

The visual journey of the photo exhibition will also evoke nostalgia for those who attended religious and cultural events at the cathedral, including the beloved One World Festival. A special image will be shown of Mayor John Lindsay, one of many New York City mayors who have made historic visits to the cathedral, welcoming guests to the inaugural festival in 1973.

While denoting a comforting presence for people of all denominations from across the globe, the cathedral also served as a site of unity during moments of crises and momentous occasions, including the Artsakh movement and Armenia’s earthquake in 1988, as well as the Armenian Genocide centennial services in 2015, shown through solemn images.

“We find strength in St. Vartan Cathedral in the boisterous, cacophonous City of New York, in this great nation we now call home,” said Shahinian Leitner.

As an integral part of the religious community, the cathedral has been a welcoming site for New York’s ecumenical community, offering prayer services in the sanctuary and hosting inter-faith meetings. Joining together for worship and humanitarian efforts, religious leaders of many faiths have positively connected with St. Vartan Cathedral.

Among them is Rabbi Arthur Schneier, founder and president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation. “The cathedral has been the heartbeat of the Armenian faithful, a source of spiritual link to the Catholicos and the people of Armenia,” said Rabbi Schneier, Senior Rabbi of the historic Park East Synagogue. “It has also been a center for bringing together religious leaders of all faiths.”

Rabbi Schneier reflected on working with the late Archbishop Torkom Manoogian and continuing his relationship with the Armenian Church alongside Archbishop Khajag Barsamian. He noted the many significant events they hosted together that encouraged “international religious leaders to strengthen religious freedom, mutual understanding and inter-religious cooperation.”

The 60 carefully selected images will reveal different aspects of the cathedral’s history and also give viewers an interactive opportunity to share their thoughts on the cathedral’s future.

“I am grateful to the creative committee behind the artistic exhibition who are sharing St. Vartan Cathedral’s story through beautiful photographs,” said Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Primate of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America. “We look forward to welcoming our faithful to take a closer look at the cathedral’s many milestones.”

Click here to view images of the exhibit design. For information on the entire 50th anniversary weekend—which includes a concert on May 5, and a Pontifical Divine Liturgy on May 6, click here.

—Taleen Babayan

Above: From 1968, Catholicos Vasken I enters St. Vartan Cathedral for the first time on its consecration day. The photo is one of 60 historical images to be displayed during an exhibit honoring the cathedral’s 50th anniversary.

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