Father Anatole blesses the congregation after Sunday’s midday liturgy for children. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
Large numbers of men find consolation and peace in the Divine Liturgy. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
Tzkhalpila’s small church cannot hold the large number of worshippers who gather daily. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
Located in the southern part of Georgia, the village of Tzkhalpila is far removed from modern comforts and technology. Away from the pollution of factories and cars, Tzkhalpila lies nestled in the peaceful countryside. Its 1,500 Armenian Catholic inhabitants live mainly by agriculture and animal husbandry. At dawn, shepherds can be seen leading their herds of cattle and small flocks of sheep to graze in the neighboring hills.
The early morning chiming of the church bells mingled with rooster crows and duck squawks calls the villagers from their chores up the rugged country road to the Divine Liturgy. Men take off their shoes as they enter and fill the front rows of the church. Women, their heads covered with flower-patterned scarfs, fill the back. They too take off their shoes, carefully arranging them on shoe-racks, before taking their place in the back rows. The church fills up quickly and latecomers have no choice but to go to the upper floor.
Several young girls who form the church choir cluster around the old organ on the third floor of the church. Father Anatole Ivaniuk, a Ukrainian priest who has been serving the village for six years, celebrates the liturgy in Russian, as his rudimentary command of Armenian does not permit him to use that language. A strict disciplinarian, Father Anatole expects the villagers to participate actively in church maintenance and will not tolerate excuses; each villager must take a turn cleaning the church.
The morning liturgy ended, the villagers begin their daily work. Some stack the grass they have cut for use as fodder during the cold winter months. Others collect green beans, tomatoes and other vegetables from their backyard gardens to prepare for the midday lunch. Still others collect potatoes to sell at the market in the nearby town of Akhltzikhé.
Father Anatole is chatting in Italian with two young Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, Sisters Rima and Flora, who had gone to Rome to study and have just returned after four years. Tendering her excuses, a middle-aged woman interrupts the discussion.
Father Anatole, we have no water and no electricity and there is no gas, she complains. And cant you do something about the roads?
To which Father Anatole replies with a smile, But Mrs. Araxie, I am here to construct celestial roads, not terrestrial roads.
The woman goes on: My husband earns eight laris [$7.50] a month as a schoolteacher. How are we supposed to live with this money when everything but bread costs more than 50 tetris [$.40] and a kilogram of sugar [2.20 pounds] costs one lari [$.80]?
In Georgia, water and electricity are cut daily, making life even more difficult. After the country achieved its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, land was distributed among the villagers and each family was given just under one acre then taxed 10 laris a year. In addition, this year each household has had to pay eight laris for irrigation water. These taxes are a heavy burden and, at times, the inhabitants of Tzkhalpila come to Father Anatole out of sheer desperation to seek help and some consolation.
At midday the church bells ring again, summoning the villagers to prayer. In order to save money, the church is only partially illuminated. A woman reads scripture passages and the villagers respond by invoking a litany in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Sergei, a 15-year-old altar server, proudly holds a large candle. He has assisted at the altar for six years and hopes to become a deacon once he graduates from high school.
Father Anatole will probably send me either to Italy or to Poland for instruction and then I will return to Tzkhalpila to serve my village, he says in a timid voice.
Armenians have long resided throughout the Caucasus, even in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, some 30 miles north of the Armenian frontier. Near the border in Georgia there are many Armenian villages, some exclusively Armenian Catholic.
Every Sunday, Sergei faithfully accompanies Father Anatole to two of these villages, Djulgha and Abadkhev, where the priest celebrates the Armenian Catholic Divine Liturgy. Djulgha has about 400 inhabitants, and on Sunday about 380 attend the liturgy held at a local club. A small church is under construction; the church foundation is already built and work is progressing gradually.
In Tzkhalpila, the midday Sunday liturgy is for children and teenagers. Hundreds of youngsters quickly fill the church, girls in back, boys in front. Attentively they follow the liturgy in total silence.
At the conclusion of the service, Father Anatole walks through the rows, blessing each child in turn.
Since the beginning of the 90s, children have begun to show great interest in religion, Father Anatole says.
Many wish to serve the church as deacons, priests or sisters. They represent our hope for the continuity of the church in the future.
At 6 P.M., the church bells chime again in Tzkhalpila. Mariam, rosary in hand, walks up the rough village road for the third time. The 70-year-old woman has not missed a single liturgy since the church reopened in 1989. She remembers well the trying years under Communism, when the church was used as a warehouse for cheese. Undaunted, the villagers would gather secretly in each others homes to pray.
Life is still difficult for the villagers of Tzkhalpila, but their faith persists.
Armineh Johannes, a frequent contributor, travels throughout “our world.”