At the end of 1913, the Very Reverend Vagharshag Arshagouni, a former Prelate of Zeytoon, became the pastor of the Providence parish and he performed the first Christmas Holy Badarak in the newly purchased Church on January 20, 1914.
On June 7, 1914, St. Sahag and St. Mesrob Armenian Apostolic Church was consecrated by Bishop Moushegh Seropian assisted by Reverend Shahe Kasparian, Very Reverend Dripon Bidzagian, and Vicar General Reverend Manigian. The Very Reverend Arshagouni served until August 17, 1917 when he returned to his motherland as a volunteer. From August 1917 to February 1932 six clergymen served for short periods of time. Their names can be found in the complete listing of the clergymen.
A most shocking incident took place on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1933 in the Holy Cross Church in New York when the then Primate, Archbishop Leon Tourian met his death at the hands of Armenian assassins during celebration of the Divine Liturgy. It brought great sorrow and grief to the entire Armenian community in America and filled its heart with indignation.
His Holiness Kevork VI, Catholicos of all Armenians in America, realizing the great sorrow felt in the hearts of Armenians, sent his delegate Archbishop Karekin Hovsepiants to console his people. So well did he fulfill his mission and so well-liked and respected was this extremely capable and saintly Archbishop that he was later elected Primate of America and subsequently Catholicos of Cilicia.
Archbishop Karekin Hovsepiants
In August 1938 the Parish Council invited a young clergyman from Jerusalem, Very Reverend Sion Manoogian to become the pastor of the Church. He served for almost eight years and this period was one of enthusiasm, organization, and reawakening since a new spirit was instilled in the people, and the Priest and Parish Council worked together in great harmony. This spirit enabled the Armenian community to grow morally, spiritually and financially. All organizations within the Church were inspired by the new pastor’s administrative capabilities and drive. He organized the Junior League, the Junior Ladies Aid Society (later the Women’s Guild) and reorganized the Sunday School.
Late in 1938 the 25th anniversary of the consecration of the Church was celebrated.
In appreciation of his leadership and accomplishments, it was requested that a recommendation be forwarded to the Ecclesiastical Council that Very Reverend Sion be elevated to the rank of Bishop. He was ordained Bishop in the spring of 1946 in Etchmiadzin by His Holiness Kevork VI. On his return he was accorded a very enthusiastic reception. Shortly thereafter, Bishop Sion left Providence to assume duties in the Detroit parish.
After his departure four clergymen served until 1950 when Reverend Shahe Altounian, a graduate of the Jerusalem Seminary and the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Cambridge, arrived in Providence. Reverend Shahe was later awarded a Masters Degree in Sacred Theology from Brown University. During this period the younger generation took a greater part in Church activities and a Men’s Club was started, the main purpose of which was to teach its members the background and administration of the Church. An envelope system of donations was successfully instituted. Der Shahe founded, edited and published a monthly newsletter called “Our Home”. During the mid-1950’s, a collection for the purchase of a printing press for Holy Etchmiadzin was successfully completed. In 1953, the fortieth anniversary of the church was celebrated. After nearly eight devoted years in office, on June 1, 1958, Reverend Shahe assumed a new pastorate in Oakland, California.
The trend toward younger clergymen now having been established, another capable, well-versed young clergyman was invited to Providence to succeed Reverend Shahe. Reverend Haik Donikian, who had been recently ordained by the Primate Archbishop Mampre Kalfayan, arrived and celebrated his first Holy Badarak in Providence on June 8, 1958. He was largely instrumental in finally constructing Egavian Auditorium next to the Church. The Egavian brothers, George, Edward and Larry, had donated funds for this purpose several years before, but for various reasons construction had been delayed.
On June 14, 1960, the most important singular historical event in the entire history of the church took place – the visit to Providence of His Holiness Vasken I, Cahtolicos of All Armenians. It was indeed a memorable event when His Holiness blessed the cornerstone of the new auditorium. The Catholicos conducted Vespar Services for an overflowing congregation and later presented to our Church a silver chalice, a beautiful watercolor painting of the Cathedral of Etchmiadzin and a stone tablet (khatchkar) inscribed with the traditional Armenian Cross. This was the first time in history that the Supreme Head of the Armenian Church had visited the United States. In his honor, a banquet of unparalleled proportions was given the evening of his visit at the Sheraton-Biltmore Hotel. Present were religious and governmental officials as well as an overflowing number of parishioners. During his visit the Vehapar awarded the Medal of Saint Gregory to Mr. Larry Egavian for outstanding service to the Armenian Church. Another member of our parish, Mr. Harry Burt Movsessian had previously received the same honor. Subsequently in 1982, Judge John K Najarian also received the Medal of Saint Gregory.
The celebration of the Golden Jubilee of the Church took place on October 6, 1963 in the Grand Ballroom of the Sheraton-Biltmore Hotel. In attendance were a large number of parishioners, as well as governmental and religious leaders., During an elaborate program, all the speakers commended us and wished us continued success. The new Interstate Highway, Route 95, had eliminated several of the streets close to the Church and left us with little space to park automobiles. Fortunately, the anniversary celebration was a financial as well as a social success, and seventeen thousand dollars were used to purchase properties on Jefferson and Orms Streets opposite the Church. The area today serves as a parking lot.
In 1964, Mr. and Mrs. Abraham Anjoorian donated 6.5 acres of land in Smithfield, Rhode Island to the Church for use as picnic grounds and camp site. Unfortunately, due to several circumstances, the land could not be used for its intended purposes. The 1987 Parish Assembly has authorized the eventual sale of the property. Of significant note in 1964 the formal acceptance of Saint Sahag and Saint Mesrob Armenian Apostolic Church into the Rhode Island Council of Churches. The Church improved relationships with other denominations largely due to the membership in the Council and the ecumenical movement generally. In 1965 about four hundred non-Armenians of various denominations attended special services to acquaint them with the Armenian Church rituals. For the first time we were invited to the consecration of Louis Gelineau, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Providence, in 1972. Archbishop Torkom Manoogian and the Parish Council hosted an Ecumenical Dinner in Bishop Gelineau’s honor.
For a two year period starting in 1965 Deacon Sarkis Sarkissian was assigned as an assistant to the Pastor and to oversee youth programs. In 1965 and again in 1970, His Beatitude, Patriarch Shnork Kalousdian of Istanbul, visited our parish. The Providence Chapter of the AC.Y.O.A hosted the National Convention in 1966. The Providence AC.Y.O.A also hosted the National Sports Weekend during Labor Day weekends 1978 and 1988.
We participated in the program to construct Saint Vartan Cathedral in New York City. A well organized fund raising campaign was brought to a successful conclusion. In 1968 the Cathedral became a reality and was consecrated by His Holiness, Vasken I, Catholicos of All Armenians. A pilgrimage was held, and over three hundred of our parishioners made the trip.
From 1968 to 1973, several nearby properties were purchased for purposes of future expansion. As a result of this, a mortgage of $88,000 remained until 1981 when a fund raising campaign to retire the debt was initiated by the then Very Reverend Vazken Keshishian.
The Men’s Club, which was reactivated in the latter part of 1968, held its first annual Sports Night honoring the Armenian Athlete of the Year. This award later became the Lt. Charles Yaghoobian, Jr. Memorial Award. Charles lost his life in the Vietnamese conflict. Today the Sports Award Committee in addition to presenting the Award also gives scholarships to deserving students.
The spirit of Christian brotherhood was never better demonstrated than by two singular gifts during our major renovation in 1969. The Providence Greek community donated their large, beautiful, valuable center chandelier to us. The newly-installed pews were from the Sacred Heart Catholic Church of West Warwick, Rhode Island. During the major renovation, the exterior was cleaned, and painted. The front and side were landscaped. The Church lobby floor was completely rebuilt and the lobby renovated. A new boiler was installed and the heating system modernized. The interior of the Church was painted in light colors; and the pews were replaced, refinished in light colors, and arranged in a manner such that a wide center aisle was created. Numbered lights were placed on both sides of the altar to assist parishioners in following the Church services. New carpets were placed on refinished floors. A new Baptismal Font was constructed and a sound system installed in the nave. All of the above were done in a manner that gave the Church a modern appearance. The total cost was seventy-five thousand dollars. The Electronic Bells, in the Church tower, which play Sharagans, were donated in 1970.
Our parish actively participated in the Ethnic Heritage Program of the Rhode Island Bicentennial Commission. The Armenian segment took place in the Grand Concourse of Warwick Mall in 1976. Cultural exhibits, books, ancient artifacts, folk dance exhibitions, and culinary delicacies were presented for two days to acquaint everyone with the contributions ofthe Armenians
Historically, Armenians have fought for individual freedoms ever since the Battle of Avarair in 451 AD. In modern times they have served in the armed forces of the United States of America during both World Wars and the Korean and Vietnamese conflicts. In the Church Hall can be found two cabinets – one containing name plates of those members who served in World War II, and the other of those who gave their lives to maintain our freedoms.
For many years, the Church has sponsored both youth and adult sports teams, primarily for basketball and softball. Their successes are attested by the many trophies which are exhibited in a display cabinet in the Church Hall.
Each year Vartanantz Day has been observed in February, Martyrs Day in April, and Cultural Month in October. In 1977, the Erepouni Cultural Society was organized with Hagop Ghajanian as chairman, for the purpose of conducting cultural programs and book sales on Armenian subjects. Today the organization continues to be active and has just started adult classes in Armenian.
The kitchen in Egavian Cultural Center was expanded and renovated in 1977. Air conditioning was installed in the auditorium largely through the efforts of our local A.C.Y.O.A. chapter. The Church continued gradual acquisition of near-by land.
During the “Great Blizzard” of 1978, four of our parishioners were stranded at Church for several days. An important award, the Diocesan Ararat Cross (Boy Scout), was presented to Michael Melikian, Jr. in 1979. Bingo was started in February 1979 and continues to generate substantial income for the Church.
The Armenian Cross on the tower, originally installed in 1935, was replaced in 1979 by virtue of a donation. Reverend Father Haik Donikian was assigned to Saint John’s Armenian Church in Southfield, Michigan in May 1980. In June, the then Very Reverend Vazken Keshishian was appointed our Parish Priest. A new secretary, Mrs. Mary Kazarian, replaced Mrs. Angel Kalashian who had served in that capacity for twenty-five years. The Women’s Guild established the Church Hokejash Committee, which provides memorial dinners during times of sorrow. One of the Very Reverend Keshishian’s first acts was to form a Senior Citizens Group.
He also initiated a fund drive to retire the debt created by the purchases of properties surrounding the Church. Renovation, painting and major restoration of the stained glass windows in the Church began at this time. After three years, Very Reverend Vazken was assigned to the newly-formed Diocese of Canada as Locum Tenens. Subsequently he was consecrated in Etchmiadzin as Bishop, and then Archbishop in Canada. He was succeeded in Providence by Very Reverend Shnork Kasparian who served until May of 1985, at which time he assumed the pastorate of Holy Shoghagat Armenian Church in Belleville, Illinois. During his tenure here he instituted Adult Bible Study classes.
Our next Pastor, Very Reverend Baret Yeretzian, assumed his duties at Saint Sahag and Saint Mesrob Armenian Apostolic Church in June 1985. He as appointed Vicar of the New England Region and directed the New England arrangements for the third Pastoral visit to the United States of His Holiness Vasken I, Catholicos of All Armenians in 1987. The renovation of the Church stained glass windows was completed. A new Church roof, a new dual-boiler heating system and circulating fans were also installed by 1987. Through a gift from the Ajootian family, two parcels of land were donated to the Church in late 1987. This completed Church ownership of all land from Egavian Cultural Center to Orms Street.
The year 1988 is a significant one in the history of the Armenian community for it marks the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Community of Providence, the 90th anniversary of our Diocese, the 75th anniversary of Saint Sahag and Saint Mesrob Armenian Apostolic Church and the 65th anniversary of the Choir. This joyous occasion is being highlighted by this evening’s banquet, at which dignitaries are present together with hundreds of our parishioners.