Parish or perish: Armenians in Santa Clarita establish a new church

Parish or perish: Armenians in Santa Clarita establish a new church
By Eugene Tong, Staff Writer

Los Angeles Daily News, CA
May 24 2004

VALENCIA — Sweetened with incense and soft hymns, a drab hall at
Valencia High School was transformed into a house of God Sunday for
dozens of parishioners seeking solace at the only Armenian church
service in Santa Clarita.

“They couldn’t believe this thing finally happened,” said Vartan
Vahramian, who helped organized the parish that held its first service
earlier this month. “The first four that came through it was a one-time
thing, but we told them it was going to be every week.”

The parish is the latest outpost in the Western Diocese of the
Armenian Church of North America, and a testament to how faith and
demographic shifts are changing this increasingly diverse North Los
Angeles County suburb.

Bringing the church’s services to Santa Clarita has been a long-time
goal for Vahramian, who moved to Valencia from Van Nuys in 1984 in
pursuit of affordable housing and open space.

“I sold everything and bought a house here really cheap,” said
Vahramian, who runs a local escrow and loan firm. “Now I can’t even
buy the house I live in. We grew with the area.”

At the time, the Santa Clarita Valley was home to only 64 Armenian
families, according to diocese estimates. With too few worshippers
to support a local church, the faithful made weekly sojourns to the
San Fernando Valley or such ethnic hubs as Glendale for services.

“The closest one was St. Peter (Armenian Apostolic Church) on Sherman
Way in Van Nuys, and that’s at least half an hour,” said Vahramian,
president of the parish council. “It was a test, especially when the
kids were young. You have to get them all dressed up, put them in
the car, you’re driving and the kids beat up on each other.”

As Santa Clarita bloomed in over the last two decades into a city of
more than 150,000, its Armenian community also grew. By 1992, the
number of families has almost tripled to 180, Vahramian said. When
planning for the parish began last year, he tallied about 500.

Most of the families arrived after the 1994 Northridge earthquake,
when faced with the choice of either rebuilding or moving on, he said.

“They looked at what they have in the San Fernando Valley,” Vahramian
said. “They have a 30-, 40-, 50-year-old house, or with the money
they can get a brand new house and a brand new car, and all they have
to sacrifice was about an hour’s drive every day. That formula was
very attractive.”

But no community is complete without its own parish. Many Armenians
still take pride as one of the first ethnic groups to accept
Christianity, and religion has been central to forging together a
nation from a diaspora that has undergone centuries of upheaval.

“Traditionally, it’s been one country, one church,” Vahramian said.
“Armenians were held together for 1,700 years through their church
unity. … It’s the backbone of our beliefs, and it’s the center of
a nation that’s scattered all over. It’s to get together and thank
God that we’re still alive.”

Vahramian also credited Archbishop Hovnan Derderian with helping
to usher in the parish. Elected primate last May, he pressed the
formation of a dozen new parishes throughout the diocese, which covers
the western United States and Canada.

“It’s an obligation,” Derderian said. “We cannot ignore the fact
that there now exists a community (in Santa Clarita). We have to make
sure, in the shortest period of time, that we can reach out to those
families. … On a regular basis, you cannot expect them to drive
the distance to reach the (San Fernando) Valley and Glendale.”

Shepherding the fledgling congregation falls to Father Zareh Mansuryan,
who served at a church in Armenia for a decade before moving to the
United States in 2001. He is working on community outreach — only
60 people attended the first liturgy May 9 — and to eventually build
a permanent church.

“We are starting a new church so the Armenian spirit and Christianity
stays with the people in this community,” said Mansuryan, 40. “With
the help of the Armenians here, we want to establish an Armenian
church. … But we can’t do it quickly. The important thing is
for Armenians to come together and realize they are a family and
a community.”

Vahramian expects a parish church will be built within five years.
Meantime, he is searching for another home for the weekly services
before June 30, when most Valencia High buildings will be closed for
the summer.

“We’ll be looking for a piece of dirt to build on it soon,” he said.
“The money is there. If we shake down the diocese, they have the
money. But we have to show good cause — that there is plenty of
attendance. And it needs to be attractive — something more than a
high school.”

Staff Writer Naush Boghossian contributed to this story.

Eugene Tong, (661) 257-5253 [email protected]

Emil Lazarian

“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” - WS