Built in the 19th century, Eshtia Church is one of the largest Catholic churches in the region. (photo: Molly Corso)
Oseni Khalajian, a pensioner living in Eshtia, belongs to a community of Armenian Catholics descended from Armenians who fled to Georgia to escape the Turkish mass murder. (photo: Molly Corso)
The heart of the community since its 1851 construction, the Catholic church in Ujmana has withstood dark chapters in the small hamlet’s history, including Soviet occupation. (photo: Molly Corso)
The demands of life in Ujmana include fetching water by hand. (photo: Molly Corso)
The dirt path leading to Ujmana separates two wheat fields and dozens and dozens of cows. A hamlet counting fewer than 60 families, Ujmana is one of 21 Armenian Catholic communities in Georgia that constitute a swath of Catholicism cutting through the predominately Orthodox nation. But even with few priests, high unemployment and limited resources, Armenian Catholics nurture their faith as an integral part of their identity and culture.
The difficulties of life in Georgia – a profoundly poor nation squeezed between Asia and Europe in the Caucasus – deeply affect its minority groups, such as the Armenian Catholic community. Ujmana’s parish church bears the scars. Bullet holes from Bolshevik guns mark its walls. The steeple is rusted, the paint is peeling and the sanctuary is lit by a single hanging light.
For Voshnik, a 42-year-old Armenian who married into the village (and who preferred not to give her last name), the tiny church represents everything good and powerful about her Catholic faith.
“Here I feel so good. My husband tells me, ‘you are from the city, and here you are struggling with the farm with the cows’ … but here I feel very good. The mountains, the fields, give me strength,” she says.
“It has not been difficult to keep my faith. When I work, I see God. He walks with me.”
For Armenians like Voshnik, life has its challenges. A remote village some 16 miles from the largest town and 101 miles from Tbilisi, the nation’s capital, Ujmana has no running water or paved roads. Unemployment — the bane of the Georgian economy — is so high many families have moved to Russia in pursuit of jobs and an easier life.
“People go where they can live,” notes 75-year-old pensioner Joseph Khalajian, a former foreman on a construction crew who lives with his wife, Oseni, in the neighboring village of Eshtia.
“We have a lot of problems. We have two cows, we can barely take care of them. We can hardly feed ourselves, let alone the livestock,” he says.
Mr. Khalajian’s two sons have emigrated to Russia, along with nearly half of the village’s population.
“This was once a big village — 1,000 houses — now there are 360 houses. Of course, they went to Russia.”
Once a favored republic of the Soviet Union, Georgia stumbled into the 21st century after a decade of civil strife, making survival problematic, especially for its ethnic and religious minorities. Armenians have suffered disproportionately as they lack the lifeline of strong personal networks that mark Georgian society. Bad roads, fuel shortages, heavy snowfalls and a language barrier challenged relations with the Tbilisi-based government, isolating Armenian communities in the southern region of Samtskhe-Javakheti.
“Obviously there are several attributes that distinguish the population in this region from the majority Georgian population,” notes Christofer Berglund, a Ph.D. candidate based at Uppsala University in Sweden, who is studying ethnic minorities in Georgia, including Armenians living in Samtskhe-Javakheti. “There is the linguistic one, the religious one, the ethnic one … there are the surnames. So there are many differences separating the population in this region from the majority. Each of these attributes contributes a potential ground for discrimination.”
He notes that while he was researching life in the villages a few years ago, locals referred to going to Yerevan as traveling to Armenia, and going to Tbilisi as traveling to Georgia.
“Which implicitly reflects a state of ambiguity of where the region actually belongs,” he says.
But today life is better for many in the tiny Catholic villages &mash; and their Armenian Apostolic neighbors &mash; which make their ties to Tbilisi much stronger. In part, the change is the result of a series of reforms put in place by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, the outgoing leader who initiated broad, sweeping language policies and infrastructure plans to help ethnic minorities find their place in the Georgian state. State scholarships &mash; and special rules for ethnic minorities taking the state exams — have helped Armenian students enter Georgian universities, assisting the minority communities in creating a life for themselves in Georgia, instead of emigrating to Armenia or Russia.
Infrastructure projects have also helped make life more bearable for Armenian communities. Villages such as Ujmana and Eshtia, along with neighboring Toria, were finally connected to the nation’s natural gas system so residents can heat their homes with inexpensive gas, instead of being forced to buy logs for wood burning stoves.
In addition, a concerted effort has been made to teach the youth Georgian, in addition to Armenian, the language most spoken in village homes.
Dr. Tereza Ovsepian, a family doctor who serves the area as a physician and an ambulance medic, says life is getting better for many households in the area.
“There are problems here, of course. There are problems in every government. But we cannot say that everything is bad here, and good somewhere else,” she says, noting that she is optimistic the government will resolve issues like the poor roads “with time.”
“The big thing is the road — they need to fix that somehow. They gave us gas — that has been a big help. The social service program is operating well here, there is a free ambulance service and free insurance for pensioners and free health programs. So it is not correct to say we only have problems here.”
Her 30-year-old daughter, Nana, notes, however, that there is little for the young people to do. The villages lack movie theaters, operating sports venues or even simple forms of entertainment. Everyone who can, she says, leaves. There are regional efforts, however, to encourage the youth — and young families — to remain in the area. The local school, which is Armenian, receives free textbooks and computers from Tbilisi. They were also allowed to have religious sisters teach catechism in the school before the community built its own religious center.
Some young professionals are coming back. Nana went to Tbilisi to study, receiving her teaching degree as a Georgian language specialist, and has now returned home. She is the director of one of the local schools and works as a Georgian language teacher. There were also 24 births in Eshtia in the first seven and a half months of the year, a big boon for a community that has lost half its population to emigration.
While the youth still lack employment opportunities and are pulled toward Russia to find a better life, those who have left are also feeling the urge to return to their roots and help rebuild.
Dr. Ovsepian and other villagers note that locals who abandoned their homes years ago are starting to send money back to make repairs, and are coming back on vacations.
The lack of priests for the Armenian Catholic Church throughout the Caucasus persists, threatening the development of the church, which is still recovering after eight decades of communist repression. Father Mikael Khachkalian, one of five Armenian Catholic priests in Georgia, says that, in addition to course work in philosophy, theology and pastoral formation, it takes proficiency in the Armenian language and special training in the Armenian Catholic liturgy to become a priest in the Armenian Catholic Church. The church, led by Patriarch Nerses Bedros XIX, is one of the 22 Eastern Catholic churches in communion with the bishop of Rome.
The deficit has required that a number of Armenian Catholic communities must depend on Roman Catholic priests to celebrate the sacraments, a situation the priest says could compromise the integrity of the church. Some of the “priests who come want to create something of their own,” says Father Khachkalian, adding that they do not necessarily respect the culture “and that is a problem.”
Father Anton Antonian shepherds five villages &mash; a congregation of roughly 6,000 people that encompasses 65 miles. He runs from village to village, trying to celebrate the Soorp Badarak, or Divine Liturgy, at least once a week and make it to all the weddings, funerals and baptisms that occur in his widely scattered flock.
Father Antonian says it can be arduous for one man to serve so many. While he has a car, provided by Caritas Georgia, he has few resources to form his parishioners in the faith. Armenian-language books, bibles and other literature must come from Yerevan and it can be complex to transport material across the border. But the priest’s burden could also be considered a blessing, for it underscores the continued strength of the Catholic faith in the region.
Unlike in the larger towns, parishioners of Father Antonian have not been inundated with missionaries from other denominations, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists. And while they have some Georgian Orthodox neighbors, as well as fellow Armenians from the Armenian Apostolic and Evangelical churches, there has not been any conflict among the churches.
“We are here alone, no one bothers us,” Father Antonian says.
A community of Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception has also helped keep the faith strong. After 70 years of atheism imposed during the Soviet regime, people have maintained their faith, but little else. Lacking access to priests, the sacraments and regular catechesis, villagers had forgotten some of the staples of their faith.
Sisters have stepped in to fill the void. They teach the villages’ children and take youngsters up to the age of 14 to a summer camp in neighboring Armenia. Last year, they even opened a medical clinic in Eshtia, and now they are waiting for permission from the government to turn it into a hospital.
Older generations, while they maintained their Catholic identity, are still struggling to come to terms with their faith after decades of pressure to abandon it. Built in 1886, when the first Armenian immigrants started to trickle out of Turkey and into Georgia, the church in Eshtia was turned later into a warehouse when the Soviet Union’s Josef Stalin went to war against religion in the 1930’s.
Armenian Catholics, however, went to great lengths to maintain their identity and faith. Villagers tell tales about elders baptizing the communities’ babies in secret, and Dr. Ovsepian remembered celebrating Christmas.
“During the time of the Communists, people were also religious,” Father Antonian recalls. “I remember well the holidays like Christmas — which were celebrated.”
But for men like Vano Gasparian, a local born in 1955, being an Armenian Catholic was part of his identity, even if he grew up knowing little about the faith.
“Catholics remained Catholics,” he says, adding, however, that for the older generations it can be a difficult transition from a culture that promoted atheism to a life of faith.
“For the young, they believe with their whole soul,” he says. For the older generations, “for us, it is harder.”
Photojournalist Molly Corso lives and works in Tbilisi, Georgia.