The first Armenian Orthodox churches in America

January 25, 2011 at 5:00am

As far as I can tell, in the year and a half we’ve been publishing articles here at OH.org, we’ve never once posted anything on the Oriental Orthodox Churches. The main reason is simply that our authors are all Eastern Orthodox, and really can’t speak with any kind of expertise on the history of Non-Chalcedonian Orthodoxy in America. But, while very real theological issues exist between Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy, and while we Eastern Orthodox are not in communion with our Oriental Orthodox brethren, nevertheless we shouldn’t ignore their history. They don’t appear to have their own website to discuss their history in America, and when I stumbled upon the following reference recently, I thought that our readers might find it fascinating. Here, then, is an excerpt from the entry on the Armenian Church in the 1916 Census of Religious Bodies:


For many years, as a result largely of the influence of schools established by Americans, the attention of the people [of Armenia] had been turned to the United States, and a number of young men had come to this country, chiefly for education. With the increase of political disturbances and the disappointment of political hopes, others followed until there were several large communities of Armenians. Some of these had belonged to the Protestant Armenian Church, and, on coming to America, identified themselves with either the Congregational or Presbyterian denominations. The greater number, however, especially as the immigration grew, belonged to the national church, and felt the need of special services.


In 1889 Rev. Hovsep Sarajian, a priest from Constantinople, was sent to minister to a few hundred Armenians, most of them living in the state of Massachusetts, and in 1891 a church was built in Worcester, Mass., which became, and is still, the headquarters of the Armenian Church in the United States. The great increase of Armenian immigrants made it necessary for him to have several assistants, and the still greater influx of Armenians during and after the outbreaks of 1894 and later induced the Catholicos to raise the United States to a missionary diocese, Father Sarajian being consecrated as first bishop. Since then the Armenians have increased so rapidly, in both the United States and Canada, that the Catholicos found it necessary in 1902 to grant a special constitution, and in 1903 to invest the bishop with archiepiscopal authority. The mission was then recognized and divided into pastorates — the nuclei of future dioceses — over each of which a pastor in priest’s orders was appointed. All places outside these pastorates are regarded as mission stations under the direct management of the archbishop, who either visits them or sends missionaries to them from time to time.


Pending the building of churches, arrangements have frequently been made with the rectors of Episcopal churches for weekly services, to be conducted by Armenian pastors for their congregations. In other places halls have been rented and fitted up as churches, and regular weekday services have been conducted in them. Besides these regular weekly services, the pastors have biweekly, monthly, or quarterly services in different places, either in halls rented for each service or in Episcopal churches, while occasional services, such as baptisms, marriages, and other devotional exercises, are frequently conducted in private homes.


The 1916 Census reported 34 Armenian parishes and 27,450 members, served by 17 priests. Males represented about 2/3 of the population, which is comparable to the Eastern Orthodox numbers in the same census. The largest concentration of Armenian parishes and people was in Massachusetts, followed by Michigan, California, and New York.


A brief timeline of Armenian Orthodoxy in America may be found here.


If anyone out there has a good knowledge of Oriental Orthodox history in America and is interested in writing some articles for OH.org, please email me at mfnamee [at] gmail [dot] com.


This article was written by Matthew Namee.


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