Archbishop Tiran Nersoyan was one of the greatest Armenian Church leaders of the 20th century, whose tenure as Primate marked a turning point for the Armenian Church in America.
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By almost any reckoning, 1945 was one of the most consequential years in history. It saw the end of the Second World War, the detonation of the atom bomb, the birth of a world order that would hold sway for more than four decades.
Perhaps it was simply the spirit of the time that brought the Armenian Church of America to its own turning point that same year.
It was embodied in the person of a young priest who had been serving in war-torn England: Fr. (later Bishop and Archbishop) Tiran Nersoyan. Elected as Diocesan primate in 1943, the war had delayed his arrival until late 1944. But within a few months he had already started to lay the foundation for a profound and long-lasting legacy.
Creating the ACYOA and Choir Association; launching the project to build a cathedral in America; reframing the Diocesan bylaws; leading the Armenian Church into the Christian ecumenical movement: these and other enterprises would absorb the attention, energy, and resources of the Diocese for the subsequent generation.
But they began as embryonic ideas in the mind of Tiran Nersoyan.
He accomplished all this in just ten years—years that were by no means easy, during which Nersoyan found himself doing battle within a politically divided community. His time as Primate concluded, Archbishop Nersoyan served a heroic, if all-too-brief, tenure as the Patriarch of Jerusalem.
On his return to America, he took up the task of establishing an Armenian seminary for the New World, and with age became an almost prophetic figure for the Armenian Church as a whole. His rooms in the parish house at the Holy Cross Church in Manhattan were a place of pilgrimage for many Armenians—clergy and lay, young and old alike—who wished to benefit from Archbishop Nersoyan’s wisdom and holiness.
He was called to his Creator on September 1, 1989—30 years ago this month. His 85 years of life coincided with some of the most painful developments in Armenian history: the Genocide, the Soviet domination of Armenia, the brittle politics of the Cold War. Nersoyan bore personal wounds from all of these realities.
But through sheer virtue, courage, and imagination, he set the parameters for a half-century of activity in the church, imprinting his convictions, his vision for the future, on the community and its people.
Thirty years after his passing we honor his blessed memory, secure in the knowledge that we will long be influenced by his achievement. He embodied an audacious belief that the still-young diocese in America held a special destiny within the ancient Armenian Church. Indeed, it would not be misleading to assert that the story of our Diocese, down to the present day, is a series of footnotes to the narrative set down by Archbishop Tiran Nersoyan.
By Christopher H. Zakian
Above: Detail of an oil portrait of Archbishop Nersoyan by Soss Melik, on display at the Diocesan headquarters in New York. Click here to view a gallery of photos.