Sister Arousiag Sajonian heads the Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception in Gyumri. (photo: Dima Chikvaidze)
Armenian Apostolic Catholicos Karekin I blesses the Holy Myron, or anointing oil, in 1996. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
Children help one another at the Our Lady of Armenia Education Center in Tashir, Armenia. (photo: Nazik Armenakyan)
Parishioners, holding rosaries, attend a liturgy in the Catholic village of Azadan, Armenia. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
Youth attend Our Lady of Armenia Summer Camp in Tzakhkatzor, the valley of flowers. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
Young members of Jerusalem’s Armenian community socialize in the courtyard of the Cathedral of St. James. (photo: Ilene Perlman)
Sister Arousiag Sajonian emanates a patience and kindness some associate with a bygone era — a time before the series of disasters that, for Armenians, have characterized the modern era.
“Sometimes it seems we are tilting at windmills,” she says, referencing the valiant but vain fight of Don Quixote against his imaginary enemies in the great 17th-century Spanish novel.
“When I first came to Armenia, it was a disastrous social situation; there was no bread, no water, no electricity. But people were helping each other; there was still hope.” However, she continues, these shared values, including people’s faith in one another, have eroded.
“We teach our children the real and true values, and they often get confused, because they see one thing at home and something else at school. Struggling in conditions of such contradictions is extremely difficult.”
Recently, French President François Hollande awarded the Armenian Catholic sister of the Immaculate Conception with his country’s Order of Merit in appreciation of her humanitarian activities. The French ambassador to Armenia, in presenting the award, lauded the faith she has demonstrated through her tireless service.
“Sister Arousiag for me embodies two principles: First, it is faith in God,” said Ambassador Jean-François Charpentier. “It is faith that gives strength and energy to Sister Arousiag and makes her worthy of admiration. The second principle is faith in the human being, which is evidenced by everything that she has done in Gyumri. A human being is at the center of her activities — it is children, the poor, the elderly, it is educating and providing specialties to the young people so that they can find their place in life.”
The struggle for faith holds a central place in Sister Arousiag’s life and work. Although born and reared in Syria, her Christian faith forms the principal ground of her Armenian identity, which she has carried all over the world — from her youth in Syria and Lebanon to the United States, where she cofounded a school in Philadelphia. Her greatest mission has been to return to her ancestral homeland of Armenia. There, the people of the first nation to adopt Christianity as a state religion — in the year 301 A.D. — had begun to view ancient churches as museums rather than as places of prayer.
In 1990, after a long wait, Sister Arousiag received permission from the Soviet authorities to come to Armenia during one of the country’s most difficult times. The devastating earthquake of December 1988 had claimed more than 25,000 lives and left as many as a million people homeless. That earthquake was soon followed by another: the unraveling of the Soviet Union and the emergence of an independent Armenia in 1991. War with neighboring Azerbaijan, economic collapse and an energy crisis, however, aggravated the poverty of the tiny republic, especially in the earthquake-devastated northwest.
To this day, Sister Arousiag remembers the victims’ eyes.
“There was hardly a family that wouldn’t have a loss. I remember a 20-member family where only a 76-year-old grandfather and his 5-year-old grandson survived; all the others were buried under the ruins of their home. The old man would always ask me why he needed to live and what the point of his life was.”
“There were so many ‘whys’ that I myself got entangled in those questions. Children and adults were going through awful depression, all wore black, painted everything in black, everything was black, there was no bright spot in their lives,” adds the sister.
In a time of overwhelming need, their faith in the Gospel has helped them to restore life’s many colors.
“Children were the most vulnerable in those days; many had lost their parents, many were hungry. The most immediate task was to change their lives, their environment — to educate them and give them a hope to live.”
First based in several northern Armenian villages, the sisters helped revive parishes long suppressed by the Soviets, teaching children and providing comfort and counsel to their parents. In 1996, Sister Arousiag founded the Our Lady of Armenia Boghossian Educational Center, which to this day provides a home to dozens of parentless children. Two years earlier, the sisters founded Our Lady of Armenia Summer Camp, where every year more than 800 children from different regions of Armenia spend three weeks in a completely different environment to play, study, rest, learn and develop positive attitudes toward life. In order to ensure the continuity of education, Sister Arousiag also led in the creation of the Youth Development Center, a vocational school in Gyumri, and a day care center for the elderly.
“Working with orphans and abandoned children is challenging,” Sister Arousiag says. “They try to understand why they have found themselves in this status, often looking for their share of guilt inside themselves.
“I often hear children say that not I, no one, could ever understand them.
“Perhaps they are right; we won’t understand them. It is here that faith again comes to my aid — I explain to them that perhaps only they can help and be useful to others who find themselves in a similar situation, and that this is their mission.”
Sister Arousiag believes the tools religious faith provides are the best — perhaps the only — means to tackle these contemporary challenges.
“Things have changed over years. It was difficult when we had in our center children orphaned by the earthquake or war. But they had a different mentality then, as they knew they had been loved once. But now it is more difficult because most of our children are abandoned orphans,” she explains. “Their protest is against the whole world, and here we often become helpless, and it is only faith that helps us also to help these children.”
In this way, she maintains, faith can transform lives — just as it transformed her own. “Every morning, at 5 a.m., my mother took me to the Badarak [the Divine Liturgy of the Armenian Church], then I studied at the school of the sisters. I felt pain every time my mother told me about the suppression of religion in Soviet Armenia.”
This, she says, “opened a new door” and gave her a mission.
“I thought I’d go there and restore the faith that we have had for centuries.”
But being a believer in Armenia means an endless bout — a battle against desperate social conditions and the legacies of the Soviets: atheism, deteriorating values and intolerance. Faith in the Gospel helps to overcome the problems, but the Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception often feel alone in this struggle.
“We do see some positive changes in the children whom we educate. We see their kindness, their love for one another,” she says.
“Sisters show them another way.”
But the sisters do not stop there; they seek to help parents and families, and the communities in which they live and work. It is an effort to overcome social ills through broader unity.
“There is no division for us,” she says of her community of Armenian Catholic sisters, who also work closely with the preeminent church of all Armenians, the Armenian Apostolic Church, particularly in assisting children in their catechism to receive the sacraments.
“Our faith never divides. Every day, every hour we live, we must strengthen our faith; every hour we must feel that God created us all with love and that he loves us, and we must pass that love to each other,” Sister Arousiag says, wearing an almost childlike smile of kindness, albeit tempered by the wisdom of experience.
“This is the guide for life … and, ultimately, this is the only salvation and impulse for happiness all over the world.”
Gayane Abrahamyan’s reporting has appeared in The Atlantic, EurasiaNet and ArmeniaNow.