By Florence Avakian
PARAMUS, NJ – “The AMAA (Armenian Missionary Association of America) has been in my blood from an early age,” stated Dr. Raffy Hovanessian in a telephone conversation with this writer. The eminent community activist will be the Master of Ceremonies for the AMAA Centennial Banquet. He will be sharing the honors with AMAA leaders and banquet co-chairs Drs. Nurhan and Celeste Telfeyan Helvacian.
The banquet on the east coast will take place on Saturday evening, October 21, at the elegant Glenpointe Marriott in Teaneck, New Jersey. In October 2018, the AMAA will crown its Centennial celebrations with a banquet in California.
Dr. Hovanessian who has been intimately associated with the AMAA since childhood was born in Jerusalem to parents who were orphans, and was baptized in the St. Hresdagabed Armenian Apostolic church. His mother hailed from Yozgat, and his father’s family was from Arapkir where they lost more than 30 family members during the Genocide.
His family was forced to leave his birthplace during the Arab-Israeli war, went to Aleppo, Syria where he received his secondary and the first two years of his college education in schools run by the Evangelical church. His mother, who was a nurse, took care of the survivors of the Genocide in Aleppo, giving injections, doing home deliveries, and “charging nothing,” Dr. Hovanessian pointed out.
“My father was a shoemaker and made a decent living,” he related, and revealed that his father in the orphanage did not know his family name, but because Dr. Raffy’s paternal grandfather’s name was Hovaness, the family name became Hovanessian. However, he found out later that he was really a Hamalian.
Wanted to Be a Missionary
“It was in Aleppo that I received my basic Christian education in the Sunday school and Junior Youth Group of the Evangelical church which welcomed us with very open arms,” he recalled, relating that his father became a close friend with the father of Zaven Khanjian (currently AMAA Executive Director and CEO). “Our families always celebrated Easter and New Year together. And even before going into the medical field, my ambition was to become a missionary like Albert Schweitzer.”
Inspired by his mother to become a doctor, the young Raffy continued his medical studies at the renowned American University of Beirut (AUB) where he specialized in Internal Medicine and Gastroenterology, finally concluding his instruction at Johns Hopkins University. Eleven members of his family became doctors.
While he was at AUB, the Armenian Missionary Association of America established the Haigazian College. The founding president was Rev. Dr. John Markarian, now 100 years old. In medical school, he recalled that his “good friends and classmates were Evangelicals” like Dr. Missak Abdulian, Dr. Sarkis Tilkian and Dr. Hrair Gulesserian and added that many of the AMAA sponsored and supported minsters came from Beirut’s Near East School of Theology.
Drafted into the U.S. army as a major, he put his medical education to good use during the Vietnam War, focusing on infectious diseases of the stomach and colon during his assignment at the Fort Knox, Kentucky army camp. Following one year in group practice in Munster, Indiana, Dr. Hovanessian went into private practice from 1970 to 2005. During this period, he and his family attended Sts. Joachim and Ann Apostolic church. His immediate family includes art curator wife Victoria Shoghag (nee Varjabedian), a son, two daughters and seven grandchildren.
Attachment Never Severed
“My attachment to the Evangelical church has never been severed,” Dr. Hovanessian stated definitively. “As a Christian, I have been educated in its school system. Most of the students in Aleppo and Beirut who attended the Evangelical schools were not Evangelicals, and the schools survived because of the AMAA support.
“I am an Armenian Christian who belongs to any Armenian church,” he stated, revealing that his wife’s family from Marash included 23 archpriests. “However, I am a good Christian today because of the Evangelical education I received. They are for the service that Christ was speaking about,” Dr. Hovanessian declared without hesitation.
Dr. Raffy A. Hovanessian has been President of the Medical Staff at Mercy Hospital, of the Alpha Omega Honor Medical Society, and of the Asian American Medical Society. He has also served as Chairman of the Department of Medicine at both Mercy Hospital, and Methodist Hospital, and Chairman of Methodist Hospital’s Credentials Committee.
In the Armenian community, he has been a Board member of the Armenian Assembly, the AGBU, and the American University of Armenia. He has served as a Vice Chair and Delegate to the Armenian National Assembly at Etchmiadzin for the election of the Catholica in 1995 and 1999, Vice Chair of the Diocesan Council, and member of the Knights of Vartan.
In 2014, Dr. Hovanessian was honored as the Diocesan Armenian Church Member of the Year. In 2000, he received the Ellis Island Award, Etchmiadzin’s St. Gregory Medal in 1996, and Antelias’ Prince of Cilicia medallion in 1983.
AMAA Mission Comes from the Bible
For both Drs. Nurhan and Celeste Telfeyan Helvacian, the message that the AMAA lives up to is the word of Christ, “to love and help one another.” Dr. Nurhan Helvacian grew up in the Holy Cross Armenian Apostolic Church in New York, and started attending the Armenian Presbyterian Church in Paramus, NJ in 1992. In 2006, he started serving as a Board member of the AMAA, and since 2007 as the Treasurer of the Association.
Dr. Celeste hails from the well-known and dedicated Telfeyan family. She was baptized by the much-admired and prolific writer of books Rev. Antranig Bedikian. Her great uncle and grandfather were one of the deeply involved founders and dedicated philanthropists of both the Telfeyan Evangelical Fund and of the AMAA. The goal of the Telfeyan Evangelical Fund was initially to help young Armenian ministers. Much of the Telfeyan Fund donations, which allocate funds for various Armenian causes go through the AMAA. She is currently a board member of this Fund, and since 2010, Nurhan is also the treasurer.
Celeste’s grandmother, who was raised in a “very American Protestant church in a very Protestant American town” in Oklahoma. Celeste grew up in Manhasset, Long Island and attended the local Congregational Church.
Her father’s family came to America in the late 1800s from Kayseri, and went into the oriental rug importing and rug sale business. Her mother’s family had emigrated in 1918 from Istanbul. She remembers that her maternal grandfather, whose family hailed from Kharpert, had had a large scar on his neck. “During the Genocide they had tried to slit his throat, but he pretended to be dead so he would not be killed.”
Nurhan who was born in Istanbul, and whose maternal grandmother from Kayseri died of disease in the Genocide, commented that since joining the Evangelical church, spiritually he feels “more gratified and fulfilled in my Christian faith. I see our people express our faith in action, and feel that I am serving the Lord.” He said that the basic principles of the Protestants are following the Gospels with an emphasis on Christ’s message.
Visiting Armenia twice, in 2008, and in 2014 for the dedication of the new Avedisian School, Celeste remarked, “everyone in Armenia looked like somebody I knew.” Nurhan praised the AMAA programs and schools, day care centers, camps, and the AMAA medical mission trips to Armenia, which began in 2009.
Nurhan and Celeste who have two daughters and one grandson, said in unison, “the AMAA does wonderfully in its goals of promoting faith and doing benevolent works. We are both very proud to be part of this exemplary mission.”
Dr. Celeste Ann Telfeyan Helvacian, received a Doctor of Osteopathy from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, and is an anesthesiologist in The Valley Hospital in Ridgewood, NJ. She has previously been Assistant Professor of Anesthesiology at the Mount Sinai Medical Center, and at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and Director of Obstetric Anesthesiology at Weiler Hospital, and the Mount Sinai Services.
Dr. Nurhan “Mike” Helvacian, a PH.D in Economics from City University, NY, currently is Adjunct Professor Economics at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and provides economic consulting and statistical data analysis services. He has directed research and economic programs at IBM, AT&T, NCCI, and the National Bureau of Economic Research. He has written extensively in his specialized fields, and published in several professional booklets and journals.
The AMAA Centennial celebration banquet honoring benefactors Edward and Pamela Avedisian and Charles (posthumously) and Doreen Bilezikian will take place on October 21, 2017 at the Glenpointe Marriott in Teaneck, New Jersey. For information about the banquet, please call the AMAA offices in Paramus, NJ at 201-265-2607 or email [email protected].