A CLOSER LOOK AT PHILADELPHIA’S ARMENIAN PRESENCE
EDITORIAL | FEBRUARY 13, 2014 1:34 PM
By George S. Yacoubian, Sr.
An anniversary is, by definition, an observation of a notable event.
When viewed through the prism of a church consecration, the occasion,
whether commemorative or celebratory, is an expression of communion,
devotion and pride.
And so it is that four local Philadelphia Armenian churches will have
observed, beginning in 2013 and continuing through 2014, significant
anniversaries. As follows: Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church (June
1, 2014), its 80th Anniversary; St. Gregory The Illuminator Armenian
Apostolic Church (October 27, 2013), its 90th Anniversary as well as
46 years at its present location; St. Sahag and St. Mesrob Armenian
Apostolic Church (October 19, 20, 2013), its 50th Anniversary at its
present location; and St. Mark’s Armenian Catholic Church (May 4,
2014), its 90th Anniversary.
Ironically, the one silent church — Armenian Martyrs’ Congregational
Church — is the oldest church in our region, having celebrated its
100th Anniversary on December 2, 2007.
Given the confluence of these anniversaries, voices have suggested a
chronological history of Philadelphia’s five Armenian churches. The
thought expressed is that such a study might well instill in the
descendants of our founding fathers, an admiration for the religious
fervor of those who were transplanted thousands of miles to a new
world, confronted with prejudice and hostility, stymied by a strange
language, an alien culture-yet determined to both retain and nurture
their cherished heritage.
It was about 1830 that the first Armenian set foot in Philadelphia. He
was a young vartabed, Rt. Rev. Haroutune (alternately Haroutiun)
Vehabedian, who, upon completing his education, returned abroad. Later
he became an archbishop, Patriarch of Constantinople (1885-1888)
and Patriarch of the St. James Armenian Monastery of Jerusalem,
The Philadelphia Armenian population in our area, in the early 1900s,
was numbered at about 120. Primarily male, they travelled to America
for employment. Many of them anticipated returning home. Homesick and
lonely, these few, bonded by ethnicity, language and culture with the
Christian faith firmly embedded in their psyche, gathered together,
regardless of denomination, to worship.
Itinerate clergymen, primarily Protestant, but Apostolic as well,
performed occasional religious services at the Protestant Episcopal
Church at 5th and Buttonwood Streets, the Odd Fellows Hall on North
Broad Street as well as at both the Old Elks Hall at 232 North 9th
Street and the Morning Star Hall at Vine and Ridge Avenues.
The first Board of Trustees/ joint steering committee/Parish Council
was organized in 1902 by Father (later Archbishop) Hovsep Sarajian.
Reflecting the ecumenism that defined that period, it comprised five
men, two of whom were Protestant.
A later influx of compatriots prompted, however, a denominational
realignment. On July 18, 1907, The Armenian Evangelical Church of
Philadelphia for the Protestant Armenians was founded. Services
were held, at first, in the Central Congregational Church at 18th
and Green Streets, and later, in the gymnasium of the historic Holy
Trinity Church on Rittenhouse Square. In 1913, a small church for
the Apostolic, at the corner of Pike and Broad Streets (1913-17)
was consecrated (by one account) as St. Sahag and St. Mesrob.
Due in no small measure to the massacres of 1895/96, 1909 and the
Genocide of 1915, the number of Armenians in America increased
exponentially. Philadelphia was not excepted.
The capacity at Pike and Broad was soon deemed inadequate. On March
21, 1917, a larger facility on Pine Street, near Broad, was acquired
and on September 30, 1917, was consecrated as the St. Sahag & St.
Mesrob Armenian Apostolic Church, (1917-23). That the consecration
was performed by Archbishop Moushegh Seropian, placed the parish
firmly within the orbit of the Apostolic faith as well as the Diocese
(as it is known today) of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern).
But the hereditary defect of Armenians for disputation, on this
occasion a doctrinal struggle regarding faith and good works,
intervened. On March 7, 1920, a disaffected Protestant church,
The Armenian Congregational Church of Philadelphia, was launched
in Liberty Hall at the corner of Larchwood and 60th Street and
formally constituted on November 21, 1920. Given the propensity of
that denomination to diffuse, two other short-lived congregations,
The First Armenian Methodist Church in America and The Armenian Church
of the Brethren, provided options.
By 1923, the congregation of the St. Sahag and St. Mesrob Church had
sufficiently diverged demographically to require two churches, one
in West Philadelphia and the other in North Philadelphia. The Pine
Street church was sold-the name St. Sahag and St. Mesrob- assigned
to the West Philadelphia parish. While the proceeds of $30,000 (after
expenses) were to be equally divided, one parish council temporarily
administered both groups.
That same year, on December 15, 1923, with the arrival of Rev. Stephen
Stepanian, the first Armenian Catholic Church in America was launched
in the basement of St. Columba’s Church on Lehigh Avenue.
On September 5, 1924, the Armenian Congregational Church of
Philadelphia held a ground-breaking ceremony at 6029 Ludlow Street
(1924-1962); the cornerstone was laid on October 5, 1924 and the
church formally dedicated on the last Sunday in November 1928.
With the Pine Street church sold, the West Philadelphian Armenians
held church services in St. George’s Episcopal Church at 61st St. and
Hazel Ave. But by July 22, 1925, a large house and adjacent lot at
6006 Walnut Street was purchased; its consecration as the St. Sahag
and St. Mesrob Armenian Apostolic Church (1925-50), taking place in
That same year, on August 25, 1925, confronting the futility of
separatism, the two surviving Armenian Protestant congregations merged;
the surviving entity becoming The Armenian Martyrs’ Congregational
Church of Philadelphia. Their first united service was held on
September 16, 1925.
On April 5, 1926, St. Mark’s Armenian Catholic Church relocated to
142 North Robinson Street (1926-46).
On March 2, 1927, the North Philadelphia Armenians, after having
worshiped for the past four years in Episcopal churches located at
12th and 18th Streets on Diamond, purchased the Memorial Church of
Our Redeemer at the corner of 16th and Oxford Streets. The edifice
was consecrated on April 1, 1928 and designated St. Gregory The
Illuminator Armenian Apostolic Church (1927-1935).
Once again, the inherent Armenian predisposition for implosion
erupted. The tragic events of 1933 and 1934, which plague us even
today, are beyond the scope of this study, but for those so inclined,
The Torch Was Passed, pp 27- 35, edited by Chris Zakian and A History
of the Armenian Holy Apostolic Orthodox Church in the United States
(1888-1944), pp 265-289, authored by (later Very Reverend) Oshagan
Minassian are recommended readings.
Its repercussions, unfortunately, impacted the Philadelphia community.
Because a plurality, if not a majority, of the members of St. Gregory
The Illuminator Church were determined to disassociate with, once
again, we know today as the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America
(Eastern), the parish was sundered. Those members faithful to the
Diocese and Echmiadzin, in 1934, reorganized as Holy Trinity Armenian
Church and rented facilities for worship. Those who were in opposition
met at a Lutheran Church at 22nd and Columbia Avenues. Possession of
the vacant (court ordered) 16th and Oxford facility became the subject
of litigation which wasn’t resolved definitively until February 1935,
when it was awarded to the second group and reopened as an unaffiliated
In 1941, the Diocesan loyalists, demonstrating a more complimentary
Armenian trait –resiliency — regrouped and purchased the Marshall
Street Church at Susquehanna Street. A new sanctuary, Holy Trinity
Armenian Apostolic Church (1942-1964), was consecrated on December
On May 11, 1946, St. Mark’s Armenian Catholic Church, now at 6014
Market Street (1946-75), previously a vacant bank building, was
officially dedicated and blessed, while its consecration wasn’t
scheduled until December 23, 1951.
Once again, St. Sahag and St. Mesrob, requiring even greater capacity,
in 1947, purchased land at 63rd and Locust Streets. Having sold 6006 in
September 1950, religious services were held at the Episcopal Church at
56th and Markets Streets until a church hall (1951-61) was constructed.
In the interim, it became apparent that the schism within the
Armenian Church was both irrevocable and untenable. In 1957, the
Catholicos of the Great House of Cilcia, responding to a resolution
passed at a gathering of the separated churches assumed authority
and jurisdiction over St. Gregory and their co-religionists. In 1959,
the Eastern Prelacy (as it is known today) of the Armenian Apostolic
Church of America was established.
At about the same time, evolving demographics in West Philadelphia,
as well as ingrained Armenian attributes for diligence, industry and
thrift, rewarded many families with resources to escape their West
Philadelphia row homes, inducing all three West Philadelphia churches-
within walking distance of one another- to seek suburban locations.
The first to flee was St. Sahag & St. Mesrob. On February 19, 1961,
acquisition of the Agnes Irwin School for Girls, on 630 Clothier
Road, Wynnewood, an 8 1/2 acre property, was approved. The church
was consecrated on November 24, 1963.
On May 5, 1963, Armenian Martyrs’ held yet another groundbreaking
ceremony, this time at 100 North Edmonds Avenue, Havertown. The new
sanctuary of The Armenian Martyrs’ Congregational Church was dedicated
one year later, on November 8, 1964. In the interim, services were
held down the street at the Seventh Day Adventist Church.
On December 7, 1975, St. Mark’s was dedicated at 400 North Haverford
Road, Wynnewood. With the creation of the Armenian Catholic Exarchate
of North America in the month of July 1981, St. Mark’s acceded to its
authority and jurisdiction while volunteering to host the Episcopal
Seat for three years. As a result, St. Mark’s was subsumed within
the Catholic community of North America.
The two churches to the north experienced circumstances not unlike
their westernbrethren. On December 1, 1964, Holy Trinity, at Marshall
and Susquehanna was completely destroyed by fire. But because, almost
presciently, in 1956, 11 acres of land in Cheltenham had been acquired,
Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church, today, employing classical
Armenian architecture, may be found at 101 Ashmead Road in Cheltenham;
its consecration, September 18, 1966.
St. Gregory The Illuminator was the one church to remain, albeit
on its periphery, in Philadelphia. Sixteenth and Oxford was sold
during February 1966. But the parish had already previously decided
to relocate. The Morgan Estate, a 7 1/2 acre property at 8701 Ridge
Avenue became available and on September 13, 1959, a ground-blessing
ceremony took place. Consecration of their church, its structure of
traditional Armenian architecture, was held on May 20, 21, 1967. Many
years later, in September of 2010, the church complex was enhanced
by an adjoining Founder’s Hall.
Despite all that has rippled through our region these many years,
it can be said, that today, fostered by a spirit of cooperation and
pride, the fabric of accommodation blankets our society.
The creation of the Philadelphia Inter-Communal Committee in the early
1960s is a case in point. Three times a year, all five churches come
together, alternating facilities, to commemorate Sts. Vartanatz,
Armenian Martyrs’ Day and October Cultural Month.
For over 30 years, PAND, Philadelphia’s Nor Daree -New Year’s Eve
Celebration- has been hosted by a coalition, representative again,
of all five churches. This spirit of cooperation has been tempered
by the Armenian Sisters’ Academy. Its establishment 46 years ago
has brought together children, parents and grandparents, who in all
probability may not have, in any other circumstance, met one another,
becoming acquaintances, colleagues, even friends.
Continuing, a broad-based Genocide Walk-A-Thon Committee, confirms
the commitment of 3rd and 4th generation Philadelphia Armenians to
the memory of our hallowed Martyrs. And while, admittedly mundane, a
group, however modest, of senior citizens, again representative of all
five churches, come together on Wednesdays for a meal and camaraderie.
In addition to the above, a series of ad hoc committees, prompted
by extraordinary circumstances and cemented by shared values and
tragedies, confirms the obligation of Philadelphia Armenians to one
another. The Armen Ounjian Fund is one such example. The Bicentennial
Commemorative Committee culminating with the statue Meher being
donated to the City of Philadelphia was a second. And most recently,
the successful drive to place an appropriate memorial at the grave
site of Khatchadour (Paul) Garabedian, an Armenian Civil War veteran .
In all, no small accomplishment. Perhaps there’s hope after all.
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From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress