On that warm April morning in 1968, when the doors to a newly-built St. Vartan Cathedral swung open to welcome the procession of His Holiness Vasken I, Nazar Nazarian stood shoulder to shoulder with the proud witnesses.
As one of the new cathedral’s 35 godfathers, he was well-aware that his ceremonial role was meant to outlast that day, that year, and even that decade.
Fifty years later, as one of the last surviving godfathers of the first cathedral built in the Western Hemisphere, Nazarian embodies every sense of the term gunkahayr (godfather). The word isn’t merely a title to him; rather it’s a duty he has carried close to his heart throughout his life, alongside his wife, Artemis. The couple has instilled that same Christian dedication in their two children: Seta and Levon.
This year, to mark 50 years since the consecration in New York City that inspired so much faith and hope, Nazar and Artemis will receive a special award, the “St. Vartan Cathedral Golden Anniversary Medal,” on Friday, May 4, 2018.
A generous, humble supporter of countless Armenian causes, Nazar isn’t only a benefactor by name. He remains fully engaged and aware of the Armenian Church and culture at all levels, sponsoring its educational and religious programs, contributing towards the maintenance of the cathedral, and agreeing to underwrite the 50th anniversary celebration of the very same edifice whose consecration he witnessed five decades ago.
“For my father, St. Vartan—a cathedral in one of the greatest cities in the world—was a beautiful symbol of the resilience of Armenians,” says his daughter Seta. “My parents have always felt it was the faith of the Armenians that kept them strong, and helped them survive not only the Genocide, but being scattered all over the world.”
The Armenian Genocide hit close to home for Nazar. His parents and brothers were survivors who found refuge in Aleppo, Syria, where he was born in 1925—himself narrowly escaping the atrocities.
It was the Nazarian family’s collective commitment to Christianity that gave them the strength to face head on the challenges they encountered as they recreated their lives. It’s a family that has produced five clergy members—including Archbishop Tiran Nersoyan, of blessed memory, the late visionary leader of the Eastern Diocese, who was a cousin of Artemis.
“Our family has always felt close to the church, so my parents were thrilled when my father was asked to be a godfather of St. Vartan,” Seta explains.
The cathedral, modeled after Armenia’s 7th-century St. Hripsime Church, was decades in the making, as the determined and faithful donors raised the funds to erect the sanctuary, which stood to be a symbol of Armenian strength in the New World.
Basking in its full glory on April 28, 1968, as His Holiness Vasken I consecrated the edifice, Nazar knew just how significant the cathedral would be to millions of Armenians around the world, and vowed to support it in any way possible.
Nazar’s contributions, however, weren’t limited to the cathedral. He played an instrumental role on a parish level, helping build and inspire area churches, including the construction of St. Thomas Armenian Church in Tenafly, NJ.
“It’s my family’s feeling that we must support our parishes and keep them strong,” says Seta. “It’s where our children start their Armenian lives outside the family.”
To members of the diaspora, a connection to the Armenian Church begins as a local experience, where faith can truly influence the everyday lives of church members. Local parishes ensure the survival of Armenian religious life and culture, while building a bridge to the cathedral and to the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin: the pre-eminent shrine of Armenian Christianity.
“If the parishes do not stay relevant, we cannot ensure that the church will continue to be a place for all Armenians; a place where people feel at home with their fellow Armenians and their culture,” says Seta.
In fact, it was in the diaspora that Nazar’s faith flourished. In his younger days, when his family moved to Beirut, they frequented their local church while Nazar continued his education in the city’s Armenian schools. After graduating from Beirut’s International College and the American University of Beirut with a degree in pharmacology, Nazar tried his luck in the U.S., moving to Englewood Cliffs, NJ, where he began a successful career as a businessman in the textile and manufacturing industry.
Alongside his professional triumphs, he remained devoted to the Armenian community through his various leadership roles.
And when an independent Armenian republic was declared in 1991, Nazar was there to shape its development. He and wife expanded the scope of their philanthropy to the homeland, where they served as generous benefactors of Holy Etchmiadzin, building its chancellery and the Drtad Madour (chapel) of the St. Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral in Yerevan.
A benefactor at home and abroad, Nazar and his wife have received numerous awards from the Armenian Church, the Armenian government, and countless cultural organizations for their significant contributions towards charitable activities. Their outreach has helped benefit Armenian education, culture, and religion—and has inspired others to follow in their footsteps.
“We are so blessed and fortunate to have stewards like Nazar and Artemis, who have always champion the Armenian Church and support the growth and advancement of Armenian faith and culture,” says Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Primate of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern), who will present the couple with the “St. Vartan Cathedral Golden Anniversary Medal” on the evening of May 4, at the 116th Diocesan Assembly banquet in West Harrison, NY.
“The Nazarians are shining examples of what it means to be Armenian Christians.”