The Armenian community in Washington, D.C. grew as the Federal Government assumed a larger role in domestic and international affairs. Particularly after World War II, the Armenian community in the Nation’s Capital and surrounding areas has grown steadily. Today, well over eight thousand Armenians live in the area and are engaged in diverse professional and academic activities.
In the 1880’s, Boghos Casparian from Boorhans (Sivas Province, Asia Minor) was among the first Armenians to settle in Washington; he was a rug merchant and the proprietor of a rug-cleaning business. Approximately 150 people came to DC from 1880 to 1914, some for business opportunities, others to attend local universities. When the Ottoman Empire announced new “freedoms” for minority groups in 1908, some Armenians returned, only to find that little had actually changed. Most became American citizens, served in the Armed Forces and established themselves in DC permanently. One such individual, Movses Hekimian, together with his wife and four children, established the first oriental rug store in DC. Other early pioneers were Armenag Lousararian and his sister; Dr. Nazaret Kurkjian and family; and Ardashes Nersessian, who is better known by his pen name “Malkhas”. Later arrivals include Dr. Dolmage, Mihran Nakkashian, Neshan Hintlian, Nejib Hekimian, Ohannes Nersessian, Aram Panossian and Adam Arabian. Arabian later moved to Baltimore; he was the father of the distinguished Baltimore Judge, the Hon. Mary Arabian.
Until 1915, little information is available regarding organized Armenian community activities. As the news of deportations and attempted systematic annihilation of the Armenian population in Turkey filtered through the press, it aroused the national consciousness of the community. It was during this period that branches of the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) were organized in Washington.
World War I
By the middle of World War I, other immigrant Armenians, both from overseas and other American cities, settled in Washington. However, most journeyed to Philadelphia or New York to attend Divine Liturgy as DC had no parish or priest. Later, they invited visiting clergymen for holidays and sacramental needs.
After World War I, American sympathy toward an Armenian National Homeland soared and two noteworthy events took place. In 1918, the Republic of Armenia established its first Embassy in Washington, with Honorable Garo Pastermajian serving as the Ambassador. Pastermajian and Dr. Arshag Shemavonian, a liaison officer of the U.S. State Department and formerly of the American Embassy in Constantinople, were instrumental in settling many displaced Armenians in the United States. The Embassy closed its doors in 1921. Second, Armenian WWI Veterans marched on the Capitol in support of the U.S. Government’s decision to support the Mandate for Armenia. Heeding the call President Woodrow Wilson, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, vigorously supported the cause. However, Congress failed to take action. During this period the Armenian community grew steadily and became increasingly interested in charitable, educational and religious undertakings. Several organizations were instrumental in the community’s development. The Washington Chapter of the AGBU, founded in 1915 with 19 members, grew with the community and was the source of many of its activities for years. By the mid-40’s an active Junior League and Ladies’ Branch was organized. Over the years, three national AGBU conventions were held in Washington, including the 80th Anniversary of the AGBU.
In 1932 a Ladies Auxiliary was organized by the Primate, the late Abp. Ghevont Tourian. During the turbulent years of 1932-1933, the Ladies Auxiliary of the Armenian Church became the pivotal force for the establishment of the church community in the Washington Metropolitan area. The DC community was not spared the trauma of division as the direct result of the assassination of the Abp. Tourian on December 25, 1933. He was assassinated as he was celebrating Holy Badarak at Holy Cross Church in New York. The division still persists despite all efforts for unity.
The cultural and social activities of the community have been further enriched by other organizations, such as the Knights of Vartan, a fraternal organization; and the Armenian Students’ Association. The Ani chapter of the Knights of Vartan was organized in 1942. Its auxiliary body Daughters of Vartan Dikranouhi Otyag was organized in 1953. The Armenian Students’ Association was established in 1947. In 1957 and in 1962 the Washington Chapter was host to successful national conventions. It stopped functioning in the early 1970’s.
There was an established Armenian Evangelical group in Washington. In 1941, Rev. Hovannes Krikorian organized the community as an Armenian Presbyterian Church. Currently, the Armenian Evangelical Fellowship, reorganized in the 1970s, conducts periodic services utilizing visiting clergy.
Post World War II Period – Present
After WWII, the community grew in size to about 250 families, with a corresponding increase in community life and social activity. A new generation of professionals and students contributed to the changing character of the community. As the community grew, so did its need for spiritual nourishment. As a result, parish leaders and the Primate, Archbishop Tiran Nersoyan, worked tirelessly to acquire a church building. In 1953 their efforts culminated in the purchase of an unfinished church building (lower level of the present church). The Very Rev. Torkom Vartabed Manoogian (current Patriarch of Jerusalem) served as the visiting pastor from Philadelphia.
Soon after the parish purchased the new site, Sunday services began to be performed regularly, first by visiting clergymen, and then for several years by Deacon Krikor Vosganian. By the end of the first full year the church held weekly services, conducted sacraments regularly, commemorated the 40th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, and began the search for an architect to construct the new sanctuary. Architect Mihran Mesrobian volunteered for the task.
The involvement of the Armenian community in DC life was also increasing. Armenians built a number of Washington landmarks. The new Smithsonian Museum (14th & Constitution) was built by the Norair Engineering Company. The award-winning architect of the Carlton Hotel was Mihran Mesrobian, who also designed the addition to the Sheraton-Park Hotel. The Y.M.C.A. building in Alexandria, VA was built and partly donated by Jack Poladian.
The Armenian Church Youth Organization, having been established in 1946 in Providence, RI, eventually took root in Washington. By 1956, Washington was the site of the 10th Annual ACYOA General Assembly. The Assembly would return to DC in 1996, 2003 and 2008.
Parish Life Begins
Within a few years, fund-raising drives for a new church were underway, as were efforts to secure a resident pastor. On January 7, 1960, the Very Reverend Karekin Kazanjian, was appointed by the Primate to serve as the pastor. During Fr. Karekin’s tenure, a new era in church activity began. He aimed to have the church serve all Armenians in the community. He zealously generated interest in church affairs among many newly established families as well as among the youth. Through his efforts, the activities and organizations of the church generated more enthusiasm and the church grew and gathered strength. The “Shnorhali Club” he organized was designed to attract young couples and young adults.
Soon after Father Karekin’s arrival, the community was honored by an unprecedented visit from the Catholicos of all Armenians, His Holiness Vasken I, who performed the Divine Liturgy in the lower level of our present church. The visit of His Holiness was marked by several other noteworthy events, the most significant being a banquet reception attended by Armenians from the whole Washington community and from the nearby cities.
In early 1963 construction of the new church began. Primate, Abp. Sion Manoogian laid the cornerstone of the church on Sunday, March 10, 1963. He was assisted by Fr. Karekin, and the Very Rev. Guregh Kapikian of the St. James Brotherhood of Jerusalem.
A new sanctuary was erected and completed on November 10, 1963. On that day, the church was filled to capacity before the Matins service. Before the main Altar stood Neshan Hintlian, who by the unanimous consent of the Parish Council, had been given the honor of being the church’s Godfather and the privilege of designating its name. Mr. Hintlian asked that the church be named St. Mary in honor of the Holy Virgin Mary and in memory of his daughter, Mariam, who had passed away at an early age. The Godfathers of the side Altars were Dikran Koumjian, the Building Fund Chairman, and Vahan B. Kurkjian, the Parish Council Chairman.
Following the consecration service, the Divine Liturgy was celebrated by the Primate, Archbishop Sion Manoogian; assisted by the Vicar General, Very Rev. Yeghishe Gizirian; the pastor, Father Karekin; and Rev. Levon Arakelian. Following the Divine Liturgy, a banquet was held in the church hall.
Fr. Karekin left St. Mary and eventually became the Patriarch of Constantinople. In May 1967, Primate, Bishop Torkom Manoogian assigned the Very Rev. Fr. Paren Avedikian to take over as the parish priest. He enjoyed the wholehearted support of the parishioners.
From 1969 to 1975 Bp. Papken Varjabedian served as the pastor of St. Mary Church. Bp. Papken also served as the Diocesan Legate, representing the Armenian Church to the U.S. government as well as in ecumenical affairs. (During the recent visit of Catholicos Karekin I, the rank of archbishop was bestowed upon him.) During this time the Armenian Assembly of America was established in Washington. The Diocesan Legate and the Legate’s Council were instrumental in opening up doors as the Assembly embarked on its advocacy mission.
The steady influx of new Armenians in the area that began after WWII continued through the decades, as more and more Armenians came to the DC metro area. Professionals, job seekers and students came from New England, the mid-Atlantic, and from other U.S. regions. In the 1960s and 1970s many came from Istanbul, Turkey. The political turmoil in the Middle East prompted immigrants from Beirut, Lebanon; Aleppo, Syria; Cairo, Egypt and from various cities of Iran to settle in the area. Most recently, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disastrous earthquake in Armenia also provided the community with new members, this time from the Motherland. The spiritual needs of the Baltimore Community are administered by the pastor of St. Mary Armenian Church.
In April of 1976, The Rev. Fr. Vertanes Kalayjian was assigned as the visiting pastor. He officially assumed the pastorate in January 1977 and, after serving St. Mary parish for 31 years, retired in 2007.
As the parish grew, so did its activities, and consequently, its need for space. An addition was constructed adjacent to the church to add a new hall, additional classroom space, additional office space, and space for St. Mary’s Balian Library. The new building was officially dedicated on September 1, 1981 by then Primate Abp. Torkom Manoogian. The parish raised nearly $350,000 within 5 years to complete the first phase of the project. In the mid-90’s the second phase was completed- a new church entrance and an outdoor elevator for handicapped access. In 2001 the parish began the planning of a major renovation project that will include a new sanctuary, a renovated hall, more efficient and architecturally significant entrances, and a third floor for more classroom and meeting space.
The earthquake in Armenia in December of 1988 confronted the community with a daunting challenge for the Motherland’s rescue, relief, rebuilding and rehabilitation. The St. Mary Parish contributed an estimated $750,000 for the relief effort; including $350,000.00 in cash and the rest in food, clothing, medication and medical supplies.
An independent Armenia also posed a formidable challenge to the Diaspora; particularly Armenia’s thirst for spiritual nourishment. In response, the parish generously supported HAVAD missions designed to propagate the apostolic faith in Armenia and to extend humanitarian assistance to needy families and orphans. Fr. Kalayjian and Yeretzgin Anahid Kalayjian spearheaded this Diocesan approved project. The HAVAD Fund continues to provide help for the care of orphans and orphanages in Armenia.
In April, 2007 Fr. Hovsep Karapetyan was appointed as the pastor of St. Mary and began his ministry in Washington, DC. The efforts and good works that have been laid as a foundation throughout the history of the church are being carried on with new energy since the arrival of Fr. Hovsep Karapetyan. In 2007-2008 St. Mary’s social halls were completely renovated with over $100,000 being raised. Renovation works continued with major updates in the church kitchen and the building of a new baptismal font in the sanctuary. In 2010, the church adopted a new investment policy for managing the church’s financial assets more efficiently. In addition to continuous religious, cultural and educational programs, various pilgrimages, events and additional festivals with updated formats became a reality and strengthen the Armenian-Christian spirit of the members of the Greater Washington community. As a result, St. Mary is blessed with growing ministry and new faces in the pews.
St. Mary Armenian Church continues to serve its communities through sacramental life (Badarak, weddings, baptisms, etc.) and through community activities and outreach, utilizing its various parish organizations. The Women’s Guild, the Ararat Avak Society, the ACYOA & the ACYO Jrs., the Choir, the Couples Ministry, the Shnorhali and Sunday Schools, the Narek Bell Choir, the Board of Stewards, and the St. Mary Bookstore, combine their efforts to create a rich atmosphere of service to God and fellowship among Armenian Christians.
Today, the Washington-Baltimore Community is blessed to have hard working community leaders and volunteers who keep the Armenian spirit in Washington alive. The Washington Armenian community is as diverse as any Armenian community in the U.S. with Armenians from nearly every continent among us, with a variety of backgrounds and life experiences, each adding a unique element to our community. Our strength lies in our ability to rally around our Armenian heritage and Christian faith. The future holds vast opportunities and requires each member of our community to contribute something special to ensure the success of future Armenian generations in our Nation’s Capital.