By Florence Avakian
ARMONK, N.Y. — St. Nersess Armenian Seminary “was the admirable vision of founder and first dean, Archbishop Tiran Nersoyan,” stated Diocesan Primate Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, during a recent interview. “He saw the crucial need for an institution that would educate and prepare young men for the priesthood in America.”
And now more than 50 years later, another historic chapter has opened for the Armenian Church in America. On November 12, 2016, the new campus, and the Karekin I Theological Center of St. Nersess Armenian Seminary were officially opened, and St. Hagop Chapel consecrated.
Officiating over the ceremonies was the Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II, assisted by the Primate of the Eastern Diocese Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, and the Primate of the Western Diocese Archbishop Hovnan Derderian.
The ribbon-cutting formality included a bust of Archbishop Tiran Nersoyan sculpted by Yeretzgin Yefkin Megherian in memory of her husband, Rev. Vartan Megherian, as well as a Founders Garden featuring a khatchkar from Armenia, and two granite monuments inscribed with donors’ names.
One million dollars was raised for the renovation of the Armonk campus, with philanthropists Haig and Elza Didizian donating $3 million for the Karekin I Theological Center, St. Hagop Chapel, and purchase of the land.
It was 15 years ago that Archbishop Khajag had asked the Didizians to have a building erected in the name of Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin I. The project was started by the Didizians in New Rochelle, eight years ago.
A month before the death of Catholicos Karekin I, the Didizians had asked him his wish. Though he was unable to speak because of his illness, he wrote down that he wished his works be published (17 of which have been published by the Didizians), and the Karekin I Theological Center be built. Haig Didizian who had known the Vehapar since 1963, declared, “It’s done!” The two close friends then clasped hands.
“Catholicos Karekin I was a special person, devoted to God, always seeking a better education for himself, for the betterment of his people. God had given him this talent,” related Haig Didizian. “The Vehapar was an educator, brilliant thinker and writer, statesman and unique communicator. When one enters the Armonk campus, Vehapar’s best quotes in Armenian and English are there for all to see and read.”
The Didizians, who are in the import textile business, and live in London, England, believe deeply in giving back what God has given them. They have also been the generous contributors to the Kevorkian Seminary in Echmiadzin. “The reason I am close to the church is that I believe in doing for others whatever you want others to do for you.”
Without the church, there would be no Armenia, Didizian reflected, adding, “I would do anything to protect the Armenian church, nation, language and culture.”
Rev. Mardiros Chevian, dean of St. Nersess since 2012, and previously from 1984 to 1991, explained that “to expand our mission, we needed a place with an Armenian style chapel, library, classrooms, housing for students, guests, faculty, as well as recreation. The previous building in New Rochelle, NY, lacked proper facilities.”
Over the years, the student body has changed with a combination of both students from abroad, and American-born students, he continued. Currently, the nine students are mostly American-born. “This is important because students born in America and those from abroad will serve in America with its special local needs and challenges.” Fifty percent of the courses taught at St. Nersess are accredited by St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary. Following their graduation, students continue their studies for at least one year at the seminaries of Echmiadzin or Jerusalem.
Chevian revealed that two years ago, the seminary unfolded a three- to six-month Acculturation Program for clergy from abroad who will be serving in parishes in America. There is also an education program in parish management with Villanova University for priests already assigned to parishes. It will be offered this coming June.
Among the persisting challenges are recruitment, and fund-raising, he said, adding that the students have a financial responsibility, and an obligation to seek fellowships and scholarships.
To enter the seminary, applicants must discuss with a Primate the emphasis of their vocational goals – either the priesthood, or the lay ministry (also open to women), and receive a Diocesan Primate’s recommendation and blessing The five-year seminary program which includes three years at the seminary, one year abroad, and one year of internship, includes students working in clinical pastoral education in a hospital setting, serving in Armenian camps, and gaining parish experience.
Most male graduates have become priests. St. Nersess graduates have included three bishops, 37 priests, and several lay men and women who are in service to the church on a diocesan level, he declared.
This year’s graduation on May 20 will include Levon Asdourian from Philadelphia a candidate for priesthood, Deacon Eric Vozzy and Dr. Andre Markarian in the diaconal ministry.
The seminary is one of the most important institutions of the Armenian world,” said the Very Rev. Daniel Findikyan, dean of the seminary, and professor of liturgical studies for many years. “Our mission is second to none, and our work is paramount. There is no substitute for our seminary. Our challenge which is enormous, is to find the right students, the very best.”
To inspire more youth, “we must adopt a spirit of mentoring, and make it exciting. We Armenians need to look to the day when we can step down and hand the reins to the next generation of worthy youth.”
The Armenian Church has always been “animated by Christian educational institutions which in medieval times were the monasteries, the engines of the church for spirituality, theology, the writing of books, music, art, astronomy, architecture.”
It is “essential for the Armenian church to have decentralized outposts of prayer and learning. And in the United States, it is St. Nersess. Archbishop Tiran recognized this essential fact for the health and survival of the Armenian church here. A seminary was necessary, not only as a factory for priests, but also as a place for learning and prayer.”
St. Nersess Armenian Seminary is “utterly unique,” Findikian continued. “It is not a monastery, not a power center, not a hierarchical center. It is simply a school where people want to learn and deepen their faith. Our mission is broader than just producing priests. The seminary now has within it the Karekin I Theological Center with its valuable books and publications.”
Nersoyan was the first full time professor at the seminary. “From the beginning of his primacy in 1990, Archbishop Khajag elevated the seminary’s academic foundation,” appointing learned Professors Abraham Terian, Roberta Ervine and Fr. Daniel.
Rev. Karekin Kasparian who was mentored by Archbishop Tiran Nersoyan, and served both as Dean of the Seminary and parish priest simultaneously, praised the summer study seminars as the “primary fertile ground for new recruits to the Seminary initially. Gradually other church-connected groups became important sources, such as altar servers, Sunday Schools, youth organization (ACYOA), youth directors and other groups of people closely attached to parishes. These all point to the all-important role a pastor plays in supporting the work of the seminary, and guiding future candidates by nurturing the vocational aptitude of young people.”
He gives credit to the Primate for giving a prominent role to the seminary in his official messages, his meetings with ACYOA members, as well as his summer study seminar visitations. “Of course, the most effective place for candidates to be motivated is the home — the Armenian Christian home,” said Kasparian.
Calling the priesthood an “honorable calling”, Oscar Tatosian, St. Nersess Board member and former Diocesan Council Chairman, related that most of the difficulties facing St. Nersess “are behind us.” He stressed that the Armenian community “has to keep the mission of the Seminary in their hearts. When they think of or meet young men and women, they should encourage them and their parents. What we say and how we conduct ourselves has impact. We have to share with the youth that this calling is an ultimate sacrifice.”
M.A. graduate of St. Nersess and St. Valadimir’s in 2015 Arpi Nakashian currently works at the Eastern Diocese in New York in the Creative Ministry Department. Born in Jerusalem, she was educated at Sts. Tarkmanchatz Armenian School there and joined the ACYOA “where everything started.” Studying at St. Nersess “strengthened the seed of my faith imbedded in me.” She returned in 2009 and served as a counsellor.
Her work at the Diocese involves “passing the word of God through technology — video, websites, on-line resources. “At first there was individual satisfaction to know where I came from, rooted in my identity. But it’s not about the individual. It’s about collective culture and community.”
Deacon Alex Calikyan who will enter the Seminary in the next school year, still is not sure what his life’s direction will take. “Being the quiet, reserved person that I am, I envisioned finding a career writing books from home, or a quiet desk job as an administrator. I seriously did not expect to end up at the Seminary, knowing its stressful requirements, and demanding schedule.”
He was especially hesitant about the loads of social contact that a pastor is expected to have as leader of his parish community. “However through the mysterious power of the Holy Spirit,” he decided to apply to St. Nersess Armenian Seminary while finishing his B.A.
With no hesitation, he declared, “I know that what is unwavering in my future is my commitment to serve the Lord and my church.”