A priest blesses an Armenian Catholic congregation in the Georgian village of Tzkhalpila. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
The camp’s daily activities begin with exercise for everyone. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
Archbishop Nerses Der Nersessian administers the sacraments of Christian Initiation to campers. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
Sister Hagind teaches religious history to youngsters at the summer camp. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
Father Tchamourlian celebrates the Divine Liturgy with children at the summer camp. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
The day begins early at the summer camp of Our Lady of Armenia. At 7:30, prayers and the Armenian national anthem echo throughout the halls of the camp, which is located about 40 miles north of Yerevan in Tzakhkatzor, the valley of flowers.
After 70 years of Communism, and now because of poor social conditions, Armenians are gradually losing the faith of their forefathers, laments Sister Arousiag Sajonian, an Armenian Sister of the Immaculate Conception who is the local superior and runs the summer camp.
A nation is held together by the common values of its families, and we are losing these values. The conditions are such that, in order to survive, people are searching for means that are foreign to our culture.
With the help of the church, we have to reestablish Armenian and Christian values. Religious leaders must encourage people to endure with the hope that things will improve, she concludes.
From their convent in the city of Gumri Sister Arousiag and her community run an extensive summer program for 500 orphaned and needy children, as well as an additional program for 50 catechists from Armenia and southern Georgia. The only Armenian Catholic congregation of women religious, established in Constantinople in 1847, the sister primary apostolate is service to Armenia youth.
Last summer, Sister Arousiag declares with enthusiasm, we tried to recruit children from as many villages as possible in an effort to expose them to the truths of the faith and prepare them for the sacraments of initiation Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist which they receive at the camp.
All the sisters at Our Lady of Armenia camp participate in activities with the children. The sister energy knows no bounds as they sing and dance along with the campers. Their cheerful faces and their modesty make the children feel even more joyful and at ease.
Many families want me to take their children sometimes they literally beg for that, notes Sister Arousiag.
The work we do during the few weeks in this camp is as important as what we do all through the year, she continues.
Besides catechism, sports and dancing, the sisters provide lessons in daily living. Indeed, in their mission statement, the Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception state that they work to enable each child to develop a set of values consistent with Christian ideals and an ethical system as a guide to behavior and formation of a conscience.
With programs such as this summer camp, the Armenian Catholic Church, which shares the rites and traditions of the Armenian Apostolic Church yet maintains full communion with the Church of Rome, is making great strides in meeting the pastoral needs of Armenian Catholics. Nevertheless there is a shortage of priests a serious impediment if the church hopes to meet fully the spiritual needs of the community.
There are some 25 Catholic villages scattered in Armenia and approximately the same number in southern Georgia, with roughly 2,000 inhabitants per village. In addition, thousands of Armenian Catholics inhabit the cities of Gumri and Yerevan. Yet, only eight priests are available to care for the sacramental needs of this widely dispersed community four are stationed in Armenia and four are based in Georgia.
Despite exhaustive efforts, many Catholics, including those in Yerevan, receive no pastoral care and suffer from a lack of pastoral programs. On Sundays, visiting priests travel to the villages around Gumri to celebrate the liturgy. In the remote Georgian village of Heshdia, however, a priest has not celebrated the sacraments for more than a year.
There are nine seminarians attending the Nersessian Junior Seminary in Gumri. In addition to their regular course of study, all of the seminarians learn the Armenian Catholic liturgical year and the sharagans, or hymns, of the Armenian tradition. There are also three seminarians studying theology in Rome, two from Armenia and one from Georgia. Hopefully, the lack of clergy will soon be remedied.
Meanwhile, the Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception teach religion in the village public schools, prepare children and adults for the sacraments and organize choirs and youth groups. These sisters are busy women.
The convent is not a refuge or a place to escape from the difficulties of life. Becoming a nun means offering your life for an ideal it is a consecration, affirms Sister Arousiag.
In 1992, after the Armenian Council of Religious Affairs approved our credentials, we started teaching catechism in the village schools of Arevig, Panik, Lanchik and Sebasar, she says.
We spent two years training two teachers at the schools of Arevig and Lanchik; as of next year they will teach catechism to the children.
In addition to the summer camp, the sisters recently opened an orphanage, the Our Lady of Armenia Center. Donated by the Boghossian family of Belgium and Switzerland, the center houses a day orphanage for parentless children who live with family members. It also serves as a convent and a boarding school for young novices.
Presently, 23 children aged 7 to 20 benefit from the educational center, and seven stay as interns. The center still has the capacity, however, for 15 interns and about 35 day students. The yearly budget for each child is roughly $1,000, and an additional $30,000 a year is required for the maintenance, heating and management costs of the building. Donations from various organizations, including CNEWA, cover necessary operating expenses.
When it opened, the orphanage was required to register with the Ministry of Social Affairs. According to the Council of Religious Affairs in Armenia, however, we were not to accept non-Catholic children, Sister Arousiag reports.
I cannot tell an orphan that because you are not Catholic, I cannot accept you that would be against international laws and real discrimination. I managed to convince the council that, with the consent of a parent or legal tutor, I will accept all children, whether Catholic or not.
In the midst of all the changes taking place in Armenia, the number of orphans is unfortunately rising. There is a new type of orphan in Armenia the social orphan. Often, Armenian fathers travel to Russia to find work but do not contact their families once they arrive there. The family later learns that the father has married another woman and has begun a new family.
It is sad for children to know they have fathers but are nevertheless fatherless. This is a heartbreaking situation and, as the economy continues to plummet, the number of abandoned families continues to increase especially in villages where unemployment is high. In the early years after Armenia achieved independence in 1991, those in need sold various objects from their homes for money; today there is nothing left to sell.
Hardship is nothing new for 20th century Armenians: More than 1.5 million were brutally murdered by the Turks during World War I; Soviet Russia annexed the country in 1922, suppressing its culture and institutions, particularly the churches; and a devastating earthquake in December 1988 destroyed cities, towns and thousands of families. Wary of the unknown yet full of hope, Armenians are looking forward to the beginning of a new millennium.
That new millennium actually began in 1991 when the country declared independence and the Holy See established an ordinariate for Armenian Catholics in Eastern Europe, led by Archbishop Nerses Der Nersessian. That same year, the Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception were officially stationed there, rolled up their sleeves and got to work.
While beset with limitations of manpower and infrastructure, the Armenian Catholic Church strives to fulfill the pastoral needs of Armenia Catholics. Religious communities such as Sister Arousiag offer a place for all Catholics to learn more about their religious history, culture and faith, thus revitalizing family and nation.
Based in Paris, Armineh Johannes travels frequently to Armenia.