By Aram Arkun
BELMONT, Mass. – Fr. Andon Atamian has been the pastor of Holy Cross Armenian Church of Belmont for ten months. He is also the vicar general of the Armenian Catholic Eparchy of Our Lady of Nareg in the United States of America and Canada. Following the much-beloved Fr. Raphael Andonian as the pastor responsible for the New England region, he came to Boston with great pastoral experience and oratorical skills.
Fr. Atamian was born in mountainous Lebanon to survivors of the Armenian Genocide from Mardin. At a young age, he moved to Kamishli, Syria with his family. After Armenian Catholic school there, he went to Zmmar Monastery’s St. Mikayel Seminary from 1959 to 1964. He entered the Ardzivian Brotherhood of the Assumption of the Mother of God when he was 11 years old. After St. Mikayel he went to the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome for six years to continue his higher education. He studied philosophy and theology at this Jesuit-founded institution. He also studied at the Pontifical Armenian College or Levonian Seminary of Rome.
In 1970, he was ordained a celibate priest in the Armenian Catholic community and began working as a parish priest in numerous places, including Iraq, Syria and Greece, before coming to the United States.
His first posting was in Baghdad, and he stayed there some twenty years, on and off. He first worked as the pastor at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Nareg, but then was sent to Damascus from 1980-85. After this, he was in Athens for three years, 1980-85; in Kessab and Lattakia (Syria), from 1985 to 1992; in Iraq again from 1992 to 1995. Then he again was pastor in Damascus before going to Athens (1998-99). From 2001 to 2007 he was in Baghdad, having been chosen to be Primate of the Armenian Catholics of Iraq.
There were some 600 Armenian Catholic families in Damascus, and 80 in Kessab at the time. Fr. Atamian said that while Syria as a country was not badly off, Iraq was comparatively wealthy because of its natural resources. Thus, there were great Armenian merchants and community resources in Iraq.
Fr. Atamian was present during difficult moments of crisis in Iraq. He estimated that there were perhaps 500 Armenian Catholic families in Baghdad before the wars, around 1970. Now most have left. The rich Armenians fled to avoid being kidnapped and killed. For example, a great philanthropist and supporter of the Armenian General Benevolent Union, Levon Kaprielian, was killed even after the ransom price was paid by his family.
The Armenian Catholic cathedral was the first church to be attacked with car bombs during a series of attacks on August 1, 2004. This was a Sunday afternoon, and four more churches in Baghdad and Mosul were attacked that day in order to scare Christians in general, not just Armenians, out of Iraq. Many died that day. Fr. Atamian recalls that many were wounded in his church. Fortunately, the Armenian cathedral was fairly new (10-15 years old) and built of stone, so instead of collapsing, only the glass from windows fell on people. A few months later, Fr. Atamian asked the Iraqi prime minister to aid in rebuilding the church. He said that as Iraq’s enemies had destroyed it, the church must be rebuilt so people will not be discouraged and abandon the country. Indeed, in three months’ time the state sent an inspector and the church was restored through state money.
The Armenian Catholic church distributed provisions, such as rice, sugar, tea, meat and tomato juice, every Sunday after mass to the attending families. The church had money and could afford to buy these items.
In 2007 Fr. Atamian was invited to come to Detroit, Michigan to be pastor of St. Vartan Armenian Catholic Church, and he remained there until the end of 2014, when he received his Boston appointment. There is a small community of 100 Armenian Catholic families in the Detroit area.
Reflecting on his experiences in the US, he said, “America is an ocean which will swallow us up. … It is a struggle here, where forces are unequal. We must wage that struggle, but the end is not ours — not that the Armenians will disappear, but they become more American-Armenian.” The national element of language and culture, may not remain, though the Catholic Armenian church will survive. He concluded: “We, all of us, form one heart, one people and one force. We must construct our community, building toward something better. We must add beautiful stones to adorn our national structure. This is done through culture. Culture can unite us, through our poetry and our talent. It binds us together.”
Fr. Atamian is a prolific lecturer as well as an author. He travels frequently to various parts of the US, Canada and Europe to give talks on literary, religious and Armenian national issues. He likes giving talks on notable Armenian writers, ranging from medieval figures like Krikor Naregatsi and 19th century poets like Bedros Turian, to contemporary writers like Razmik Davoyan. Furthermore, he speaks on various Armenian radio shows on the same issues. For example, every week for the last four years he had a one hour show on Saturdays from noon to 1 p.m. on ArmenianVoice.com, based in Fresno. People ask him for advice and send questions based on the theme of the lecture of that day. His old shows are archived and still accessible. He also sometimes gives talks on the Armenian Independent Broadcasting of Boston’s program (produced and directed by Yevgine Gharibian).
He gets his messages across to an even larger audience of thousands through his Facebook page.
Naturally he also disseminates his ideas and messages through sermons every Sunday in church, and tries to have events with community participation of other denominations and groups.
He writes often in the Los Angeles Armenian newspaper Nor Hayastan and also in the Beirut Armenian newspapers Zartonk and Aztag, usually in free verse. He knows classical and colloquial Arabic, French, Italian and Latin, aside from Armenian. He primarily writes in Armenian and Arabic, and has published poetry in Arab newspapers in Lebanon. Sometimes they also translate his poems from Armenian into Arabic, as in the Beirut newspaper An-Nahar. Fr. Atamian is the author of three books, all in Armenian. He explained that he sits down and writes without much prior preparation, almost in a stream of consciousness style. He said, “I always give both religious and Armenian national messages in church and in my books. I write on society, unity and love.” Current issues affecting Armenians in the diaspora, such as the plight of Syrian Armenians, or the situation in Armenia and Karabagh, are reflected in his writing.
His first book, published in 2001, is entitled Koyabaykarin ozhide [The Dowry of the Battle for Existence], and the second, called Gaydz ev ambrob [Lightining and Thunder], appeared in 2013 and was reprinted last year.
Fr. Atamian’s latest volume is titled Meronapoyr mrunchner (“Miuron-Scented Whispers,” Glendale, California, 2015). It consists of poetry of a patriotic Armenian nature, and religiously and culturally inspired poems. They are all relatively short, from four to sixteen lines. He finds inspiration in Mesrop Mashtots, Ghevond Erets, and Grigor Narekatsi’s works. It includes a preface by Dr. Vartan Tashjian, and words of praise concerning Atamian’s prior book, Gaydz ev ambrob, from Catholicos-Patriarch Nerses Bedros XIX Tarmouni of the See of Cilicia of the Catholic Armenians, and from Edmond Y. Azadian. The 256-page volume ends with a short biography of the author penned by Antoine Karamanlian.
A presentation of this new book and signing opportunity will take place on November 21 at 7 pm at Holy Cross Armenian Catholic Church in Atinizian Hall, with a presentation by Avik Derentz Deirmenjian.