“I congratulate the 50th anniversary of this cathedral,” said Archbishop Khajag Barsamian in his message to worshippers who crowded every corner of New York’s St. Vartan Cathedral. “This is a place that has welcomed people from every walk of life, every background, who have come together here to pray, share our friendship, and learn the rich Christian heritage of the Armenian people.”
The occasion for those words was Sunday morning, May 6, as a grand Divine Liturgy was celebrated by Archbishop Barsamian to mark the golden anniversary of St. Vartan Cathedral. The monumental occasion began with three dozen priests and deacons from throughout the Eastern Diocese entering the cathedral in procession from the outdoor plaza.
The clergy escorted Archbishop Barsamian in his final celebration of the badarak as Primate of Eastern Diocese. Alongside him was the newly-elected Primate, the Very Rev. Fr. Daniel Findikyan, as the column filed into the cathedral to the majestic hymn, “Hrashapar.”
An honored guest for the occasion was Archbishop Nathan Hovhannisian, who had arrived from Holy Etchmiadzin to represent His Holiness Karekin II, the Catholicos of All Armenians.
Archbishop Oshagan Choloyan and Bishop Abgar Hovakimyan also honored the cathedral with their presence.
Among the dignitaries in attendance were Armenia’s Ambassador to the U.S. Grigor Hovhannissian, Armenia’s Ambassador to the United Nations Zohrab Mnatsakanian, and the leaders of organizations including head of the Billy Graham Foundation, AGBU president Berge Setrakian, FAR chairman Randy Sapah-Gulian, AAHPO president Dr. Larry Najarian, Armenia’s Honorary Consul in Chicago Oscar Tatosian, and chairman of the Cathedral 50th Anniversary Committee Richard Dabagian.
A special blessing came from having family members of the original cathedral godfathers attending the service. Chief among them was the family of Nazar Nazarian, his wife Artemis and children Levon and Seta and their families. Nazar Nazarian—one of the last surviving godfathers of the 1968 cathedral consecration—and Artemis had been honored the previous evening with the “St. Vartan Cathedral Golden Anniversary Medal,” and were distinguished as the Grand Benefactors of the cathedral’s 50th anniversary year.
The entire service was broadcast live over the Eastern Diocese’s Livestream channel. The complete recorded program can be viewed by clicking here.
Message of Love and Hope
Archbishop Hovhannisian read a message of congratulations from the Catholicos of All Armenians, and presented as a special gift to St. Vartan Cathedral a framed icon of the Holy Martyrs of the Genocide. A special gift from His Holiness was given to Archbishop Barsamian: a beautiful gold cross. In a moment of warm friendship between the two spiritual leaders, Archbishop Barsamian accepted the gift as stepped away from the office of Diocese Primate he has held for 28 years, and the congregation seized the opportunity to express its appreciation and love for him.
Another memorable moment followed, as Archbishop Nathan offered a prayer for the newly elected Primate Fr. Daniel Findikyan, and presented him with a pectoral cross from the Catholicos, as the cathedral erupted into applause. An emotional Fr. Findikyan quietly vowed that “I give you all I have.”
Archbishop Khajag, in his inspiring sermon, expressed appreciation to Catholicos Karekin II for his “encouragement during my years as Primate, and to Archbishop Nathan.” He warmly welcomed all the dignitaries, and thanked “my spiritual brother Archbishop Oshagan, with whom I have worked, thought, and prayed together for many years.”
He added: “We also pray that the new leadership in Armenia will act wisely and unify and strengthen our homeland.”
Paying tribute to his successor in the role of Primate, Archbishop Khajag recalled ordaining Fr. Findikyan 21 years ago. “I have followed his wonderful work,” he said. “He brings new hope, and he will continue to strengthen this Diocese, especially among the youth.”
He reflected on the greater meaning of St. Vartan Cathedral—“an edifice built by the entire Armenian people”—recalling his first encounter with the cathedral in 1975 “when I came from Jerusalem, and first saw the cathedral’s beauty and inspiration.”
“It has been the greatest blessing in my life to serve as Primate here for 28 years,” he said, asking the faithful to turn around and view the image of St. Vartan illuminated in one of the cathedral’s towering stained-glass window. “May his spirit always inspire and lead us,” he said.
A combined choir of more than 50 voices—comprised of members of the Gomidas Choir, the St. Vartan Cathedral Choir, and choirs from local parishes around the Diocese—sang the glorious Yekmalian badarak under the direction of the Gomidas Choir director Kris D. Kalfayan, with Louise Yardumian on the organ. The acclaimed soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian was the guest soloist.
The beautiful chalice used in the service—donated by James Kalustian of Cambridge, MA, in honor of the 50th anniversary of St. Vartan Cathedral—will travel to all the eastern Diocese’s parishes to be employed during local celebrations of the badarak as a symbol of the greater unity of the Eastern Diocese and Armenian Church.
Blessing the Founders
The unique service concluded with a special hokehankisd (requiem) service for the souls of the many courageous, generous souls who built this spiritual home, including the cathedral consecration godfathers and the committee members who served in the decades leading up to the construction.
Following the requiem, Primate-elect Fr. Daniel Findikyan paid tribute to Archbishop Khajag, whom he said “will set forth on a new path to serve our church and people.”
Following a final blessing by Archbishop Khajag Barsamian on the faithful and on Fr. Findikyan, a procession of priests and deacons slowly filed through the cathedral to the stately strains of the Pontifical Ode, or Hayrabedagan Maghtank.
During the elegant reception that followed, many individuals expressed a strong emotional response to the occasion.
A deeply emotional AGBU President Berge Setrakian said: “The badarak is a reflection of an ancient people. Things come and go, but the church is eternal. Today, I saw all the departed cathedral founders living again beside us.”
Philanthropist Aso Tavitian said the occasion made him reflect on “our resilience and our survival. I felt proud to be Armenian, and proud of our valuable contributions not only for Armenians but to all people.”
Armenia’s Ambassador to the U.S. Grigor Hovhannissian recalled traveling together with Archbishop Khajag to the parishes, promoting the idea of honorary consulates in the U.S. “Srpazan is a man of mission; a mentor, a friend, and a confidante,” he said.
And Armenia’s UN Ambassador Zohrab Mnatsakanian related that the Primate reflected “the dignity and spiritual strength of our ancestry. Every effort must be made to sustain the Armenian identity,” he said.
For Diane Piranian—whose father Puzant Piranian “was there from the birth of the cathedral” on the original project committee—the 50th anniversary made her recall her father’s “continuous time, support, and drive to see an Armenian cathedral realized. It’s a special, exciting milestone for all of us whose parents and grandparents were involved. This place was their mark on the world.”
Dr. Sam Mikaelian—a longtime supporter of the Diocese and former executive director of the Diocesan Center—said he had traveled from Chicago because he “could not miss a second of the celebratory weekend.” He called the photo exhibit a “masterpiece,” the concert “a gift to my Armenian soul,” and the badarak the “highlight of the weekend. It brought me tears of happiness, joy, and peace for our future, and personally strengthened my pride in my Armenian heritage.”
Finally, after spending the reception surrounded by well-wishers from throughout the Eastern Diocese, Archbishop Barsamian himself had a moment to reflect on the monumental week the Diocese had just experienced: a week equally balanced between honoring the past and looking to the future. The outgoing Primate said that he was “very excited that Fr. Daniel will be leading the Diocese. I see a bright future ahead, especially for the young generation.”
“And as for myself,” he said quietly, with a smile, “I’m at peace.”
By Florence Avakian