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Restoring Faith

Armenians in western Ukraine rebuild church and community

“You can’t imagine how shocked I was when I first entered the church in April 2001,” says 61-year-old Father Thaddeos Gevorgian, pastor of the Armenian Apostolic Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary in Lviv, Ukraine.

As the cathedral’s first pastor since Soviet authorities shuttered it in 1945, the priest indeed faced a daunting task.

At the time, the cathedral languished in a state of total disrepair. Rain and snow fell directly into the nave through gaping holes in the roof and broken windows. In the cool, damp air, a thick carpet of moss grew on the walls and ceiling, covering the vibrant 1930’s frescoes by Polish artist Jan Rosen.

But from the ruins came more than just a restoration of a building. The story of the cathedral’s revival is a testament to the steadfast faith and devotion of the Armenian people in Lviv.

The cathedral dates back to 1363. Originally a modest wooden chapel, it underwent major alterations in 1437, with the installation of a stone arcade; in 1527, with the erection of the stone belfry; and in 1630 and 1723, with the construction of the current stone nave in two phases.

In 1991, the Armenian Apostolic Church sent Bishop Natan Ohanesian from Armenia to Lviv to establish an eparchy to serve western Ukraine’s dispersed Armenian community. In 1997, local Ukrainian authorities initiated the formal surrender of the cathedral to the new eparchy.

The eparchy, in turn, charged Father Gevorgian with not only restoring one of Lviv’s oldest and most magnificent churches, but also rebuilding the local Armenian parish community.

“There was no money to restore the church, and the Armenian community was scattered,” he says. “And it turned out that Pope John Paul II was planning on visiting the church three months after my arrival.”

According to the priest, Pope John Paul II’s interest in the cathedral was nothing short of a blessing from God. “Because of the pope’s visit in June 2001, the government helped enormously to renovate the church. It would have taken me a full year to do the work it did in three days.”

Father Gevorgian also stresses the crucial role the papal visit played in raising awareness among Ukrainians about the country’s ancient Armenian community.

“The problem was that quite a few local people wrongly assumed, and some still do, that the Armenian Church was either Muslim or Jewish and not Orthodox Christian,” he explains.

Two years later, in May 2003, Armenian Apostolic Catholicos Karekin II visited Lviv to consecrate the renovated cathedral. “There were many honored guests,” says Father Gevorgian, “including Armen Khachatrian, a speaker of the Armenian parliament, Leonid Kravchuk, a former president of Ukraine, Charles Aznavour, a famous Armenian-French singer, and numerous Armenian ambassadors and representatives from different confessions.”

From the 17th century to the end of World War II, the cathedral served as the center of the Armenian Catholic community. Just before the war, some 5,500 Armenian Catholics lived in Galicia — the historic region comprising what is now western Ukraine and parts of southeastern Poland. The eparchy administered nine churches and 16 chapels in the region.

Under Soviet suppression, however, the community quickly declined. The Soviet authorities’ 1945 arrest of the eparchy’s administrator, Father Dionizy Kaietanovych, spelled its end. The eparchy’s last administrator, he died in a Gulag camp in 1954. Since his removal, the Armenian Catholic eparchy in Lviv has remained vacant.

“That is why many Polish tourists with Armenian roots consider our church their home cathedral,” says Father Gevorgian. “We maintain friendly relations with Polish Armenian Catholics, since we all are Christians.”

The Armenian parish also nurtures amicable relations with Lviv’s other denominations. The parish actively participates in the city’s annual ecumenical celebration of the Theophany — the commemoration of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. Each year, a different parish invites members of the Armenian Apostolic, Latin Catholic, Ukrainian Greek Catholic and Orthodox communities to its church for a concelebration. This year, the Assumption of Mary Armenian parish hosted the event.

“I fell in love with the harmony and profound expressiveness of the Armenian liturgy,” says 42-year-old Andriy Shkrabiuk, a celebrated Ukrainian theologian, essayist and translator of liturgical texts. He now serves as the chief cantor and choir director at the Armenian cathedral.

Mr. Shkrabiuk remembers the exact day he heard the Armenian liturgy for the first time: 22 April 2001, the first Sunday after Easter. “At the time,” he says, “Father Gevorgian celebrated the liturgy all by himself. There was neither a deacon nor a choir to help him in the church.”

Awestruck by the Armenian liturgy, Mr. Shkrabiuk, along with friend and iconographer Orest Gelitovych, asked the priest if they could sing the psalms with him the following Sunday. “Father Gevorgian rejoiced,” recalls Mr. Shkrabiuk. “He told us: ‘My friends, God himself has sent you to me.’ ”

That same day, Mr. Shkrabiuk began memorizing the Armenian liturgy. The next Sunday, as planned, he accompanied Father Gevorgian during the psalms.

Mr. Shkrabiuk’s vocal talents had an immediate affect on the congregation. At the end of only his second liturgy, three girls approached him about singing. “That is how our choir came into being,” says Mr. Shkrabiuk.

In the early days, the choir consisted of just a handful of enthusiasts, only one of whom was ethnic Armenian: Father Gevorgian’s 13-year-old daughter Lusine. In the last ten years, however, it has more than doubled in size and improved immeasurably. Named Saghmos, “psalm” in Armenian, the choir now includes 12 singers, five of whom are ethnic Armenians.

“We take great pride in our choir,” says, 66-year-old Bishop Grigoris Bouniatian of the Armenian Apostolic Eparchy of Lviv. “Andriy Shkrabiuk and his choir sing almost the way they did in ancient Armenia.”

In accordance with the church’s ancient tradition, the choir stands not on the balcony, but near the altar during the Divine Liturgy.

“The choir is the motor of prayer,” says Mr. Shkrabiuk.

“It’s a miracle how Andriy Shkrabiuk arranges the liturgical music into four voices for his choir,” says 50-year-old Elena Grigorian, an Armenian priest’s wife. “He did not even attend music school.”

Mrs. Grigorian sees the hand of God in the choir. She knows all the members well and always thanks them for their sacrifice and service after the liturgy.

One member, 35-year-old Romana Melnyk, especially impresses Mrs. Grigorian. “Though Romana is one of the oldest members of the choir, a soloist, she never tries to stand out,” says Mrs. Grigorian. Ms. Melnyk first joined the parish in 2001. As a gift to her new spiritual home, she donated two expensive chandeliers to the cathedral.

“I often remember with gratitude our choristers Marina Zubova, Mariika Piniak and Orest Gelitovych, who prayed together with us in a cold church without missing a single liturgy, prayed so faithfully for many years,” continues Mrs. Grigorian. These members no longer live in Lviv. But when they come home for the holidays or family functions, they always look forward to singing in the choir.

“I feel so happy as if my children came to visit us.”

The choir also owes a great deal of its authenticity to Deacon Armen Hakopian, who introduced it to countless Armenian sharakans, or hymnals, dating from the fifth through eight centuries that he brought from Armenia. Himself a gifted singer, the 36-year-old deacon joined the congregation and choir in 2002. Born and reared in Armenia, he attended the renowned Vaskenian Theological Academy at Etchmiadzin. After graduation, he served as a chaplain in the Armenian army for two years before moving to Lviv to study at the Ukrainian Catholic University.

As a student in Lviv, Deacon Armen met his future wife, a Ukrainian Catholic. The couple were later married at the Armenian Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary. “At first, my wife’s relatives were critical of our relationship,” he says. “But now, her whole family, including her mother and her grandmother, goes to the Armenian church.”

In general, Armenians in Lviv are Ukrainian citizens. Most speak Armenian at home.

As do older generations throughout the former Soviet Union, older Armenians in Lviv also speak fluent Russian. In contrast, the new generation is fluent in Ukrainian.

Members of the Armenian community often switch among Armenian, Russian and Ukrainian. Deacon Armen, for instance, usually speaks Armenian to his 2-year-old son, but Russian to his wife. “It’s a habit,” he says.

Father Gevorgian does what he can to accommodate the linguistic needs of his flock. He celebrates the Divine Liturgy in Armenian, but delivers his homily in both Armenian and Russian.

The Armenian Sunday School in Lviv helps maintain the community’s linguistic identity by offering free language classes. Though most students who attend the school are Armenian, a significant number are ethnic Ukrainians with no connection to Armenia or the Armenian Apostolic Church.

Among the students is 24-year-old Olena Voskanian. The young woman of mixed Armenian-Georgian-Ukrainian heritage moved to Lviv in 2011 from the eastern city of Zaporizhia. She chose Lviv after watching a documentary about the city and falling in love with it.

“I speak Armenian, but I can’t read or write it,” she confesses. “Only my grandmother can.”

A full-time graduate student in Lviv, she makes time for church and the Armenian community. She sings in the choir and is a member of Haykazunk, Lviv’s Armenian youth organization.

Currently, the Armenian Sunday School enrolls three classes of 12 to 18 students of different ages, professions and language levels. Ruzanna Mkrtchian, the school’s founder and sole instructor, teaches from 9:30 a.m. till 2 p.m. on Saturdays, and for one hour on Sundays.

“I have students from ages 4 to 77,” she says.

“Unfortunately, there are fewer children than adults at school. I don’t even have two kids of the same age to put them in a single age group.”

For the most part, this low enrollment has to do with the relatively small size of Lviv’s Armenian community. Today an estimated 500,000 Armenians live in Ukraine. But only some 3,000 call metropolitan Lviv home.

Mrs. Mkrtchian moved to Lviv along with 30 women and 30 children in the wake of the December 1988 earthquake that devastated northern Armenia. The quake left 25,000 people dead and more than a half million homeless.

“Those were not the best pages of my life story,” she confesses ironically.

A teacher by training, Mrs. Mkrtchian began giving Armenian language classes to local Armenian children soon after her arrival. She held classes in the library of a local public high school. “There were no books at that time,” she recalls. “A grandmother would sit with her grandchildren behind a single desk.”

Less than a year later, the city of Lviv, in conjunction with the Armenian community, officially founded the Armenian Sunday School. The school would offer all city residents free Armenian language courses. But by that time, Mrs. Mkrtchian had already returned to Armenia. Members of the community reached out to her and she agreed to move back to Lviv and run the school for a year or two.

“So, I’ve been teaching in the school for 23 years now,” she says with a smile. “First, I didn’t go back to Armenia because of the Nagorno-Karabakh War; then because of my children had gotten used to the culture, liked their school and had made friends; and finally, because of my husband who started his own lavash [a flatbread native to Armenia and the Middle East] bakery business.”

In the meantime, Mrs. Mkrtchian has excelled as an administrator and teacher. Oleksandr Skrypnyk, a major figure in Ukrainian national politics, took an interest in Mrs. Mkrtchian’s work at the school. With the politician’s help, between 2005 and 2008, she established four other Armenian Sunday schools in western Ukraine, in the cities of Chernivtsi, Lutsk, Rivne and Vinnytsia. All four later closed as result of funding shortages.

In 2010, the school in Lviv took part in an international contest, organized by the World Armenian Congress and the Armenian Ministry of the Diaspora, among Armenian Sunday schools outside Armenia. The judges awarded the school in Lviv seventh place.

“I didn’t believe it,” Mrs. Mkrtchian says.

“We beat out many prosperous schools, for example one in the United Arab Emirates that has 22 teachers.”

International recognition, however, has not changed the school’s day-to-day operations. Mrs. Mkrtchian is still the only teacher. The school is no more than an unheated room on the cathedral’s upper floor, with a large table, 12 chairs, a bookshelf and a single computer.

“I believe our school conditions will improve very soon since the city government gave the church a building for an Armenian cultural center last year,” says Father Gevorgian. Renovation of the building should be complete by next year.

In April 2005, Mrs. Mkrtchian and her husband helped coordinate the purchase of an antique hachkar, or Armenian stone cross, for the cathedral grounds as a memorial to the victims of the Armenian Genocide. Lviv’s entire Armenian community pooled their resources for fundraising. Mr. Mkrtchian traveled to Armenia to retrieve the hachkar.

“Though the Armenian community in Lviv is not large,” says Mrs. Mkrtchian, “it is solid.”

Contributors Mariya Tytarenko and Petro Didula are based in Lviv.

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