My Recent Visit to New York City
This past weekend, I had a wonderful opportunity to visit New York City. The purpose of the visit was to visit a clergy brother of mine, the newly ordained priest Fr. Vahan Kouyoumdjian, who was ordained as a priest on February 8 & 9 at his home parish of Sts. Vartanantz Armenian Apostolic Church in Ridgefield, New Jersey. As many of you know, I attended the ordination ceremony with my family and I personally participated in the service that saw my close friend and brother-in-Christ join the ranks of the priesthood and become a co-worker in the vineyard of our Lord.
I wanted to reflect briefly on why the ordination of Der Vahan was so significant for me and why I was particularly moved by my trip to visit him this past weekend in New York.
I first met Der Vahan as a young adolescent, during the years I attended the Prelacy's annual Saint Gregory of Datev Institute as a student every summer. I was around 13 or 14 years old and had already been attending for several years. This one particular year, we were joined by a young, articulate, faithful and friendly man, a medical resident in psychiatry and ordained deacon of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Dr. Vahan Kouyoumdjian. Dr. Vahan was originally from Beirut, Lebanon and completed studies in Armenia and France. He had an opportunity to emigrate to the United States and continue on his path toward becoming an M.D. He took it and never looked back. Dr. Vahan was a welcome addition to our "Datev" group, and a young romance was already in bloom between him and another young "Datevatsi," Miss Maggie Tekeyan (now Yn. Maggie) from New Jersey.
The following year, they arrived at Datev as "Dr. & Mrs. Kouyoumdjian." The year after that, they arrived with their little bundle of joy in tow. After that, because of the rigors of family life, they no longer attended.
Fast forward about eight years, in the fall of 2003, as I entered the Master of Divinity program at St. Nersess Armenian Theological Seminary in New Rochelle, NY, I was assigned by then Prelate, Archbishop Oshagan, to serve as the Pastoral Assistant at Sts. Vartanantz Church, concurrent with my studies. During that time (2003-2006), I was re-acquainted with Der Vahan and Yn. Maggie and their three small children Aram, Anoosh and Nishan.
During those years, I spent a lot of time with them and their extended family. They welcomed me into their family at a time when I was far away from my own. We spent many great times in worship at church and spiritual conversations at home. After I graduated and moved back home to Watertown, I kept in touch with the Kouyoumdjians and we would see each other from time to time.
In the ensuing years, their children reached the eligible age to attend the Datev Institute, so we were once again reacquainted on a yearly basis every summer in Pennsylvania.
Several years ago, our Prelate, Archbishop Anoushavan (who was Vicar General and Director of the Datev Institute at the time), called me into his suite at the St. Mary of Providence Center, the site of the Datev Institute. There sitting on the couch was my good friend Dr. Vahan. Srpazan Hayr invited me to sit down.
"Der Stephan," he said, "I have some good news: Dr. Vahan is going to prepare to be ordained as a priest in the Armenian Church."
"That's wonderful news!" I responded.
"The plan is that he will continue in his medical profession and at the same time serve the Prelacy as an outreach priest on weekends, visiting those small communities who do not have a full time pastor. Archbishop Oshagan has decided to assign you to work with Dr. Vahan on the liturgical aspect of his training."
It was indeed joyous news, and I was honored to be given the opportunity. I guess the word has gotten out that I am the "go to" priest when it comes to learning the liturgy, sacraments and hymns of our Church.
Whatever the case, I was thankful for the opportunity to put my talents to work for the glory of God and to be able to help my brother in his preparation for the priesthood.
And so began a few years of "tele-training," working over Skype and FaceTime on mostly a weekly basis (with some breaks in between) and teaching the daily cycle of services, the Divine Liturgy, the proper hymns and prayers of seasonal services, etc. On one occasion, I even traveled to New York to St. Illuminator's Cathedral in order to work with him in person on how to perform the Sacramental services like baptisms, weddings, funerals, etc.
So you can imagine, that when this all culminated with his ordination to the priesthood a few weeks ago, I was more than proud to be a participant. While Srpazan Hayr had announced to the clergy that attendance was optional, I soon learned that this would not be the case for me.
Very quickly after the announcement, I received a communication from him stating, "February 8-9, you are to be in New Jersey for the ordination." (Evidently Srpazan Hayr wanted me to be there to lead the singing of those rarely sung hymns!)
"Of course! I wouldn't miss it for anything." was my reply.
The ordination service came and went gloriously. It was an inspiring event for all who attended, both from the New Jersey community and from all around the East Coast. By the way, remember the optional clergy attendance? There were seventeen in attendance.
At the banquet following the ordination, I approached Anoushavan Srpazan about a separate matter, which I probably shouldn't get into here, but I guess I have to now, since I already mentioned it!
A few weeks ago, when he visited North Andover for Saint Gregory Church's anniversary, Yeretsgin, the boys and I welcomed Srpazan to our home the night before for a hearty winter dinner of stuffed kuftes in madzoon soup, a hot favorite on a cold night like that one.
On the table was a large bowl of our pride and joy: homemade tourshi packed and brined every November by the Baljian family and enjoyed throughout the winter. He went in for a taste test. The verdict? Delicious!
"I'll send a jar home with you, Srpazan Hayr," I offered.
Without blinking an eye, "That would be great," was his answer.
Well, the anniversary came and went, and with the commotion of the day I forgot to bring the jar with me. Monday morning, I received the obligatory "de-briefing" phone call. "Everything went well; the drive back was no problem; make sure you send the photos to the Prelacy for the Crossroads Newsletter" and things of the like.
"Okay, thank you very much again for your visit, Srpazan Hayr," I said hanging up the phone.
A few minutes later, the phone rings again.
"Der Stephan, among all the things that went well this weekend, what's the one thing you forgot???"
"I'm sorry, Srpazan Hayr, I forgot to send the tourshi home with you," I said. Then, thinking quickly, I added, "I'll bring some when I come for Dr. Vahan's ordination in two weeks. In fact, I'll bring some for the new priest as well... it will be perfect for him," referring to the fact that during the 40 days of seclusion
(karasoonk) that follow the ordination, the new priest has to keep a strictly vegan diet.
"You'll also bring some for the Prelacy workers as well, yes?" he replied.
"Uh... yes, absolutely," was my reply.
You can imagine my horror when I realized that in the hullabaloo of getting my family of four packed and ready to travel to New Jersey, I had once again forgotten the tourshi, which this time was packed up and ready to go sitting quietly in the refrigerator.
Which brings me back to my story: Now I was approaching the head table to "take my lumps" over having forgotten the one thing I had promised to bring. Gulp.
"Srpazan Hayr, it was all ready to go, but in the hustle and bustle of trying to get on the road," I tried to explain, "I accidentally left it in the refrigerator at home... b-but I can come and visit... at the Prelacy. I can come visit (now) Der Vahan during his seclusion period and bring all the tourshi in the world," I added nervously. Okay, in all honesty, I didn't actually say that last part, but I sure was thinking it!
"Well, don't come just for that," he replied, visibly annoyed, "but if your schedule allows, I would like you to come down and work with him on some liturgical practice, especially for Lent and Holy Week as those will be coming up soon after he begins his parish assignment."
"Amenayn sirov, It would be my pleasure," was my reply.
Now fast forward to the following Sunday, I hopped in my car with an overnight bag, liturgical books and tourshi carefully packed in the backseat. Also, I had remembered it was Der Vahan's birthday that day. I remembered that because I knew I also shared an important milestone with him on that day, February 17, which this year marked eleven years to the day since my own ordination to the priesthood. Ironically, Der Vahan and Yn. Maggie had been planning to come to my ordination, but had fallen ill and were not able to come.
What's a birthday without a cake, I thought? So, I quickly stopped at Whole Foods in Andover and walked out with one entirely vegan chocolate cake and a regular one for the Prelacy workers (I figured since I was to be offering them sour pickled vegetables, I might as well offer them something sweet as well).
Arriving in New York at night, I was greeted at the door of the Prelacy building by my good friend and now clergy brother. We spent the evening drinking tea and talking about many different things pertaining to ministry and spiritual life -- practical advice from me, life experience from him. Overall, it was an edifying conversation.
Monday morning, however, it was time to hit the ground running. I had heard of our beloved Prelate's untiring work ethic, his penchant for showing up early to work (5 A.M. to beat the New York morning rush hour traffic!) and his insistence on making the most of work time during the day.
"He'll be here between six and six-thirty a.m., seven at the latest, "said Der Hayr, "and once he's here, he won't stop working until he leaves at four."
I thought, "I'd better not chance it," remembering my youthful days at the St. Gregory of Datev Institute in Pennsylvania, where a young Hayr Anoushavan demonstrated a world-class talent for charismatically hands-on wake up calls and overall early morning exuberance. I had set my alarm for 6:30 a.m., and when I arose, I came out of my room on the fourth floor suite, and peeked into his office on the other end of the floor. The light was on and somebody was home.
"Asdvadz oknagan, Srpazan Hayr," I said groggily to my spiritual father and boss, as I stood there in my pajamas. "Welcome, Der Stephan," he replied cheerfully, not looking up from his computer screen, upon which I could make out through my bleary eyes several pictures of digitized manuscripts of Classical Armenian writings... all in a days work for a noted PhD scholar and spiritual leader of our vast Eastern United States Armenian community.
Fascinating, I thought.
A quick shower and a cup of coffee brought me up to speed with my more alert, more industrious cohorts. At seven on the dot, Srpazan came out of his office to the common room, suggesting we perform the Sunrise (Arevakal) service as the day's morning worship.
"I would like you to go with Der Hayr to the cathedral and work on the services for the Holy Week," Srpazan said to me once the service was over and we had a little breakfast (although he had not joined us -- straight back into his office once the service was over!). "Be back by one o'clock," he said, adding an implied 'wink, wink.'
I had told him about the cakes and he was planning on gathering together all the Prelacy staff to take a break and enjoy -- although not with Der Vahan himself present, since he is supposed to have little to no contact with the outside world. I wondered how we would pull that off but I decided not to pry and left it up to my capable boss.
We went over a few things while still at the Prelacy, then we set out on the fourteen block walk to Saint Illuminator's Cathedral for our practice session. Once there, we went to work- These are the books you'll need, make sure you know the different sharagans for each Sunday in Lent, the deacon stands here, the choir stands there; that sort of thing.
Then we moved on to the special services of Holy Week: stand here, kneel there, make sure to have this ready before that happens, do this thing while your saying that, etc. The practical stuff. We made sure to wrap everything up and we were headed back to the Prelacy a little before one o'clock.
When we arrived, Srpazan was waiting and he herded us into the main office in the back of the first floor. Turns out, Der Vahan was given a little furlough from his karasoonk and at least a few minutes to enjoy his birthday! We all sang "Happy Birthday" and began cutting into the cakes, vegan one for Der Vahan, and regular for everyone else.
Interestingly enough, curiosity got the best of most of us and we all ended up trying the vegan cake as well. It was... flavorful.
After that brief interlude, Der Vahan was hurried away, back to his seclusion once again, where we ate some lunch and continued our session with going over the changes in daily prayer services (morning, evening, etc.) during Great Lent.
Now came the fun part: leaving Midtown Manhattan at 5:30 p.m. on a Monday afternoon. I didn't relish the thought, but it was the time frame I chose for travelling home, seeking to maximize my time with Der Hayr. To my surprise, when I left the Prelacy and began to trek the two blocks to where my car was parked I saw that the city was virtually a ghost town. Barely anybody out on the sidewalks, few taxicabs anywhere, no traffic jams, no honking -- thank you, Presidents' Day!
A few lights and turns and I entered the highway, smoothly sailing. Ever drive 55 M.P.H. down the FDR drive during weekday rush hour? If I were to say that the last time I came to a full stop before I was in my driveway back in North Andover was at a stoplight right outside the U.N. Headquarters, I would not be exaggerating. I made it home in under four hours too... an enjoyable ride and a great way to end an all-around wonderful trip!
I enjoyed it as much as I'm sure all those people in New York are enjoying my tourshi.
Faithful parishioners gathered at Saint Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church of Merrimack Valley last Friday evening, February 15, for the celebration of the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord to the Temple, or Dyarnuntarach. Very Rev. Fr. Sahag Yemishian, Vicar General of the Prelacy, presided over the evening's festivities. Rev. Fr. Mikael Der Kosrofian, pastor of St. Asdvadzadzin Church in Whitinsville, also participated along with pastor, Rev. Fr. Stephan Baljian.
The evening began with the evening prayer service, during which the faithful heard the Gospel reading about the presentation of Jesus Christ to the Temple in Jerusalem at 40 days, as was required by the Jewish Law. This passage is found in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 2, verses 22-40. In his sermon, Hayr Sahag emphasized the importance of understanding the Presentation of our Lord as a call for all of us Armenian Christians to present ourselves to God and to become his dedicated servants.
At the conclusion of the service, the clergy and altar servers led the procession of the faithful outside, where the bon fire was waiting. Using the candle lit during the service, Hayr Soorp ignited the blaze to the warmth and delight of everyone present. The congregation sang spiritual and patriotic songs, including a beautiful rendition of "Giligia." The Ladies' Guild prepared a beautiful dinner inside Jaffarian Hall. During the dinner, Der Stephan spoke and welcomed everyone. He welcomed Hayr Sahag to the community. He noted that since Hayr Soorp is the pastor of neighboring Holy Trinity Church in Worcester, he is no stranger to North Andover and has visited Saint Gregory Church on many occasions. However, this being his first official visit as Vicar of the Prelacy, Der Hayr extended congratulatory remarks on behalf of the community, wishing him many years of devoted service to the Armenian Church and Nation. The Ladies' Guild presented Hayr Soorp with a cake to congratulate him on his new appointment.
The Pastor and Board of Trustees, in conference with all church and sister organizations, have announced the schedule for the season of Great Lent 2019. Sunrise prayer service (Arevakal) will be offered every Sunday at 11:00 A.M., following the Divine Liturgy and before the Requiem Service (if requested). Lenten Vigil (Husgoom) service will take place every Friday evening at 7 P.M., beginning on March 8. A fellowship dinner will begin at 6 P.M., hosted by a different organization every week.
Der Hayr and the Board of Trustees would like to invite and encourage all parishioners of Saint Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church to attend these services faithfully and support the sponsoring organizations of the dinners during this holy season of increased prayer and spiritual devotion.
Annual Report of the Board of Trustees of Saint Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church of Merrimack Valley Delivered at the Annual General Membership Meeting by Gregory Afarian, Chair, February 10, 2019
Throughout the entire year, the Board of Trustees has progressed with our four goals. The following is a summary of the accomplishments within the year.
Spiritual Growth - Of all of our goals, we must continue to view this goal as our most important – the one that should drive our entire mission at St. Gregory. Teaching, involvement and participation are instrumental in achieving this goal. To that end, this year we continued the practice of having parishioners partake in the Epistle and Confession readings during Divine Liturgy. Lenten Dinners (very successful) and Easter services were very well attended. We offered a different platform and showed a Video Series of The Gospel which was well liked. American and Armenian Christmas attendance numbers were strong this past year. Sunday School and having parent volunteers to help as teachers is another program that is working well. Getting kids involved in church duties is something the BOT would like to continue as we are trying to implement new roles for our youth. We completed our first year for our Sunday School Graduate Interns, which was successful. We had a successful family movie night during Lent. Our bowling trip was another great event, very well attended.
Der Hayr’s weekly email previews, using video and social media / Facebook are other ways we are engaging with fellow parishioners (we have more than 380 followers on Facebook). We did also roll out our new platform of a weekly e-newsletter called “Aghavn-E Weekly”, which informs our parishioners of the weekly Bible Readings, upcoming Hokehankisd requests with an option to donate if you can’t attend, upcoming events and news / link to our blog which ultimately helps keep membership engaged. The news blog, accessible through our website, has also been another key tool to keep parishioners engaged.
Uniting the Community – This is also a key goal as we must continue to reach outside of our community and provide assistance and outreach to the larger community. This past year, St. Gregory was a sponsor for 10 orphans through the Prelacy (the church Sponsored 5, Ladies Guild 1, Men’s Club 2, and Sunday School 2). The Avak Program / Luncheons was well attended; it really is a great way for people to get together, have a wonderful meal at a reasonable price and have a nice cultural program!. Der Hayr did a good job keeping it going and I would like to thank him for his efforts. Our family nights, hosted by the Ladies’ Guild continued as a way to bring our community together in fellowship. We also participated in many Genocide commemoration events – including Flag Raising in Lowell & Peabody and as well as participating in the annual Armenian Genocide Commemoration at the Massachusetts State House. We continue to donate to the House of Hope and this year the Sunday School had a successful canned food drive for the Lazarus House in Lawrence. Last year, The Board of Trustees chose to support Neighbors in Need where we will build further commitment to our North Andover community and to its less fortunate. Our goal will be to engage in more outreach activities to help the less fortunate in our own surrounding communities to fulfill our true Christian mission. We still would like to offer meal assistance at the Lazarus House in Lawrence (any volunteers to help get this off the ground are welcome). We also donated prepared foods to the House of Hope in Lowell. As everyone knows we also hosted the Prelacy’s annual National Rrepresentative Assembly in May. We welcomed our brothers and sisters in Christ from the various church communities to showcase our beautiful church and our wonderful community members. With the help of our own Christine Kourkounian, her committee and the grace of our Lord, we pulled off an extremely successful 4 day event! This was a huge accomplishment for our church and community! Our brothers in Christ at St. Michael Church next door graciously donated their facility to us for usage during the meetings. Thanks to Jamie Corriveau and Joe Almasian, we implemented an all electronic voting process. It was extremely successful and we paved the road to what the future holds for NRA Meetings. The Executive Council of the Prelacy was pleased as we saved them lots of time, which helped speed up the meetings. We had a wonderful banquet at Harris’ Pelham Inn, which highlighted some of our key community members and youth. The proceeds in all totaled around $14,000.
Thank you to all that contributed your time and talents! It's what makes our community so great!
Church Growth - We are proud to say that we again have made significant headway in the area of church membership this year. At year-end, we now have a total of 101 paid members in good standing, which includes 7 new members (doesn’t include 9 members in arrears). One of the key areas that we want to foster is keeping the connection with our former Sunday School students. With many thanks to Melanie Tokatlian we were able to continue our popular care package program for all former students who currently attend college this year. Many were elated to receive word from their church while they were away from home! Thank you to Melanie Tokatlian for spearheading this effort again! Our Choir has never sounded better with the addition of several new members! Knarik our choir director has done a terrific job with working with new members and Anthony Alexander our organist continuous to do a wonderful job!
The Building Committee is continuing their efforts to get a steeple back on our church. It has had some setbacks and we continue to search as to what would be the church’s best options. We are still looking for donations. We have raised some 63K! Thank you to Rich Shahtanian as Chairman of the Building Committee, Joe Almasian and the rest of the Committee and all who have donated! You’ve all worked timelessly on something that is very dear to our hearts “Our spiritual home” and have brought her back to better than new status. What we’ve accomplished is glorifying to our God and I’m sure he is pleased with our community!
Financial Stability - 2018 ended with a net income of $1,631. This is troubling if you consider the fact that we had a LARGE amount of contributions from In Lieu of Flowers donations (due to having had twelve funerals), totalling more than 13K. We had budgeted for $1,500, which means that without those donations, we would have had a LOSS of nearly 13K!
Nevertheless, our organizations had banner numbers! The Men’s Club contributed $42K, with another very successful Cigar Night event (which netted over $33K). Our church picnic generated over $7.8K in profit for the church and the Ladies’ Guild’s popular Food Fair generated $6.5K! I would like to thank all our “faithful” helpers who without their blood and sweat it would not be possible to have events like this. I also would like to thank our volunteer grounds crew Paul Demoorjian, Red Boloian, and John Dagdigian who continue to show their LOVE for our church and again this year help us to save a considerable amount of money in landscaping fees.
As mentioned above, our news blog, which covers all events in the community, has been another main vehicle to promote and enhance user communication / experience for our parishioners, with thanks to Der Hayr! We have rolled out our Aghavn-E E-Newsletter for weekly church communications for events and church happenings and continue to post items and events on our Facebook Page which has more than 380 followers! Finally, our Saint Gregory Endowment Fund program is growing! Through the grace of our Lord, the Men’s Club made a contribution of $15,000 to our Endowment Fund. This means that during the year 2018 we grew our Endowment Fund to $303K, meaning that our goal of $1,000,000 in the next 10 years could be attainable. This goal will ensure St. Gregory’s financial stability for years to come and engrain our spiritual legacy for future generations.
Turning Lemons into Lemonade - Most everyone knows by now about the horrific gas explosions in the Merrimack Valley. Our church was impacted but fortunately wasn’t damaged by the event. Our church was without heat for 2 months and our kitchen was without a stove for nearly 4 months. This however didn’t stop St. Gregory’s! We continued with church service in the cold and in early November organized a trip to The Prelacy Cathedral in NYC which was very well attended. After church, a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art was organized to see the Armenia Exhibit. Our Bazaar was postponed and then ultimately cancelled. However we had an extremely successful White Elephant Table that was run after church and introduced “The Rolling Bazaar” which proved to be a hit! We continued to have Avak & Men’s club even without a stove! In the midst of all this we took a special plate collection to help the local community affected and raised over $1200 which was given to The Lazarus House ($750) and to the Merrimack Valley Disaster Relief Fund ($500). The Prelate also ordered a collection in all Prelacy Churches (we are waiting on) and when we receive those funds, we plan on doing the same type of donation.
At the end of all this, St. Gregory’s ended up with a beautiful NEW stove and new fire suppression & carbon monoxide systems valued over 12K! Also all new pipes in the building, a new hot water heater, and old asbestos removed from the building as well as a new gas meter and new regulators / gas valves on all heating units.
Thank you all that helped in assistance when we needed you. Special thanks to Der Hayr, Sarkis Sarkisian, Olga Sarkisian, Rich Shahtanian, Joe Almasian, Kelly Janian, Ann Apovian and Rob Kochakian. A special gratitude goes to John Dadigian (who never says no to lending a helping hand!). In the end, St. Gregory’s got reimbursed to date $10K for lost revenue for the Bazaar with another $4,795 which is payable to St. Gregory’s. This was unprecedented and a blessing to our church & our community.
Plans for 2019: Last year I pleaded that if everyone gave an extra $25 a month towards a pledge we could eliminate any potential shortfall. I’m not positive but pretty sure nobody took me up with this offer. We are faced again with the same situation! If we could have 100 members offer to pledge $25 a month we would exceed our deficit figures and could be an opportunity to generate $30,000! This would allow us not to rely on asking for mailer donations (Christmas, Easter, Blessing of Grapes, Anniversary, etc.) that don’t really work anyways (not many send in).
I would like to quote a passage from the Book of Proverbs, which is read every year during the Blessing of Grapes service:
Proverbs 3:9-10 Honor the Lord with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops, then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine.
As always, the work continues and we are always looking for new people to step up to help the Church / Community to glorify our Lord Jesus Christ! As many of you know, running a church is NOT an easy task! Even though membership was strong this past year our overall weekly attendance could be better! I must admit as Chairman this deeply saddens me. Our church and community has much to offer. I think a good question for everyone to ask themselves is, “How is your spiritual walk with God and our Lord Jesus?” Our own personal goals should be to try and gain a higher relationship with our Lord! We hope to increase attendance for Sunday worship and continue to make “time for church” a weekly priority in parishioners’ lives. As we did with last year, we plan to kick this off during the Lenten services, and the Easter season.
I would like to thank Der Stephan for his commitment and his spiritual guidance to St. Gregory and our community. It is not easy being a priest in this secular world we live in and I feel very privileged to not only have a wonderful spiritual leader to help build our community but also a true friend! I would also like to thank all of the Board members – I’m very grateful for their support and all of their hard work. I am so greatly to have such strong BOT Members, friends and brothers-in Christ. It is because of people like this and their dedication why we can continue to thrive. We love you guys! We have accomplished much this year but as St. Paul says constantly we MUST finish the race! I am confident that we will continue accomplish great things for the benefit of our beloved church but we need everyone’s help! Thank you all again for all of your support!
May the love of Our Lord Jesus bless you all!
Gregory Afarian, Chairman
Board of Trustees
Annual Report of Rev. Fr. Stephan Baljian, Delivered to the General Membership Meeting of Saint Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church of Merrimack Valley, February 10, 2019
Reverend Deacons, Esteemed Trustees, Distinguished NRA & NALG Delegates, Beloved Members of St. Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church,
As always, we begin by praising God Almighty, the All-holy Trinity for sustaining us through the successes and challenges of the past year.
As I did last May before our community and the entire Prelacy family, I would like to thank on behalf of our entire church community, our beloved outgoing Prelate, Archbishop Oshagan, for his fatherly care and guidance. Srpazan Hayr visited our community twice during this year of transition for him and for all of us. In his last official visit as Prelate, Srpazan Hayr was with us on January 28, to celebrate the Divine Liturgy and preside not only over our parish’s 48th Anniversary celebration, but also over the celebration of my 10th ordination anniversary.
Srpazan once again visited our community, albeit in a different capacity – in order to convene along with the Religious and Executive Councils of the Prelacy the annual National Representative Assembly that takes place every May. This year’s N.R.A. was bittersweet, in that while we were honored to have had the chance to host this prestigious event, we were saddened that it would be the last for Archbishop Oshagan as our beloved Prelate. Once again, we would like to wish His Eminence health, rest and great success in his future endeavors, always praising God for the work that he carried out in our Prelacy during his twenty years in office.
We also welcomed with joy the election in September of His Grace Bishop Anoushavan Tanielian (now Archbishop) as our new Prelate. We thank Srpazan Hayr for his fatherly guidance throughout his tenure as Vicar General of the Prelacy, and we wish him a blessed mission and service to God as he begins his tenure as the fifth Prelate of the Eastern Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America. We also extend our thanks and our warmest greetings to the Religious and Executive Councils of the Prelacy, offering our gratitude for all the ways they assisted us as well.
Continuing with a sense of gratitude, I would like to publicly thank the Board of Trustees and its executive for all their hard work and devotion throughout this past year. Our NRA delegates represented our church not once but twice this past year, and their hard work along with the NRA Steering Committee at large was an integral part of the success of the event. Therefore, I would like to make special mention of them – Rita Sarkisian, Sossy Jeknavorian & Sharké Der Apkarian – and give them extra commendations for a job well done this year.
My thanks also goes out to the following: the Ladies’ Guild, the Men’s Club, the Maintenance/ Groundskeeping Crew, Building Committee, Sunday/Armenian School staff, Deacons/Altar Staff, Church Choir, with director Knarik Nerkararyan and organist Anthony Alexander, and in general ALL who have gone out of their way to help our church and its pastor with time, talent and treasure in the last year. I cannot emphasize enough how much you are wanted, needed and appreciated for your faithfulness and dedication to our church and community.
The year 2018 was an extraordinary year in the life of our church and community; one that will long stand out in our collective memory -- a year for the history books, so to speak. In addition to our faithful administration of the Christian Faith of the Armenian Apostolic Church to the people of the Merrimack Valley Armenian Community, we recorded some great milestones, as well as even greater challenges, about which I am proud to say that we have met with courage and resolve to overcome.
By the grace of God, the pastoral ministry of the Church, in its liturgical, social, educational, humanitarian and administrative aspects was carried out by me and by you, working and praying together to the best of our abilities. Regular liturgical services were offered for the participation of the faithful both on Sundays and on many other special occasions (including Great Lent and Holy Week). We welcomed Deacon James Haddad to service at the Holy Altar of our church. Dn. James is a seminary-trained deacon who, as he has recently relocated to the Manchester (NH) area, has brought his faith in Jesus Christ and his unwavering dedication to the Holy Tradition of the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church to our community. Dn. James has already commenced his service to our church beside his fellow devoted deacons Avedis Garavanian, Arek Kalaydjian and John Saryan, and I am pleased to announce that he has agreed to head up a new youth program in our community one which has been developed by the Youth Ministry Department of our Prelacy and which aims to foster fellowship, growing faith and discipleship among the young people of the Armenian Apostolic Church in America within the various communities. Please watch for details about this exciting program in the near future.
We also continued with broadcasting many weekday festal services (morning or evening) over Facebook Live. Although we were not fortunate to perform any baptisms this year, we did celebrate two weddings, one in January and one in October. We also had the sad but honorable task of offering funeral prayers for twelve of our dearly departed parishioners as we bid them farewell and sent them to their eternal rest in the Lord. They were:
George Shahnaian (Peabody)
Berjouhi Tamzarian (NH)
Henry Hovanasian &
May their memory be eternal and may they find comfort and rest in the dwelling place of our heavenly Father.
Two areas of concern have always been attendance and participation on special feast days and occasions (such as Holy Week, Christmas, Anniversary, Blessing of Grapes, etc.) and also attendance and participation – particularly of our youth – during the summer months. I am pleased to announce that on both fronts we showed considerable progress this past year. On Friday evening, January 5, our church was full and vibrant with the joy of Christmas Eve – our time to celebrate the birth and revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ – for the first time in a while. I commend the parents for bringing your Sunday School children to take part in the Vigil readings and Divine Liturgy. For the first time, we also held a candlelit procession and “spiritual home” blessing in Jaffarian Hall. Subsequently, things did not totally die down in the summer months as had been concerning the Board and me over the past several years. Instead, due to the dedication of parents and also with assistance from the Deacons and Board staff, many of our young members served on the altar or sang in the choir on a regular basis. Not only that, they reported that they enjoy serving during the Divine Liturgy in this capacity. With this in mind, we have also started to create more opportunities for the youth to serve in the sanctuary throughout the academic year as well.
In addition to the full schedule of yearly events that took place, our parish had the extraordinary opportunity to host the National Representative Assembly of the Eastern Prelacy from May 9 through May 12. During these days, our church and community were transformed into a bustling center of national and ecclesiastical life, as we over one hundred clergy, delegates and observers from the various communities across the Eastern United States. The banquet on Friday, May 11, held at the Harris’ Pelham Inn afforded our community members a wonderful opportunity to meet with the delegates and clergy, celebrate another year of the work of the Prelacy and local church and honor our fellow parishioners: Jim & Ann Apovian, Sharké Der Apkarian, Armen & Christine Kourkounian as they received citations for their years of dedicated service to the Armenian Apostolic Church, both at the local and national levels. Mention must be made of Anna Shahtanian and Meliné Almasian, two outstanding young people who were highly deserving of the Youth Service Award they received that night. The Board of Trustees joins me in congratulating all the award recipients for a job well done!
One of the biggest challenges this year presented was the major incident that occurred on September 13, wherein the town of North Andover was rocked by a series of gas related fires and explosions. While our church was in the affected area, we are thankful God that no damage was sustained and that all of our parishioners were safe and unharmed in their homes. We were challenged by the fact, however, that the aftermath of this disaster left us without heat, hot water and a working kitchen for two months. I will not go into details as to the process of restoration (you can find that outlined in more detail in the BOT report), but I will take a moment to thank all those who helped during the process, with an extra commendation and “job well done” for our Board of Trustees Chairman, Greg Afarian. Greg went well above and beyond his normal responsibilities as Board Chairman and really helped to make sure we got back on track in a way that didn’t compromise our well-being as a church and community.
Our regular events and activities took place during the year, although they necessarily had to come to a halt after the events of September 13. The Ladies’ Guild’s annual bazaar and two family nights had to be cancelled. We are thankful, however, that the gas service (at least heat and hot water) was restored to the building on November 10, seemingly right before the daily temperatures began to dip into “too cold” territory. We see the providence of God in this. I am also proud of our parishioners, who despite the decreasing temperatures both inside and outside the building, braved coming to church in coats and hats and stood by as dedicated parishioners, thankful for the church we have been given and the faith that has been handed down to us.
Indeed, during the year, we all maintained a very busy schedule, and we were all busied attending as many Men’s Club and Ladies’ Guild meetings, AVAK luncheons, Family Nights, Sunday School events, committee meetings and annual events (like picnics and bazaars) as we could. As your pastor, I did my best to be with you for as many of these as I could, encouraging you and steering you in the best direction for our church. I tried to reach all of you at least once during the year, either by visit or by telephone, and if the limits of human frailty did not permit me to do so, please accept my sincerest apologies. Know that I am always available to any of you – for prayer, confession and counseling, to visit you at home or just to talk and laugh! I am only a phone call or an email away, so please don’t hesitate to contact me.
We held two Bible study series’ during the year. The first one began in the Spring and looked at the Acts of the Apostles. The second one took place over the Summer and studied the letter of Paul to the Ephesians. All who participated were greatly satisfied.
On the communications front, we also commenced this year with the publication and distribution of a weekly e-newsletter entitled “Aghavn-E Weekly.” Overall, this has been well received and has aided in keeping our parishioners and supporters informed of happenings and events around our church community.
Another novelty this year was the trip we took to New York City on November 11, which was planned by myself and the Board of Trustees. Conceived partly as a way to give our parishioners the opportunity to view the acclaimed Armenia! Exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and partly as a way to vacate our building for a Sunday while the gas was being restored, the trip afforded us a lovely day of travel, companionship, worship (at St. Illuminator’s Cathedral in Manhattan) and broadening of our artistic and intellectual appreciation for our Armenian Culture.
2018 was a milestone year for me personally as well, as it saw the celebration of the tenth anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood, which took place on February 17, 2008. I am so grateful to you for honoring me at the banquet on January 28, 2018, and celebrating this milestone with me. The generous gift of the new set of liturgical vestments that you gave me will forever remind me of this milestone and of the relationship we have forged as pastor and congregation over these past five and a half years. I thank you all from the bottom of my heart for this gift. Yeretsgin, Nishan and Hovig also join me in thanking you for all the ways you have supported and helped us in the community over the years. Please know that your help and generosity have not gone unnoticed or unappreciated.
In closing, I’d like to echo the sentiment of St. Paul in his Letter to the Ephesians, when speaking about all that God has and will work through us as a people, “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20-21)
Try to remember that when we co-labor handed in hand with God and with each other, he can accomplish great things in our church and community. Let’s give him glory and allow the power of the Holy Spirit to guide us and work within us as we carry out our mission of preaching and living out the message of the Holy Gospel as an Armenian Church and Nation. May God bless you all and may he bless Saint Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church of Merrimack Valley.
Fr. Stephan Baljian, Pastor
The 2019 General Membership Meeting of Saint Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church of Merrimack Valley convened on Sunday, February 10, 2019. Following the Divine Liturgy and Requiem services, the parish's membership congregated in Jaffarian Hall where a delicious luncheon was provided by the Board of Trustees. The meeting commenced precisely at 12:30 PM and the more than thirty members who were in attendance got down to work.
This meeting, convened annually, is mandated by the By-Laws of our Prelacy and usually takes place in February or early March. It's purpose is to review the pastoral and administrative activities of the parish for the previous year, hear reports of the activities and finances of the church's organizations, review the annual operating budget and adopt a new proposed budget for the current fiscal year (2019). In addition, elections are held for positions on the Board of Trustees and delegates to the National Representative Assembly of the Prelacy. It also affords our members the opportunity to ask questions, make suggestions or express concerns about certain aspects of the church's life and ministry for consideration by the pastor, membership and Board of Trustees.
Elected to serve on the Executive (Tivan) of this year's meeting were Mr. Joe Almasian as Chair and Mrs. Kim Almasian as Secretary. Serving on the Nominating Committee (elected at the previous year's meeting) were Sharke' Der Apkarian, Armena Bizios, Susan Kochakian and Steven Mahlebjian. We thank them all for their role in this year's meeting and for their service to Saint Gregory Church in general.
Newly elected to the Board of Trustees this year is Mr. Steven Mahlebjian, who has served in the past. Mr. Mahlebjian will replace dedicated Board member Kelly Janian, whose term had expired. Elected to represent our parish as a National Representative was Mr. Gregory Minasian, who will represent us at the upcoming National Representative Assembly in Whitinsville in May.
The reports delivered to and the minutes generated by the General Meeting will be submitted to the Prelate and Executive Council for approval, after which the new Board of Trustees will commence its work for the year and the term of the new National Representative will begin.
Photos courtesy of Armenian Prelacy
Deacon Vahan Kouyoumdjian was ordained to the holy priesthood of the Armenian Church on Friday and Saturday, February 8 and 9, at Sts. Vartanantz Church in Ridgefield, New Jersey. The ordination services were celebrated by the Prelate, His Eminence Archbishop Anoushavan, with the participation of the clergy serving the Eastern Prelacy. Deacon Vahan’s sponsor was Very Rev. Fr. Sahag Yemishian, pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Worcester, Massachusetts, who was recently appointed Vicar of the Prelacy. The Godfather of the ordination was Hovig Koushagjian.
The process of ordination began Friday evening with Vespers and the Order of Calling to the Priesthood. The candidate walked on his knees down the main aisle of the church as a sign of his humility and readiness to serve God. He was escorted by his sponsor and two priests, Rev. Fr. Hovnan Bozoian, pastor of Sts. Vartanantz Church, and Rev. Fr. Stephan Baljian, pastor of Saint Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church of Merrimack Valley. Through a series of questions the Prelate confirmed the worthiness of the candidate and his willingness and ability to serve as a priest in the Armenian Apostolic Church.
The next morning, in the tradition of the Armenian Church, the ordination service took place intertwined with the Divine Liturgy, as this is the liturgical context in which the priest will serve most visibly.
After presenting his candidacy and laying his hands on the candidate, as attested to in the New Testament, Archbishop Anoushavan invested him the priestly yoke, or poroorar, as a sign of his become a presbyter or elder of the Holy Church.
Following the scripture lessons of the day and the Nicene Creed, the ordination ceremony continued with the Archbishop praying for the grace of God to descend upon the ordinand during the anointing and upon all the people of the church as well. After being vested in part by the Prelate, Deacon Vahan was led into the vestry and vested fully in his priestly vestments for the first time. Sponsoring priest, Fr. Sahag Yemishian carried the dove-vessel containing the Holy Chrism (Muron) in procession around the church.
Anointing the forehead, right and left hands of the new priest, Srpazan Hayr consecrated him as "Der Vahan" Kahana. In his soul-stirring and heartfelt message, Srpazan Hayr reflected upon Der Vahan's strong faith in God, years of service to the Armenian Church and successful career as a psychiatrist, during which he has already been a servant of God by helping people overcome their spiritual illnesses.
He remarked that although it is customary for a new priest to receive a new name at his ordination, he decided to keep the name "Vahan" in deference to the seventh century Saint Vahan of Koghtn, a young nobleman from Armenia who gave up immeasurable wealth and prestige in order to join the army and fight as a simple soldier. During one of his deployments he was martyred for his faith in Christ and gained even greater riches and glory in the Kingdom of Heaven. Srpazan Hayr also noted that "Vahan" is already a fitting name for this man of strong faith, since vahan in Armenian means "strong shield."
At the conclusion of his sermon, during the Kiss of Peace, all the clergy ascended the altar to greet their new brother in Christ. At the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy, a special blessing was said over Yeretsgin Maggie and Der Vahan's three children Aram, Anoosh and Nishan. At this point, all the Yeretsgins in attendance were invited to kneel before the Prelate for a special blessing.
A celebratory banquet took place in the church's lower hall, hosted by the Saints Vartatnantz Church Ladies' Guild and the A.R.S. Shakeh Chapter. A large cake was presented to Der Vahan and his family. Der Hovnan Bozoian presented him with the gift of a new hand cross to use in his ministry.
After two weeks of seclusion at the Prelacy office building in New York, Der Vahan will celebrate his first Divine Liturgy at St. Stephen Armenian Apostolic Church in New Britain, Connecticut, after which he will serve as long term visiting pastor of the parish.
Der Vahan was born in Lebanon and baptized at Soorp Asdvadzadzin Church in Bourdj Hammoud, where he later served as an acolyte and sub-deacon. He also taught Sunday School in Beirut. He attended the Vahan Tekeyan Elementary School and the Hovagimian-Manoogian High School.
Der Vahan’s devotion to the Armenian Church began at an early age. His grandfather, Mikael Kouyoumdjian, and great uncle Nishan Kouyoumdjian served as priests in Beirut and Marseille.
Continuing his studies, he graduated from the Yerevan State Medical University with a “Doctor of Medicine” diploma. He relocated to the New York/New Jersey area in 1993 to begin his Residency in Psychiatry at Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, New York. Soon after his relocation he was ordained a deacon of the church by Archbishop Mesrob Ashjian, of blessed memory, and ever since has served as a deacon in the Eastern Prelacy, mainly at Sts. Vartanantz Church in New Jersey.
From 1975 to 1980 he was a member of the Armenian Ecclesophillic Union (an activist group supporting the Armenian Church under the auspices of the Catholicosate of Cilicia). He served in Sunday Schools, attended youth educational conferences and programs organized by the Catholicosate. He regularly participated in Bible Studies and studied the history and tenets of the Armenian Church.
In 1995 he married Maggie Tekeyan, a devoted and active member of Sts. Vartanantz Church. They have three children, Aram, Anoosh, and Nishan. All three children are graduates of the Prelacy’s St. Gregory of Datev Summer Institute, and continue to attend and participate in postgraduate programs and volunteer workers. For more than twenty years Deacon Vahan and Maggie have been volunteers and teachers at the St. Gregory of Datev Institute.
Fr. Stephan Baljian was invited by the leadership of Homenetmen Boston to speak at its winter "Yerets" (Leadership) Seminar. The lecture took place on Saturday, February 2, at Camp Runels in Pelham, New Hampshire.
As part of the scouting curriculum and in order to complete a unit in religious instruction, the topic of the day was the Council of Chalcedon, a fifth century meeting of the world's Christian leaders, considered "Ecumenical" by the majority of the world's Christian communions today. Almost uniquely, the Armenian Apostolic Church was not represented at the Council and subsequently rejected its deliberations and conclusions, refusing to acknowledge it as "Ecumenical" until this day.
Convened in 451 A.D. as an attempt to further refute the Nestorian heresy dealt with at the Holy Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431, the Council dealt with among other things the issue of the two natures of Christ and their relationship with each other. The Bishops of the Council, at the prompting of then Pope of Rome Leo the Great, adopted and developed the Theological position and language of "in two natures" when referring to the divine and human natures of the Son of God.
To the Armenian Church and the several others that followed suit (which make up the Oriental Orthodox faith), Pope Leo's written exposition on the subject (known as the "Tome of Leo"), which further delineates the separation between the two natures, represented a significant departure from the declarations of the Council of Ephesus and from the established Orthodox teachings of Sts. Cyril of Alexandria, Athanasius of Alexandria and other, earlier Church Fathers. These taught that the nature of God the Son after the incarnation is "out of two natures, one co-mingled, unconfused, unchanged, immutable nature."
At the time of the Council, the Armenians were occupied with the campaigns of the Persian overlord Hazgerd and the ideological struggle for their faith and nationality, which culminated in the rise of St. Vartan Mamigonian and the strategic battles of Avarayr and others.
After the treaty of Nuvarsag ended the wars a few decades later, by the end of the fifth century, the Armenian Church leaders of the time had definitively rejected the Council of Chalcedon, reaffirming instead the teachings of the first three Holy Ecumenical Councils of Nicea (325), Constantinople (381) and Ephesus (425). This marked the point in history when the Oriental Orthodox communion separated from the other major branches of the ancient Christian Church, including the Eastern Orthdox and Roman Catholic branches.
While there are some articles of the Council that the Armenians would accept theoretically, the Church specifically rejects and anathematizes Leo the Great and the Tome written on the subject. During the "Service of Calling" examining the faith and values of candidates for the priesthood the night prior to ordination, the priesthood candidate must specifically reject (among other heretical teachings) "Leo and his profane Tome."