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Armenian Orthodoxy in NYC

The doorway to a mystical Eastern realm...
Looking at the outside of St. Illuminator's Cathedral on W.27th Street in Manhattan, it's rather hard to imagine that a rich and significant history resides there, but indeed it does. Upon stepping through the doors, its history becomes more apparent. Beautiful paintings reveal the story of Armenian Orthodoxy while high arches lift worshipers' eyes to the heavens. A strange foreign tongue adorns the walls and draws the reader closer to God.

Built in 1923, the building was originally a Protestant church, but by 1935 the Armenians took over and named it St. Illuminator's after the church's founder, St. Gregory the Illuminator - so called because he "enlightened the nation with the light of the Gospel." Today, the church has roughly 450 parishioners, but there are surprisingly large numbers Armenian adherents in the rest of New York City. A discussion with the priest, Father Mike (if you're reading this, Father, I'm sorry. Your last name is probably harder to spell than it is to pronounce) enlightened me on the background of Armenian Orthodoxy and the Church's beliefs.

The main altar

A History of Armenian Orthodoxy

Christianity first entered Armenia with St. Thaddeus and St. Bartholomew, both disciples of Christ. They started a small but devoted following of Armenians who were persecuted by their countrymen for almost 300 years. But in the early 4th century AD, a certain man named Gregory came to Armenia to free them.

Gregory was born in Cappadocia of noble birth and was raised a Christian. He entered Armenia during an extremely volatile time for Christians, as the current king, Tiridate, was very much opposed to the religion. For his preaching, he was thrown into a deep dark pit in the middle of the barren countryside and left to waste away. Luckily for him (and the future of Armenian Orthodoxy) a kind pagan woman brought him food every day, never much, but enough to keep him alive for several months.

During this time, King Tiridate took very ill. When his doctors could not help him, he took the advice of one of his Christian slaves who told him that Gregory was a great visionary who could cure him. He journeyed to the barren countryside and looked down into the deep dark pit to ask Gregory for his help. Gregory replied that God would help him if only he released him from the deep dark pit and allowed him to spread the faith. So King Tiridate did as he was told, and with the healing power of Jesus, his health was restored. Thus was King Tiridate converted in 301 AD, and soon afterward the entire kingdom of Armenia. And so Armenia became the first Christian nation.

In 303 St. Gregory experienced a vision of God in which he was told to build a mother church in the city of Vagharshapat. He built it and called it Holy Echmiadzin -meaning "the only begotten descended." And to this day it is the seat of the Catholicos, the highest councilor of the Armenian Church.

For centuries, the Armenians did not have their own written language. They spoke Armenian but wrote in either Greek or Syriac, which presented a problem with the readings during Mass for those who did not speak those languages. So in 406 St. Mezrob Mashdotz created the Armenian alphabet. And with St. Sahag, the leader of the church at the time, and several other "Holy Translators," he translated the Bible from Greek into Armenian. This period is known as the "Golden Age of Armenian History."

In 430 Persia took over Armenia and the Persian king, Yazdegert, issued an edict in 451 forcing all Armenians to abandon their faith and convert to Zoroastrianism. So the devout Armenians waged war upon Persia. But due to the comparatively small size of their army they were physically beaten. But not spiritually. They held on to their faith through persecution and massacres, and in 484 a new Persian king, King Peroz, made the Treaty of Nuarsak which enforced toleration of Christianity and all other religions within his empire.

The Armenians didn't get much of a break in the domination cycle once they finally threw off the shackles of the Persian Empire in 634, as they were again taken over in 654 by Arab rule. Fortunately, the Arabs were also relatively tolerant of their faith, and Arab rule in Armenia ended in 851. Armenians set up their own independent kingdom between the 9th and 11th centuries - the Kingdom of the Bagratids - and then another between 1150 and 1375 known as Cilicia or Lesser Armenia. But basically Armenia's history has been one of oppression as one group after another came in to take over their land. At the end of the Kingdom of Cilicia, Armenia was divided between Russia and the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans held their reign of terror until the early 20th century and the Russians continued to haggle the Armenians until the 1980's.

Armenian Orthodoxy has had a rough way to go historically. But its adherents have held on tightly to their faith, perhaps even more strongly than if they hadn't been persecuted by so many foreigners.

A Discussion of the Armenian Faith

Christianity is divided into two parts, Eastern and Western Christianity. The Eastern churches are known as orthodox - of which the Armenian Church is a part. This split occurred over a thousand years ago as the two major centers of Christianity, Rome and Byzantium slowly drifted apart. In 1054, church officials from the East and West declared their problems with each other, leading to a constant turmoil within the Church's hierarchy. The schism between the churches was finalized in 1204 when crusaders captured Constantinople.

Some of the differences between the East and West are as follows. The first is the issue of Papal supremacy. While the Roman Church sees the Pope as the infallible prince of God's earthly kingdom, the Eastern Church sees him only as the first in the order of a giant hierarchy. Where the West follows the Pope, the East follows councils, with many leaders making major decisions.

Some less important important differences are the East's rules about fasting. Leavened bread is used in Eastern masses. Clergy of the East are allowed to marry, and lay people are allowed to divorce. The Eastern Church does not teach about purgatory. While the Western Church takes a scholastic approach to its faith, the East relies more on mysticism.

There are also divisions within the Eastern Church. Armenian Orthodoxy, along with the Coptic, Syrian, Ethiopian and Indian Malabar Orthodoxies, is part of the Oriental Orthodoxy, or the non-Chalcedonian Orthodoxy. This group split off after the Council of Chalcedon, which ruled on some major points of the nature of God. Orientals place more credence in the belief that God is one, rather than three parts. At the same time, they do believe in the three personed God, just not exactly in the way the Catholic Church does. However, in 1990, a council brought the sects of Eastern Orthodoxy closer together. And on a similar note, the East and West were reconciled (although not quite united ) in 1965 with the Vatican II Council.

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