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In Memoriam: Dr. Raffy Hovanessian (1938-2020)

With deep regret, the Eastern Diocese is saddened to announce the loss of Dr. Raffy Hovanessian, who passed away on the evening of May 27, at the age of 81.

As a physician, Dr. Hovanessian was highly esteemed by colleagues and patients alike, acknowledged around the world as a leader in his field. But his choice of profession, as a healer, revealed something even deeper in Raffy’s character: his native desire to care for people. It was a virtue he learned at the feet of his parents Arakel and Dirouhie, both Genocide survivors, from Raffy’s earliest days in Aleppo and Beirut.

Dr. Hovanessian went on to become a man of national and international standing in the Armenian world. When leaders of our community from around the globe gathered in Armenia to choose the new Catholicos of All Armenians, they chose Raffy to be the vice-chair of the National Ecclesiastical Assembly. Serving in that capacity even once would be a highpoint of any person’s public life. Raffy did it twice, in 1995 and 1999.

He was a lifelong friend to the late Catholicos of All Armenians, His Holiness Karekin I; a supportive counselor to His Holiness Karekin II; and an advisor to numerous leaders of our church. A benefactor of the Armenian Church and nation, he was admired by our people throughout the world.

But beyond all of his public distinctions, Raffy Hovanessian in his heart of hearts was a man of God. He confessed to feeling God’s presence at every step of his life. From his perspective as a physician and scientist, he would say he felt the church at the “molecular level” of his being. He loved the badarak, and was a full participant in every aspect of church life. And he passed that attitude on to his three children and seven grandchildren, with great love and conviction.

Raffy had a profound knowledge of Scripture, which he could deploy in every setting. A beloved passage holding special meaning for him (2 Tim 4:7-8) could serve as an epitaph for his life:

“I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”

His partner and inspiration in every activity was his beloved wife of 55 years, Shoghag. The two were inseparable, and complimented each other in every way. Whenever there was a need in our community—whether to help the earthquake victims, St. Nersess Seminary, their local parish, or some person or family—Raffy and Shoghag would respond to that call together. Together, they also accept the sacrifices and burdens of life. That is what made their union so strong, and such an example to others.

Raffy would always speak from the heart, with characteristic honesty—and also with faith that his openness would inspire good will and peace in all of his dealings. It was this generosity of heart that made him beloved by countless friends, relatives, colleagues and associates.

“He was committed to the Armenian Church and community in a universal way, and the love he inspired was likewise universal,” wrote Diocesan Primate Bishop Daniel Findikyan in a message to Diocesan leaders. “In my own ministry, I cannot remember a time when Dr. Hovanessian was not a part of it. From my earliest days at the seminary he took an interest in me, encouraged me, offered me the benefit of his wisdom. When I became Primate, he reached out to me with fatherly kindness, giving counsel with generosity and humility.”

He continued: “In the last passage of his life, Raffy shouldered the burden of cancer for a number of years. Yet you would never have known it from his demeanor, which was always positive, uncomplaining, more concerned with others than with himself. Always faithful, too, and prepared to be obedient to the will of God.”

“His final act of faithful obedience came this week, when our Lord called Raffy Hovanessian to His kingdom,” the Primate concluded. “Today we grieve along with Shoghag; his children Armen, Ani, and Aileen; his seven grandchildren; and friends, loved ones, and admirers without number. Dr. Hovanessian will be interred in the family burial plot in California. While the present conditions do not permit a public funeral, rest assured that a proper memorial service will be held at St. Vartan Cathedral at a suitable time. In the meantime, we pray for the repose of his soul, in confidence that our Lord will welcome Raffy into his eternal kingdom.”

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In 2014, Dr. Hovanessian was honored by the Eastern Diocese as its “Armenian Church Member of the Year,” at the Diocesan Assembly held at St. Vartan Cathedral in New York. On that occasion the Diocese issued a retrospective on his life, which we are featuring below, with modest emendation.

On the same occasion, the Diocese released a beautiful tribute video, “A Missionary for Our Time,” which you can view by clicking here.

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Remembering Dr. Raffy Hovanessian (1938-2020)

Dr. Raffy Hovanessian’s ties to the Armenian Church formed early on, when he was a young boy growing up in the heart of Aleppo’s Christian quarter.

“Religion has always been a part of our life,” he would say. “We cherished the idea of the church being a second home to us.”

This spiritual upbringing would nourish the young man as he left his hometown for medical school in Beirut, and then took on the even bigger challenge of pursuing a career in the United States. As he went on to become a respected internist, establish his own practice, and raise a family, Dr. Hovanessian never forgot those early lessons learned in Aleppo.

“If you are firm in your faith, there’s nothing you can’t withstand,” he said. “All my steps, I feel, have been guided by God.”

The oldest of six siblings, he was born to Arakel and Dirouhie Hovanessian, both survivors of the Armenian Genocide who had settled in Jerusalem. At the outset of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the family relocated to Aleppo, where the young Raffy attended Sunday School and went with his family to church on Sundays.

He described his father as a pious and hard-working man, who having lost his family in the Genocide, had the courage to start anew in a foreign land. He ran a shoe-repair shop in Aleppo, while his wife worked as a nurse and midwife. His parents’ quiet devotion gave rise to their son’s love of heritage, and impressed on him the importance of helping others in need.

Raffy began to teach Sunday School in Aleppo, and attended college there before moving to Lebanon to begin medical studies at the American University of Beirut. His classes further encouraged his faith in God—“As you study the human body,” he said, “you see the marvel that God has created”—and he dreamed of following in the footsteps of Dr. Albert Schweitzer, the German physician and missionary whose writings about his work in Africa deeply inspired the young student.

Had circumstances unfolded in a different way, Raffy would have become a missionary in the remote corners of the world. Instead, that spirit of caring, concern, and service translated into a lifetime of work in the Armenian community and the broader society.

While still in medical school, Raffy noticed the absence of a student Christian association on campus. The problem irked him for some years, and after graduation he approached a local clergyman about the possibility of establishing such an organization. The group—which was founded in 1963, and is active to this day—led to the beginning of a lifelong friendship between the young doctor and the priest who helped him, the Very Rev. Fr. Karekin Sarkissian—the future Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin I.

“In 1995 when he became the Catholicos of All Armenians, we were all elated,” Dr. Hovanessian recalled. “He was always a good teacher, and I learned from him every moment that I spent with him.”

Two years later, then-Bishop Sarkissian officiated at his friend’s wedding in Beirut. Dr. Hovanessian met his future bride, Vicki Shoghag, at church on Sts. Vartanantz Day, and sensed in her the same drive to reach out to others that he felt in himself. The couple moved to the United States so he could continue his medical education. Dr. Hovanessian began sub-specialization at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey, and later continued his work at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Maryland.

Conflict in the Middle East prevented the Hovanessians from returning to Beirut, and they decided to settle permanently in the United States. But here, too, a crisis was brewing, and at the height of the Vietnam War, Dr. Hovanessian was drafted into the U.S. Army, where he served as chief of the army hospital at Fort Knox, Kentucky.

Throughout their early years in the United States, the Hovanessians did their best to keep alive their faith and culture. But it was not until they settled in northwest Indiana that the family became anchored in the local Armenian community—the Sts. Joachim and Anne Church of Palos Heights, Illinois.

“The parishioners were very receptive and kind to us,” Mrs. Hovanessian recalled. “It was a small community, but everyone contributed.”

At the time of their arrival, the parish was in the process of building a new house of worship, and the Hovanessians were instrumental in the completion of the project. The newly built Hovanessian Cultural Hall, named in their honor, was used for worship services until the new sanctuary was completed and consecrated in 1983. That year, Sts. Joachim and Anne Church hosted the Diocesan Assembly, and Dr. Hovanessian chaired the organizing committee. Dr. Hovanessian also served as the Diocesan delegate from the parish for two decades.

As the decade progressed, the Hovanessians’ service extended beyond the Midwest to aid the people of Armenia in the wake of the devastating earthquake that struck Spitak and Gyumri. The couple would recall hearing the terrible news on the radio as they drove home on the evening of December 7, 1988.

“Both of us are children of Genocide survivors. My family grew up poor, and I know what it means for people to be in need,” Dr. Hovanessian said. “There was no way we could sit on the sidelines and do nothing.”

Mobilizing the Chicago-area relief effort, Mrs. Hovanessian raised $1.6 million through the Chicago chapter of the Armenian General Benevolent Union. In addition, she raised money for fuel and helped collect rice and bulgur to send to the homeland at the start of the Nagorno-Karabagh war, and shipped a million dollars in clothing to help struggling families in the homeland.

An ardent art collector, Mrs. Hovanessian was also inspired to help Armenian artists. Impressed with their tenacity in the face of hardship, she has worked to promote their work abroad through shows and exhibitions. Dr. Hovanessian, meanwhile, organized medical help to the young republic, sending money and equipment, and helping to bring Armenia’s doctors to the United States for training.

In 1994, Catholicos Vasken I granted Dr. Hovanessian the “St. Nersess Shnorhali” medal. That year his story was entered into the Congressional Record by Congressman Peter Visclosky.

In 1995, and again in 1999, Dr. Hovanessian traveled to Holy Etchmiadzin, where he served as the vice chair of the National Ecclesiastical Council during the elections of Catholicos Karekin I and Catholicos Karekin II. “It was unbelievable to be part of those elections,” he said. “It was doubly exciting because we had an independent Armenia, something we could not have imagined only a decade earlier.”

At the Diocesan level, Dr. Hovanessian served on the boards of directors of the Armenian Church Endowment Fund and St. Nersess Armenian Seminary, and was a member of the Diocesan Council for 16 years. Mrs. Hovanessian has organized art exhibitions, concerts, and other cultural events at St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral in New York, showcasing the Armenian heritage to a global audience. Thanks to her fundraising efforts in the mid-1990s, St. Nersess Seminary was able to establish a million-dollar endowment. Their involvement in those causes and many others was encouraged by the Diocesan Primate of the time, Archbishop Khajag Barsamian. “Khajag Srpazan was always close to our family,” the Hovanessians said, “and we have always admired his spiritual character.”

Outside the Armenian Church, the Hovanessians have been active in the AGBU, Knights of Vartan, National Association for Armenian Studies and Research, Armenian Missionary Association, the Armenian American Health Professionals Organization, and the Armenian Assembly of America, among other organizations. They are both recipients of the “Ellis Island Medal of Honor,” bestowed on individuals whose achievements have benefited their communities and helped build bridges between their ethnic groups and the broader society.

Dr. Hovanessian served on the St. Nersess Seminary board, and also on the Diocesan Board of Trustees. In a 2014 interview, looking back on a life filled with accomplishment, he said that he was most proud of his family—his children Armen, Ani, and Aileen—and his seven grandchildren. Together the Hovanessians instilled in them a love for the Armenian culture and faith.

“Everything I have been able to accomplish for my people and for the church, we have done by working together,” Dr. Hovanessian said of his wife. “I have been blessed with her friendship and her unwavering support.”

Dr. Hovanessian would say that of all the lessons life had taught him, one of the earliest lessons made the greatest impact. “With faith anything is possible,” he said. “I have no regrets. I feel that my life has been fulfilled, and I am grateful to God for His abundant blessings.”

That sentiment was just as deeply held when Dr. Raffy Hovanessian passed away on May 27, 2020, at the age of 81, surrounded by his family. May our Lord bless the soul of His servant, and grant consolation to his loved ones.

UPDATE (June 1, 2020): The Hovanessian family has requested that in-lieu-of-flowers donations be made to the “Dr. Raffy Hovanessian FAR Educational Fund,” which has been established for the continuing medical education of doctors in Artsakh. Online donations can be made by clicking here. Checks made out to the “Dr. Raffy Hovanessian FAR Educational Fund” should be mailed to the Fund for Armenian Relief, 630 Second Avenue, New York, NY 10016.

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