As it approaches its 90th anniversary, a small Diocesan parish in upstate New York is experiencing an upsurge in activity and enthusiasm.
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Michael Findikyan was only 14 years old when he first stepped into an Armenian Church. It was the St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Church in Binghamton, NY.
Now as Bishop Daniel Findikyan, Primate of the Eastern Diocese, he emotionally recalls how on Christmas Eve of January 1976, he followed his father into the church, and sat in the last pew. “The church was not my home. It was a strange place. I had not grown up in the Armenian Church. I don’t remember my feelings at that time.”
It was shortly after that first encounter that the church priest, Fr. Kevork Arakelian was invited to the Findikyan home for dinner. The priest’s “warm, friendly and loving” demeanor made a deep impression on young Michael. “I felt embraced and loved. That day was the beginning of my association with St. Gregory Church, “ he states with great feeling.
Following that “life-changing meeting, the St. Gregory Church became my home,” says the Primate, his eyes glowing. He became immersed in the church, attending the Armenian School, Sunday School, and becoming the organist at age14. “Fr. Kevork brought stacks of organ books to my home, and my mother Ursula of German background, befriended the Armenian women and became Women’s Guild chairperson in the 1980s.”
For the first time, he felt that he belonged to a church. “The people welcomed me like their own. The kids my age embraced me.” American-born Fr. Kevork (George) was the catalyst for Michael Findikyan to become a priest.
Celebrating 90 Years in October
On October 17, 2021, the 90th anniversary of the St. Gregory the Illuminator Church in Binghamton, NY will be celebrated in grand style.
And attending will be the Primate, Bishop Daniel Findikyan, along with many others. Among the most faithful will be 92-year-old Grace (nee Sarkisian) Baradet. The church has mirrored her life since childhood as she has witnessed and been a major part of its evolution.
“I remember the purchase of the church in 1927, its renovation, and especially Fr. Kevork who first came as a deacon. He then became the designated priest with his Yeretzgin Sandra for the next five years. He was young and warm and related to the youth. The church was like a family, and still is today,” she enthuses.
“When the church was first bought, there was a pot bellied stove in a tiny kitchen. The edifice expanded in the late 1940s. There were constant renovations, including the sanctuary, the hallways, and the kitchen. Our permanent priest became the Very Rev. Fr. Sooren Chinchinian in the 1980s. And before the 1970s and 1980s, the ‘Southside Binghamton Ecumenical Council,’ which included clergy and faithful from a number of protestant denominations and two Catholic churches on the south side of Binghamton, joined us for services and discussions.”
She remembers that when the weather was sunny, “we had picnics on a nearby farm after church service, like a close-knit family get-together. There were picnic tables and a close-by river for swimming. Sr. Gregory was not only our church, but our family community.”
The church had a Sunday School, Armenian language school, youth activities, and dinners prepared by the Ladies Guild. Grace Baradet was immersed in church activities, including 60 years in the Ladies’ Guild, a member of the parish council, as well as co-director of the youth group, and a singer in the choir. She also organized an Armenian heritage cooking class, collecting recipes from the older women.
Her busy life included working in the U.S. State Department as an administrator for six years. Her husband of French-Armenian background was a top IBM official, and their two sons also “loved the Armenian Church.” She remembers the young Michael Findikyan and regards him “like a son. I watched him grow up.” She has high praise for “his humility, and devotion to his faith.”
But with the economic decline of Binghamton in the 1980s, there followed a great exodus of the younger people. The main businesses being IBM, the Endicott Johnson Shoe business and AGFA camera were huge losses. Also, SUNY University of Binghamton had a student population of 85,000 then.
“Every year since 2002, the Armenian Genocide was and has been commemorated at a stone memorial plaque we installed, and trees we have planted nearby.”
However, the church “always remained open and active. We were and are one big happy family. It is our way of bonding,” Grace Baradet repeated with obvious pride.
On an Upswing
Now the church and community are on an upswing, she says happily. “New families have come from Beirut and Armenia. And the University has a burgeoning population, and an exchange program with Armenia.” Throughout the economic upheaval in Binghamton, the church “always remained open and active. We now have Armenian doctors, professors, lawyers, and other professionals.”
Another stalwart soldier of the church and community has been Mary Ann Jamgochian, parish council treasurer, an Italian married to retired engineer Lawrence Jamgochian with two stepchildren. “I feel American and Armenian,” she declares proudly. An educator, she taught high school mathematics for 37 years, and was brought up as a Roman Catholic. Since her marriage, she has been a strong foundation for St. Gregory’s Church.
“Our city’s resurgence began in the 1990s with the University of Binghamton, which is renowned for its engineering, pharmaceutical and nursing programs. Then Primate Archbishop Khajag Barsamian appointed a number of visiting priests, including Rev. Frs. Michael Devejian, Daniel Karadjian, Garen Gdanian, Arshen Aivazian, Garabed Kochakian, and the Very Rev. Frs. Daniel Findikyan, and Simeon Odabashian.
Currently, Bishop Daniel has appointed Rev. Fr. Kapriel Mouradjian as the permanent visiting priest in March 2021. She relates: “He will teach religious education and Armenian language classes to children, reinvigorate our choir, and incorporate new ideas. At present there are 40 families in the parish, with seven families from Armenia, and one from Beirut. And we have 20 children who love to come to church and see each other, including Nina Findikyan, niece of the Primate.”
Dedication and Service
Ordained a priest on July 17, 2003, after a successful life as a mortgage banker, Rev. Fr. Kapriel Mouradjian “had always wanted to be a priest since childhood.” Now the priest appointed by the Primate at St. Gregory the Illuminator Church in Binghamton, he calls his current position as a “great experience in the study of people, and a trust in the future.”
Married to Diane (nee Mahtesian), Fr. Kapriel and Yeretzgin have two children, and one grandson. They recently celebrated their 33rd wedding anniversary.
Now 58 years old, he calls his four-year study program at St. Nersess Armenian Seminary 21 years ago “a bonding experience where one learned about oneself and others.” At his ordination on his birthday (“not a coincidence”), he prayed for “God to give me strength and make me worthy of this work.” He served for 17 and a half years in the New Britain, CT, parish before being assigned to Binghamton.
Several clergymen had a profound effect on his decision to become a priest, including Rev. Frs. Haig Donikian, and Karekin Kasparian, the Very Rev. Fr. Vazken Karayan, Bishop Daniel Findikyan (“I have the highest regard for his education and devotion”), and Archbishop Khajag Barsamian (“whom I love and respect and am forever grateful to for our candid discussions”).
His busy schedule includes being at St. Gregory Church two long weekends a month, complete with home blessings and visitations, and a series of meetings the rest of the week. “The people are so warm, including the youngsters. There were ten or eleven young kids in the choir on Easter. These youngsters are very much a part of this growing parish. I am fortunate to be with all the parishioners.”
Fr. Kapriel “loves church life,” and loves going to work as a priest, but acknowledges that there are “people who don’t take priesthood seriously, who don’t make it easy to make a church vibrant.” He has great admiration for all the clergymen who inspired him, and for the “warrior priests” like Rev. Fr. Hovhannes, the pastor of the revered Dadivank church in Artsakh “who was both a priest and a soldier, and who symbolizes the unbreakable and indomitable spirit infused with our identity.”
He again praises the people of the Binghamton parish for their grit and strength. “Four years ago one would never have thought that this would be a living parish. It is remarkably a Renaissance,” he declared with voiced pride.
Bishop Daniel fully agrees. “This Renaissance is a new burst of life. Fr. Kapriel will be the shepherd of the community. He will teach the faith, prayer, Armenian Church life and language to the children. Also, he will train altar servers and deacons. The church and people are the same. Five, ten years ago, Binghamton was on the verge of death. Now the future will be bright for fifteen years and beyond.”
Bishop Daniel calls the church and the community “my family. This is where I grew up and was nurtured.I am the first Primate of the Eastern Armenian Diocese who was born in the Diocese.”
Again with emphasis, he says, “I am a bishop who came out of a small parish and I am sensitive to the values of small parishes. The smallest parishes will take our church forward. They are easily overlooked.”
With special pride, he declares: “The five priests I have ordained so far have all been assigned to the smaller parishes of our Diocese. I am so happy to say that my spiritual and life experience is from a small parish that is now experiencing a glorious Renaissance!”
By Florence Avakian