Since I didn’t post any images of the actual Christmas celebration inside the Holy Cross Cathedral in Montebello, I thought it would be interesting to show the moment when the blessing of the water occurs on the altar. It is a very moving moment, entirely wrapped in a fog of incense and chants.
On January 6, Eric and I have had the pleasure to witness the Armenian Christmas celebration at the Holy Cross Cathedral in Montebello.
The structure showcases some very interesting elements; in particular, the presence of theatre-like curtains separating the altar from the rest of the church. During the liturgy, the curtains opened and closed a few times, emphasizing the theatricality of their powerful celebration.
Underneath you can see a few images of details present in the building.
Detail of wooden cross sculpted at the base of the Bishop Chair with a stained glass in the background
The Armenian community of California has deep Christian roots. The Gospel was brought to Armenia by the apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew in the First Century, and the Armenians were the first people to convert to Christianity as a nation in the year 301, when Christianity was still an illegal minority religion in the Roman Empire. They have retained a distinct form of Orthodox Christianity throughout their history as a people. They are not Eastern Orthodox, but Oriental Orthodox, a distinction they share with Christians of the Coptic, Ethiopian, Eritrean, Syrian and Malankara (Indian) traditions, all descended from the ancient patriarchate of Alexandria. Yet the Armenian Christian tradition is unique.
By the early 1800s, small numbers of Armenians began to immigrate to the United States, and their numbers increased in the late 1800s as they sought to escape persecution in the Ottoman Empire. By 1891, they had constructed the first Armenian church to be dedicated in the Western Hemisphere, The Church of Our Savior in Worcester, Mass.
Church of Our Savior, Worcester, Mass., circa 1891
And yet it is in the vast Central Valley that any California history of Armenians must begin. A large number of Armenian immigrants began to settle in the Fresno area by 1871. After several years of celebrating Divine Liturgy in local Protestant and Episcopal churches, the Fresno Armenian community constructed and dedicated the second Armenian church in the Western Hemisphere at F and Monterey Streets in 1900, Holy Trinity Church. That church was destroyed by fire in 1913, and ground was broken for a new church less than four months later at Ventura and M Streets in downtown Fresno. By 1914, the new church was built and dedicated. The new Holy Trinity Church was the first church in the United States built according to the principles of traditional Armenian architecture, although it was a Victorian adaptation of those concepts. It was designed by the first Armenian architect in America, Boghos Kondrajian (Lawrence Cone). Holy Trinity Church served as the cathedral for the new Western Diocese of the Armenian Church when it was established in 1927 (then called the California Prelacy).
Holy Trinity Church, Fresno
By 1907 an Armenian community had begun to develop in Los Angeles, and accordingly they sought the services of a priest from Fresno to celebrate the Badarak (Divine Liturgy) for them. Their Sunday worship was made possible by the hospitality of local Episcopal congregations, who allowed the Armenians the use of their churches (a close relationship between Armenians and Episcopalians in California made this a common arrangement). In 1921 the growing Armenian community bought a lot downtown at 420 E. 20th St., at Maple Street (in today’s Garment District) and completed the construction of Holy Cross Church in 1923, the first Armenian church built in Southern California.
Exterior of the first Holy Cross Church in downtown Los Angeles, circa 1923
Interior of first Holy Cross Church
In 1953, the congregation of Holy Cross Church chose to be aligned with the Catholicos of Cilicia in Lebanon rather than the Catholicos of Etchmiadzin in Armenia, as they had been to that point. The Cilicia jurisdiction of Armenians is represented in California by the Western Prelacy, based in La Crescenta with eight parishes; while the Etchmiadzin jurisdiction, the Western Diocese, is based in Burbank with 34 parishes. (That the Armenian Church has two branches, or catholicosates, is an historical anomaly and is merely jurisdictional, involving no disagreements in theology or practice.)
By the late 1950s, the dynamic and growing community of Holy Cross had outgrown their facilities downtown and in 1960 purchased land in Pico Rivera for a new school. The school opened in 1965, and it was decided by the congregation to build a new church in nearby Montebello on a five-acre plot on Lincoln Avenue, purchased in 1976. Plans for a new church building in the classical Armenian style were drawn up. The old church on 20th Street was sold to a Korean Methodist congregation and the final Badarak was celebrated there in July of 1978.
For the next three years, liturgy was celebrated in the school cafeteria as the congregation struggled — with great personal sacrifices — to raise funds for the new church building. They broke ground in 1980 and the first Badarak was celebrated in the new church in 1981. The church was finally consecrated in 1984 as the cathedral of the Western Prelacy.
Holy Cross Cathedral under construction
As the Southland’s first Armenian church, Holy Cross Cathedral claims as its spiritual children a number of other local Armenian churches. A true pioneering congregation, its status as a cathedral is a testament to the legacy it has given to the Armenian community of Southern California.
Many thanks to Fr. Ashod Kambourian, pastor of Holy Cross Cathedral, and Dr. Hagop Dikranian, board chairman, for their hospitality and for providing the archival photos and materials for the church history.