Guests gathered in the Hovnanian Armenian School Banquet Hall
Guests gathered in the Hovnanian Armenian School Banquet Hall

— Taleen Babayan

Though thousands of miles away from the St. Giragos Armenian Church in Dikranagerd, Turkey, Armenians from the tri-state area filled the Hovnanian Armenian School Banquet Hall in New Milford, NJ, to capacity on Saturday evening, May 14 to learn more about this historic church and raise money for its renovation project.

The benefit night – under the auspices of His Eminence Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Primate of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern) with the participation of His Eminence Archbishop Aram Atesian, Vicar General of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, and organized by the St. Giragos Armenian Church Restoration Committee (Eastern USA) – served as an opportunity to familiarize attendees with this symbolic church and stress its need for restoration.

After a warm welcome by masters of ceremonies and member of the St. Giragos Armenian Church Restoration Committee (Eastern USA) Hirant Gulian, Archbishop Khajag Barsamian delivered inspiring remarks, emphasizing that historic Armenian churches have to be rebuilt so Armenian life can continue, citing the recent renovations of the Holy Cross Armenian Church on the island of Akh’tamar and St. Krikor Church in Kesaria.

“It is important for us to announce to the world that Armenian Christians lived on those lands,” said the Primate. “And we believe in the future, Christians can again live on those lands, because those are Armenian lands.”

Well-known journalist and historian Osman Köker — who travelled from Istanbul to attend the event — took the time to present postcard images of Armenians in Diyarbekir 100 years ago. The vignettes were part of a collection of postcards included in his book, “Armenians in Turkey 100 Years Ago,” which were on display at an exhibition in Yerevan in 2009 and are currently on view at the Armenian Library Museum of America in Watertown, MA.

Also travelling from afar to be present was Vartkes Ergun Ayik, Parish Council Chairman of St. Giragos Armenian Church. Ayik said the church was first built in 1518 and had a complete restoration in 1882 following a fire, making it the largest Armenian basilica in Anatolia to this day. Citing the total construction cost at close to $3 million dollars, he said half of the construction costs were already raised but more was needed to reach the fundraising goal. St. Giragos Armenian Church – the first church in Anatolia to be restored by Armenians – will remain in possession of the Armenian community, under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

“This is not a project for Dikranagerdtzi Armenians or Armenians in Turkey,” said Ayik, while images of the interior and exterior of the St. Giragos Armenian Church flashed behind him on a screen. “This is a project for all Armenians spread all over the world.” Following his remarks, Archbishop Atesian presented Ayik with a golden medal of Dikran the Great, a gift from the organizing committee in appreciation of his dedication to the church’s reconstruction efforts.

Empowering the audience, His Eminence Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, Diocesan Legate, who also delivered the evening’s invocation, stressed the importance of raising money to save the St. Giragos Armenian Church.

“You need to invest in preserving your heritage,” said Archbishop Aykazian. He noted that the money raised will go to restoring the sacred architecture of the St. Giragos Armenian Church, from the altar to the baptismal font.

In his remarks, Archbishop Atesian said that there are 70 families in Dikranagerd who are Armenian and that many more from nearby cities will benefit from the restoration. He noted that a number of Armenians in the area are reluctant to openly acknowledge their Christian identity, but provided hope by saying that with enough guidance and encouragement, they will embrace their heritage.

“These people need to realize that their fathers and their grandfathers were Armenian,” said Archbishop Atesian. “But they need priests, someone to help them return to their roots and to their church.”

Following a “Dikranagerd” – style dinner, guests enjoyed music by renowned Armenian singer Onnik Dinkjian and his band.

To learn more about how to contribute towards the reconstruction of St. Giragos Armenian Church, please call the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern), which is handling all donations, at 212.686.0710.

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