Dreaming the Impossible: An Armenian Cathedral Rises in New York City
Amid the din of one of the world’s largest cities, a quiet timelessness surrounds the great walls of St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral. Rising 120 feet above 2nd Avenue and 34th Street in Manhattan, the cathedral—with its resplendent dome, limestone exterior, and spacious plaza—seems without beginning or end, as if its peaceful sanctuary has always been part of the crowded city landscape.
But the grand edifice had humble beginnings early in the 20th century when a young Armenian community first embarked upon the project of building a spiritual center in its newly adopted homeland. It was 1926—just 35 years following the establishment in Worcester, Mass., of the first Armenian Church of America—when the Diocesan Assembly decided to launch a cathedral-building campaign, allocating $100,000 for the initiative.
Three years later, the stock market crashed and, as with most large-scale undertakings of the Great Depression era, the concept soon fell victim to the temper of the times. Money was redistributed and the project stalled. Then, in 1942, Archbishop Karekin Hovsepian, Primate, urged the Diocesan Assembly to again take up the bold concept.
“Our Diocese,” Archbishop Hovsepian said, “has neither cathedral, nor diocesan house, nor a national library. The time has come to satisfy those needs.” Archbishop Hovsepian thus envisioned what would become a three-part plan of building a cathedral, diocesan offices, and a cultural center.
In 1945, under the guidance of Bishop Tiran Nersoyan, Primate, the Diocesan Assembly adopted a resolution to organize a committee and begin the construction of a cathedral and diocesan complex in New York City. Succeeding Primates—including Archbishop Mampre Calfayan, Archbishop Sion Manoogian, and Archbishop Torkom Manoogian—were equally devoted to the cause, and worked alongside project committee members to realize the cathedral.
By the end of the 1940s, the fundraising drive gained momentum as many dedicated individuals hosted dinners, bazaars, and other events to stimulate enthusiasm for the project. Parishioners across the Diocese made contributions to the cathedral fund, even as they were gathering donations for church-building initiatives in their local communities. Overall, it was a time of great energy for the Armenian Church of America, and people everywhere sensed the promise of what was to come.
A central building committee was established in 1948, and organizers began to acquire tenement buildings on the east side of Second Avenue, between 34th and 35th streets. Church leaders chose this site, along Second Avenue in New York, for several reasons: the land, in an area of renewal spurred by construction of the United Nations complex nearby, was still reasonably priced; plans for a Second Avenue subway line and easy access via the Midtown Tunnel to Long Island made it convenient, and it was near the heart of the city’s former Armenian quarter.
Within a decade, a large enough lot had been secured, and in January 1958, the community celebrated with a cornerstone-laying ceremony for the Diocesan House—the first part of the three-phase building plan.The three-story building opened in October of the following year, just seven months prior to the arrival of His Holiness Vasken I, the late Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians. The 1960 Pontifical Visit marked the first time an Armenian Catholicos traveled to America from the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin.
The three-story building opened in October of the following year, just seven months prior to the arrival of His Holiness Vasken I, the late Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians. The 1960 Pontifical Visit marked the first time an Armenian Catholicos traveled to America from the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin.
“It will be for us, at Holy Etchmiadzin, a day of great rejoicing when we hear that the construction of the cathedral in New York has begun,” His Holiness told the Armenian-American community. “I am confident that the Armenian-American people, who already have realized marvelous things, will accomplish this also, and that once more we shall meet here on that holy day on American soil.”
Energized by His Holiness’s visit, the building committee began preparing for the next step of the project. In 1965, a groundbreaking ceremony was held for the cathedral, and in the next three years, construction continued at a steady pace, raising up, piece by piece, an Armenian landmark in New York City.
With the dedication of the cultural center in honor of Gullabi Gulbenkian in October 1967, two of the three building goals had been achieved, and preparations began for His Holiness’s second visit, scheduled for the spring of 1968. Time passed quickly that year, and when the cathedral stood completed, at last, His Holiness Vasken I honored his promise and returned to New York in April to consecrate the new house of worship.
That April, the commemoration of the 53rd anniversary of the Armenian Genocide was both a time of looking back and moving forward. For the many survivors who had rebuilt their lives far from their native lands, the cathedral served as a memorial to lost loves ones and a symbol of the unwavering Armenian spirit. For their children and grandchildren, it became a testament to the remarkable achievements of a bold generation and a call to preserve the Armenian faith and heritage in the New World.
On April 28, 1968, hundreds gathered to participate in the consecration services. “Watching your faces, I am aware of the wave of sacred emotions filling your souls, which have been rendered radiant by the light invisible,” His Holiness Vasken I told the faithful. “This is an admirable picture of spiritual grace—a rare moment of spiritual bliss—to which we are all witnesses.”
Named in honor of St. Vartan—the 5th-century martyr who fought to preserve Armenian Christianity—the new cathedral was once again linked to Armenia’s celebrated history. But far from becoming a silent monument to a bygone era, the cathedral continued to flourish in the years after the consecration as it grew into a vibrant spiritual and cultural center of the Eastern Diocese.
Starting in 1973, for example, the cathedral became home to the One World Festival—an event cosponsored with the City of New York for 16 years to showcase Armenian culture, build on ecumenical partnerships, and reach out to the community at large.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, as Armenia struggled in the aftermath of the devastating 1988 earthquake, the war with Azerbaijan, and a declining economy, St. Vartan Cathedral and the Diocesan Center served as a launching point for many of the relief efforts undertaken throughout the Diocese.
In 1994, under the leadership of Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Primate, the cathedral underwent a complete renovation, which repaired its façade, freshened the building’s interior, and put in a granite block plaza. The dome of the cathedral was covered in a gold leaf, restoring its splendid shine.
In more recent years, cathedral programs—including gatherings for young professionals, events for families, afternoons with the elderly, and a range of musical performances, art exhibitions, and spiritual and educational workshops—continued to expand, truly making St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral a people’s cathedral.