by Suren Musayelyan
The Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin has seen a major development since independence, with its territory expanded, and building and renovation adding the noise of construction to the peal of bells and whispered prayers.
Changes in the physical appearance of Armenia's most sacred ground have coincided with the revival of spiritual life as the Church recovers from the oppression of communism.
Rev. Fr. Ktrij Devejian says the number of clergy has increased and the new Residential Building for the Brotherhood of Holy Etchmiadzin has been a blessing.
In the past seven years, the Mother See has ordained 51 celibate and 87 married priests, with the great majority of them serving in the homeland. The ordination of this many priests in such a short period is seen as an unprecedented accomplishment in at least the last 500 years of Armenian history. The number of priests is now increasing at a rate of 25 to 30 each year due to larger seminary graduating classes and more frequent ordinations. A certain number of new clergy, especially celibate priests, go abroad to continue their education in theology and other disciplines. A greater percentage of married priests remain in Armenia to serve in Armenian dioceses.
Three years ago, Mr. and Mrs. Richard Manoogian made the commitment which allowed His Holiness to commence construction on the largest building project on the grounds of the monastery in the history of the Mother See. The building, intended to be the primary residence of the Brotherhood of Holy Etchmiadzin, will house 80 clergy in individual apartments. Each junior member will have a studio apartment, and higher ranking clergymen will have a two-room apartment, some with a modest balcony. The building also includes dining and recreational rooms, as well as common areas for the priests to congregate.
In terms of architectural change, Fr. Devejian says that the area of the Mother See has been expanded since Armenia gained independence. In the post-independence period, all monasteries, such as Gayane, Shoghakat and Hripsime, which in Soviet times belonged to the department for monuments, were returned to the Mother See.
The grounds of the Mother See have increased from nine hectares (22.5 acres) to approximately 45 hectares (112.5 acres). As a result, the entrances to the monastic compound have moved outwards from the immediate area surrounding the cathedral in an effort to be closer to the main thoroughfares and more inviting to persons walking or driving by.
On the occasion of the 2001 jubilee year, a new main entrance, the Gate of St. Gregory the Illuminator, and a new open altar, the Altar of St. Trdat the King, were constructed through an AGBU donor, now allowing up to 10,000 to attend special services.
The major renovations in the Mother See include the repairs of the Mother Cathedral, the restoration of the seminary, the Ghazarapat ("deacon's quarters") building, the Khrimian Hayrik Museum and several administrative buildings.
Built in 303 AD, the Mother Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin is the first and oldest Armenian Church in the world. Though never by natural act, the structure has been destroyed by invaders and conquering forces and repaired many times. The Armenians have always rebuilt it in the same place, in the same plan, using the same foundations and columns of the original Mother Church (St. Astvatsatsin), having a cruciform plan with a central dome supported on four columns.
In the 1960's, His Holiness Vazgen I commissioned the first major renovation of the Mother Cathedral in centuries. On the eve of celebrations commemorating the 1700th anniversary of Christianity in Armenia as the state religion, His Holiness Karekin II embarked upon an ambitious plan to restore the cathedral by installing a completely new roof of tufa stone, cleaning and re-plastering the interior walls of the cathedral, exposing many inscribed crosses on the interior stone walls and completely cleaning and restoring the murals and frescoes of the most highly ornamented Armenian church in the world.
The restoration work was financed by the chairman of AGBU, Mrs. Louise Manoogian Simone, and her brother, Mr. Richard Manoogian, in memory of their parents, national benefactors Alex and Marie Manoogian. A permanent endowment fund was established in honor of their parents, to preserve and maintain the Mother Cathedral of All Armenians for future generations.
New Needs for Renovations
At the end of the 19th century, Catholicos Mkrtich I erected a museum building on the grounds of the Mother See. Although never used as one, it did serve a number of other purposes, most recently as the main warehouse for the Mother See for the past 40-plus years. In 2002, AGBU donors Mr. and Mrs. Sarkis Bedevian, responding to the call of the Catholicos, agreed to fund the complete renovation of the building. Recently completed, the new museum eagerly awaits the arrival of more than 50 pieces of Arshile Gorky's drawings and paintings currently housed at the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon, Portugal. By 2008, the Mother See will host what may be the largest single collection of the works of Arshile Gorky in the world.
Two other museums, one behind the altar of the Mother Cathedral and the 1982 inaugurated Alex and Marie Manoogian Museum house thousands of priceless Armenian artifacts, relics and antiquities, some as early as the 7th century.
Repairs are underway at the printing house and at the Vanatoun, a guest house for those coming to visit the Mother See, both clergy and laymen.
There are plans for the renovations of the pontifical residence, commonly known as the "Veharan", which was originally constructed in 1912.
Soon after its completion, Armenia was inundated with refugees fleeing the Ottoman Empire and the Armenian Genocide. The Catholicos of All Armenians at that time, His Holiness Gevorg V Sureniants, could not in good conscience occupy the building with the refugee crisis in Etchmiadzin, and opened the doors of his house to the displaced families who became the first occupants of the building.
Soon after the refugee crisis had passed, Armenia was consumed by the growing Soviet empire and this building, as well as others, was confiscated by the Bolshevik authorities. The building was then used as a military headquarters, army field hospital, grain storehouse, etc. until 1960, when Catholicos Vazgen I, was able to convince the Soviet authorities to return the building to the Mother See. In 1962, following a renovation sponsored by a major benefactor, Vazgen I became the first catholicos to ever occupy the building, nearly 50 years to the day following its construction.
Today, with the 100th anniversary of its construction quickly approaching, the pontifical residence is once again in dire need of restoration. It lacks many modern amenities and basic necessities. The use of the building has drastically changed, due to the expansion of the mission of the Armenian Church and the large number of dignitaries, heads of state and heads of churches who regularly visit the Catholicos of All Armenians.
Construction/renovation is also underway on buildings from which the "business" of the Church is administered.
In order to accommodate the increase in services being provided by the Church, new departments have been created and the number of employees has increased. As a result, more than 720 people are currently employed under the auspices of Holy Etchmiadzin. Through the vision of the Catholicos and the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Nazar Nazarian, the first major new administrative building in more than a century is being constructed, which is scheduled for completion in 2007. The modern three-story office building, adjacent to the Pontifical Residence, will house more than 40 offices and will accommodate 60 to 70 employees. Heads of major departments and the Chancellery for the Catholicosate of All Armenians will be located in this building.
AGBU donors, Mr. and Mrs. Nazar Nazarian also sponsored the renovation of the second floor of another historic building, erected south of the Mother Cathedral by Catholicos Ghazar I Jahketsi in the middle of the 18th century. Prior to its reconstruction, "Ghazarapat" served as the communal deacon and seminarian housing quarters in two large halls. In 2002, construction work was completed on the second floor and today there are 22 individual apartments where the deacons reside until their marriage and/or ordination.
A ceremony for the consecration of the foundation stones and columns for the future St. Vartan and St. John Church, with its two chapels and baptismal fonts, took place last May. The 16 foundation stones symbolize John the Baptist, the apostles of Christ, Gregory the Illuminator, Thaddeus and Bartholomew. The construction is to be completed in early 2008.
Former Prime Minister Armen Sarkissian, a benefactor of the church now residing in England, stressed the role of the future St. Vartan and St. John the Baptist baptismal font.
"I hope this church with its baptismal fonts will become the door through which baptized children will enter the road of Christianity," Sarkissian said.
The church will be 18.5 meters high (60.7 feet) and its architectural design is consistent with the Mother Cathedral. The church already has added a rich silhouette to the grounds-three domes, rotundas, ornaments.
During the consecration ceremony Catholicos Karekin II said: "Let brave, faithful, church-loving and patriotic sons of our nation be re-born from these baptismal fonts."
Fr. Matevos Poghosian, Father-Superior at Hripsime Monastery in Etchmiadzin, is happy with the ongoing development in the Mother See. He says construction volumes increased dramatically since Karekin II became Catholicos of All Armenians (in 1999) and are due to his energetic efforts and commitment to the strengthening of the Church.
"Perhaps there was no need for that 25 years ago, as the State did not give freedom to the Church," he says, but adds that a new task of preserving and renewing the nation's faith is a priority today.