A Closer Look at Philadelphia’s Armenian Presence

By George S. Yacoubian, Sr.

An anniversary is, by definition, an observation of a notable event.

When viewed through the prism of a church consecration, the occasion, whether commemorative or celebratory, is an expression of communion, devotion and pride.

And so it is that four local Philadelphia Armenian churches will have observed, beginning in 2013 and continuing through 2014, significant anniversaries. As follows: Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church (June 1, 2014), its 80th Anniversary; St. Gregory The Illuminator Armenian Apostolic Church (October 27, 2013), its 90th Anniversary as well as 46 years at its present location; St. Sahag and St. Mesrob Armenian Apostolic Church (October 19, 20, 2013), its 50th Anniversary at its present location; and St. Mark’s Armenian Catholic Church (May 4, 2014), its 90th Anniversary.

Ironically, the one silent church — Armenian Martyrs’ Congregational Church — is the oldest church in our region, having celebrated its 100th Anniversary on December 2, 2007.

Given the confluence of these anniversaries, voices have suggested a chronological history of Philadelphia’s five Armenian churches. The thought expressed is that such a study might well instill in the descendants of our founding fathers, an admiration for the religious fervor of those who were transplanted thousands of miles to a new world, confronted with prejudice and hostility, stymied by a strange language, an alien culture-yet determined to both retain and nurture their cherished heritage.

It was about 1830 that the first Armenian set foot in Philadelphia. He was a young vartabed, Rt. Rev. Haroutune (alternately Haroutiun) Vehabedian, who, upon completing his education, returned abroad. Later he became an archbishop, Patriarch of Constantinople (1885-1888) and Patriarch of the St. James Armenian Monastery of Jerusalem, (1888-1910).

The Philadelphia Armenian population in our area, in the early 1900s, was numbered at about 120. Primarily male, they travelled to America for employment. Many of them anticipated returning home. Homesick and lonely, these few, bonded by ethnicity, language and culture with the Christian faith firmly embedded in their psyche, gathered together, regardless of denomination, to worship.

Itinerate clergymen, primarily Protestant, but Apostolic as well, performed occasional religious services at the Protestant Episcopal Church at 5th and Buttonwood Streets, the Odd Fellows Hall on North Broad Street as well as at both the Old Elks Hall at 232 North 9th Street and the Morning Star Hall at Vine and Ridge Avenues.

The first Board of Trustees/ joint steering committee/Parish Council was organized in 1902 by Father (later Archbishop) Hovsep Sarajian. Reflecting the ecumenism that defined that period, it comprised five men, two of whom were Protestant.

A later influx of compatriots prompted, however, a denominational realignment. On July 18, 1907, The Armenian Evangelical Church of Philadelphia for the Protestant Armenians was founded. Services were held, at first, in the Central Congregational Church at 18th and Green Streets, and later, in the gymnasium of the historic Holy Trinity Church on Rittenhouse Square. In 1913, a small church for the Apostolic, at the corner of Pike and Broad Streets (1913-17) was consecrated (by one account) as St. Sahag and St. Mesrob.

Due in no small measure to the massacres of 1895/96, 1909 and the Genocide of 1915, the number of Armenians in America increased exponentially. Philadelphia was not excepted.

The capacity at Pike and Broad was soon deemed inadequate. On March 21, 1917, a larger facility on Pine Street, near Broad, was acquired and on September 30, 1917, was consecrated as the St. Sahag & St. Mesrob Armenian Apostolic Church, (1917-23). That the consecration was performed by Archbishop Moushegh Seropian, placed the parish firmly within the orbit of the Apostolic faith as well as the Diocese (as it is known today) of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern).

But the hereditary defect of Armenians for disputation, on this occasion a doctrinal struggle regarding faith and good works, intervened. On March 7, 1920, a disaffected Protestant church, The Armenian Congregational Church of Philadelphia, was launched in Liberty Hall at the corner of Larchwood and 60th Street and formally constituted on November 21, 1920. Given the propensity of that denomination to diffuse, two other short-lived congregations, The First Armenian Methodist Church in America and The Armenian Church of the Brethren, provided options.

By 1923, the congregation of the St. Sahag and St. Mesrob Church had sufficiently diverged demographically to require two churches, one in West Philadelphia and the other in North Philadelphia. The Pine Street church was sold-the name St. Sahag and St. Mesrob- assigned to the West Philadelphia parish. While the proceeds of $30,000 (after expenses) were to be equally divided, one parish council temporarily administered both groups.

That same year, on December 15, 1923, with the arrival of Rev. Stephen Stepanian, the first Armenian Catholic Church in America was launched in the basement of St. Columba’s Church on Lehigh Avenue.

On September 5, 1924, the Armenian Congregational Church of Philadelphia held a ground-breaking ceremony at 6029 Ludlow Street (1924-1962); the cornerstone was laid on October 5, 1924 and the church formally dedicated on the last Sunday in November 1928.

With the Pine Street church sold, the West Philadelphian Armenians held church services in St. George’s Episcopal Church at 61st St. and Hazel Ave. But by July 22, 1925, a large house and adjacent lot at 6006 Walnut Street was purchased; its consecration as the St. Sahag and St. Mesrob Armenian Apostolic Church (1925-50), taking place in October 1932.

That same year, on August 25, 1925, confronting the futility of separatism, the two surviving Armenian Protestant congregations merged; the surviving entity becoming The Armenian Martyrs’ Congregational Church of Philadelphia. Their first united service was held on September 16, 1925.

On April 5, 1926, St. Mark’s Armenian Catholic Church relocated to 142 North Robinson Street (1926-46).

On March 2, 1927, the North Philadelphia Armenians, after having worshiped for the past four years in Episcopal churches located at 12th and 18th Streets on Diamond, purchased the Memorial Church of Our Redeemer at the corner of 16th and Oxford Streets. The edifice was consecrated on April 1, 1928 and designated St. Gregory The Illuminator Armenian Apostolic Church (1927-1935).

Once again, the inherent Armenian predisposition for implosion erupted. The tragic events of 1933 and 1934, which plague us even today, are beyond the scope of this study, but for those so inclined, The Torch Was Passed, pp 27- 35, edited by Chris Zakian and A History of the Armenian Holy Apostolic Orthodox Church in the United States (1888-1944), pp 265-289, authored by (later Very Reverend) Oshagan Minassian are recommended readings.

Its repercussions, unfortunately, impacted the Philadelphia community. Because a plurality, if not a majority, of the members of St. Gregory The Illuminator Church were determined to disassociate with, once again, we know today as the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern), the parish was sundered. Those members faithful to the Diocese and Echmiadzin, in 1934, reorganized as Holy Trinity Armenian Church and rented facilities for worship. Those who were in opposition met at a Lutheran Church at 22nd and Columbia Avenues. Possession of the vacant (court ordered) 16th and Oxford facility became the subject of litigation which wasn’t resolved definitively until February 1935, when it was awarded to the second group and reopened as an unaffiliated parish (1935-1966).

In 1941, the Diocesan loyalists, demonstrating a more complimentary Armenian trait —resiliency — regrouped and purchased the Marshall Street Church at Susquehanna Street. A new sanctuary, Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church (1942-1964), was consecrated on December 26-27, 1942.

On May 11, 1946, St. Mark’s Armenian Catholic Church, now at 6014 Market Street (1946-75), previously a vacant bank building, was officially dedicated and blessed, while its consecration wasn’t scheduled until December 23, 1951.

Once again, St. Sahag and St. Mesrob, requiring even greater capacity, in 1947, purchased land at 63rd and Locust Streets. Having sold 6006 in September 1950, religious services were held at the Episcopal Church at 56th and Markets Streets until a church hall (1951-61) was constructed.

In the interim, it became apparent that the schism within the Armenian Church was both irrevocable and untenable. In 1957, the Catholicos of the Great House of Cilcia, responding to a resolution passed at a gathering of the separated churches assumed authority and jurisdiction over St. Gregory and their co-religionists. In 1959, the Eastern Prelacy (as it is known today) of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America was established.

At about the same time, evolving demographics in West Philadelphia, as well as ingrained Armenian attributes for diligence, industry and thrift, rewarded many families with resources to escape their West Philadelphia row homes, inducing all three West Philadelphia churches- within walking distance of one another- to seek suburban locations.

The first to flee was St. Sahag & St. Mesrob. On February 19, 1961, acquisition of the Agnes Irwin School for Girls, on 630 Clothier Road, Wynnewood, an 8 1/2 acre property, was approved. The church was consecrated on November 24, 1963.

On May 5, 1963, Armenian Martyrs’ held yet another groundbreaking ceremony, this time at 100 North Edmonds Avenue, Havertown. The new sanctuary of The Armenian Martyrs’ Congregational Church was dedicated one year later, on November 8, 1964. In the interim, services were held down the street at the Seventh Day Adventist Church.

On December 7, 1975, St. Mark’s was dedicated at 400 North Haverford Road, Wynnewood. With the creation of the Armenian Catholic Exarchate of North America in the month of July 1981, St. Mark’s acceded to its authority and jurisdiction while volunteering to host the Episcopal Seat for three years. As a result, St. Mark’s was subsumed within the Catholic community of North America.

The two churches to the north experienced circumstances not unlike their westernbrethren. On December 1, 1964, Holy Trinity, at Marshall and Susquehanna was completely destroyed by fire. But because, almost presciently, in 1956, 11 acres of land in Cheltenham had been acquired, Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church, today, employing classical Armenian architecture, may be found at 101 Ashmead Road in Cheltenham; its consecration, September 18, 1966.

St. Gregory The Illuminator was the one church to remain, albeit on its periphery, in Philadelphia. Sixteenth and Oxford was sold during February 1966. But the parish had already previously decided to relocate. The Morgan Estate, a 7 1/2 acre property at 8701 Ridge Avenue became available and on September 13, 1959, a ground-blessing ceremony took place. Consecration of their church, its structure of traditional Armenian architecture, was held on May 20, 21, 1967. Many years later, in September of 2010, the church complex was enhanced by an adjoining Founder’s Hall.

Despite all that has rippled through our region these many years, it can be said, that today, fostered by a spirit of cooperation and pride, the fabric of accommodation blankets our society.

The creation of the Philadelphia Inter-Communal Committee in the early 1960s is a case in point. Three times a year, all five churches come together, alternating facilities, to commemorate Sts. Vartanatz, Armenian Martyrs’ Day and October Cultural Month.

For over 30 years, PAND, Philadelphia’s Nor Daree -New Year’s Eve Celebration- has been hosted by a coalition, representative again, of all five churches. This spirit of cooperation has been tempered by the Armenian Sisters’ Academy. Its establishment 46 years ago has brought together children, parents and grandparents, who in all probability may not have, in any other circumstance, met one another, becoming acquaintances, colleagues, even friends.

Continuing, a broad-based Genocide Walk-A-Thon Committee, confirms the commitment of 3rd and 4th generation Philadelphia Armenians to the memory of our hallowed Martyrs. And while, admittedly mundane, a group, however modest, of senior citizens, again representative of all five churches, come together on Wednesdays for a meal and camaraderie.

In addition to the above, a series of ad hoc committees, prompted by extraordinary circumstances and cemented by shared values and tragedies, confirms the obligation of Philadelphia Armenians to one another. The Armen Ounjian Fund is one such example. The Bicentennial Commemorative Committee culminating with the statue Meher being donated to the City of Philadelphia was a second. And most recently, the successful drive to place an appropriate memorial at the grave site of Khatchadour (Paul) Garabedian, an Armenian Civil War veteran .

In all, no small accomplishment. Perhaps there’s hope after all.