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.
His Holiness Karekin II, Archbishop Hovnan Derderian and others release doves at cathedral groundbreaking
We were sorry to miss the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Armenian cathedral in Burbank on October 2. His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians, presided over the event as part of his patriarchal visit to the United States. The milestone was due to the hard work and winning ways of Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, Primate of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America. Details are at the diocesan website. No word yet on when the cathedral will be completed, although we heard it will take about two years.
His Holiness Karekin II arrives at cathedral groundbreaking
Earthquakes play a major role in the history of California’s cathedrals. In the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906, among the thousands of buildings destroyed were Old St. Mary’s Cathedral (1854), St. Francis Pro-cathedral (1849) and the pro-cathedral predecessor of Grace Cathedral. The Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 doomed Oakland’s Cathedral of St. Francis de Sales (1893) and San Francisco’s Greek Orthodox Annunciation Cathedral (1921) while the 1994 Northridge earthquake spelled the end for the Cathedral of St. Vibiana (1876) in Los Angeles and caused the Armenian diocese to abandon St. John Cathedral (1942) in Hollywood.
St. Francis Pro-cathedral and Old St. Mary’s Cathedral in ruins after the 1906 earthquake. Both were later rebuilt.
A statue of St. Emydius held a prominent place in the Cathedral of St. Vibiana. He is traditionally invoked against earthquakes. So what happened? Was Emydius asleep at the switch?
Emydius (also spelled Emidius or Emydigius) was a fourth-century German pagan who accepted Christianity. With a new convert’s zeal, he smashed a pagan idol in a temple in Rome. To save him from the authorities, Pope Marcellinus (or Marcellus I; the accounts are unclear) sent him into hiding as bishop for the region of Ascoli Piceno, where he was an effective missionary, baptizing many people. He was beheaded during the persecution under Diocletian. In 1703, the people of Ascoli Piceno invoked the protection of their first bishop during a violent earthquake, and gave him the credit when their city was left intact. Emydius became a popular saint in Los Angeles and San Francisco, for obvious reasons.
From the life of Emydius we learn something important about prayers of petition. First of all, the communion of saints is not a new pantheon of little gods with magical power over various natural events, or protectors we pray to so our lives may be more comfortable or prosperous. We ask the intercession of the saints in the same way we ask our living friends to pray for us; they pray to God, who alone has the power to intervene in human lives. More importantly, Emydius was a martyr. He believed there were more important things than just surviving or living a life free from hardship.
When faced with the witness of a martyr, we recall especially the petitionary attitude of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane the night he was arrested: “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass by me. But if not, your will be done.” This is the proper Christian approach when we ask anything of God: resignation to the fact that we do not always know what is best. We must have a loving trust in God to accept what comes our way, knowing that God will always pull good from evil, triumph from tragedy, power from pain.
St. Mary’s Cathedral (1891; the second of three San Francisco Catholic cathedrals of that name) was spared devastation in the 1906 earthquake and became a relief center feeding 2,000 people a day in the aftermath of the disaster. It was finally destroyed by fire in 1962.
I was living in one of the Park La Brea towers (a large apartment complex in the Miracle Mile District) in 1994 when the Northridge quake hit. My apartment was a mess; furniture and bookshelves toppled, dishes and kitchen utensils covering the floor, hundreds of books strewn about, and plaster rubble all over everything. (My two cats were so traumatized they would not emerge from under the bed for two days.) I went downstairs, and there my neighbors began to gather — people I had never met who lived in my building, some of them I had never even seen.
Of course I knew what would happen, because we Angelenos are no strangers to catastrophe. Just like in the riots two years before, we sat down and talked, exchanged stories, then the food began to show up. Everybody brought whatever they had to eat to the park in front of our building and the food became common property. We brought cars around, turned on the car radios to find out what was happening in the rest of the city. We learned about each other, because we had to. There was no electricity, no water, no television, no Internet. We exchanged advice and experience from previous earthquakes and when it got dark we all brought down to the park whatever candles we had to sit up late into the night talking.
Now there were many people worse off than we were; some even died. The point of the story is that our faith in God doesn’t offer us a way out, but a way through. If we are attentive, we can even draw good from bad things that happen, with the grace of God and the prayers of St. Emydius.
Last Saturday I was very pleased to be introduced to what – to my eye – appeared to be one of the most impressive examples of religious architecture in Los Angeles.
St. John’s Episcopal Church is a mix of Romanesque style and Byzantine elements (which can easily recall Ravenna’s mosaics). The richness of the decorations inside the structure was a great source of inspiration for me, starting from the magnificent red-tinted cross floating above the altar, to the lateral golden chapel portraying a Medieval Virgin Mary.
Interior of the church, overall view
Anglican-Armenian Solemn Vespers Service, in a haze of incense
Archbishop Derderian (foreground) and Bishop Bruno incense the cross
Lighting of the candles at the beginning of the ceremony
I couldn’t have been more intrigued by all the “games of light” that take place in the church: they certainly contribute to creating a very mystical atmosphere that ranges from very dark corners to extremely lit wall sections. These variations are very visible in some images I will later post on this blog.
Bishop Jon Bruno preaches to the assembly
Today Francesco, Jim and I were able to do a photo shoot at St. John’s Episcopal Church in the West Adams/North University Park District of Los Angeles (near USC). We received a tip that that this beautiful and historic church, dedicated in 1924, will soon be named the pro-cathedral of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. We don’t feel we’re spilling any beans here, as Episcopal Bishop Jon Bruno referenced this fact publicly in his sermon there tonight at solemn vespers in honor of the 80th anniversary of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America.
(The Roman Catholic Archdiocese also commemorated the Armenian anniversary at a solemn vespers service jointly presided over by Cardinal Roger Mahony and the Armenian primate Archbishop Hovnan Derderian a few weeks ago at St. James the Less Church in La Crescenta, which I also attended, flanked by Roman and Armenian deacons. There the Armenian primate made a gift of a hand-carved wooden crosier in the Armenian style to Cardinal Mahony, which Derderian jokingly said was made to the primate’s height, somewhat less that Mahony’s towering stature.)
We spent the afternoon taking many photos of the lovely Italian Romanesque interior of the soon-to-be pro-cathedral. And in the evening, we were blessed to participate in the solemn vespers service, jointly presided over by Bishop Bruno and Archbishop Derderian of the Armenian diocese. The service commemorated the Triumph of the Cross, a feast celebrated by both the Eastern and Western Churches on September 14.
During the service, Archbishop Derderian made a gift of a traditional Armenian khachkar, or stone cross, carved especially for the Episcopal Diocese (as well as an Armenian pectoral cross which Bishop Bruno immediately wore, and hand-written icons for suffragan bishops Chester Talton and Sergio Carranza). The service was attended by clergy and laity of both traditions, and music from both Armenian and Episcopal choirs made for a very prayerful experience. I was pleased to run into my friend Matthew Ash of the Armenian diocese, who has been ordained a deacon! Blessings to Matt on his new ministry. Another familiar face was Fr. Rick Byrum of Holy Trinity and St. Benedict Episcopal Church in Alhambra, who will be my roomie on our upcoming interfaith pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
The entire day was wonderful, and we owe special thanks to Canon Mark Kowalewski, rector of St. John’s; Fr. Dan Ade, senior associate of St. John’s; and of course my good friend Dr. Gwynne Guibord, ecumenical and interfaith officer of the Episcopal diocese, for their gracious hospitality.
Look for Francesco to post some amazing photos of this day shortly.