Soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian (photo by Albin Lohr-Jones/Eastern Diocese)


The Nikolai Kachanov Singers
(Albin Lohr-Jones/Eastern Diocese)

By Taleen Babayan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

NEW YORK — Half a century after St. Vartan Cathedral was consecrated in a special ceremony, marking a symbolic moment in Armenian-American history, the community gathered to toast its 50th anniversary in a cultural program featuring a photo exhibition and sacred music concert on Saturday, May 5.

Honoring the weekend’s celebratory theme of “Promise, Progress, Presence,” the historic photo exhibition, which was unveiled in Yerevan Hall of the Eastern Diocese, delivered a visual journey to guests and traced the cathedral’s presence when the building was still a concept, all the way through its construction and memorable highlights of events and guests.

The exhibition, designed by the New York-based Johanna Goldfeld, offered never-before-seen photographs and detailed informative footnotes, spanning through 60 carefully selected photographs by the organizing committee, including Sandra Shahinian Leitner, Melanie Dadourian and Shoghag Hovanessian. Their collective goal, to depict the cathedral’s influential standing not only among Armenians, but also of the greater New York community and the world at large, was exemplified by the snapshots.

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“Armenian Americans brought a dream of many decades to fruition,” said Shahinian Leitner in her remarks, where she sketched a portrait of the year 1968 and placed the cathedral’s consecration into historical context. Among all the domestic turbulence, however, a symbol of Armenian Christian identity was erected, the first Armenian cathedral in the Western Hemisphere, which was dedicated on April 25, 1968 by the late Vasken I, Catholicos of All Armenians.

“From their early days in this country, the genocide survivors knew that an Armenian house of worship would be their home; their place of peace; and the emblem of centuries of faith that held them together as a community of believers,” she said.

It was a dream that was brought to fruition after decades of determined fundraising. The millions of dollars raised were reflected in the quality craftsmanship and intricate design of the cathedral, modeled after the 7th century St. Hripsime Church in Armenia and named in honor of St. Vartan Mamigonian, who died defending Armenian Christianity during the 5th century Battle of Avarayr.

Sandra Shahinian Leitner, a member of the Photography Exhibition Committee, delivering her remarks (photo by Albin Lohr-Jones/Eastern Diocese)


Shahinian Leitner drew a parallel between the soldiers on the battlefield and the genocide survivors, who both protected the Armenian Christian identity, noting, “it was a symbol to genocide survivors that they too overcame powerful forces at great cost to retain their Christian identity.”

She urged everyone to renew their commitment to the cathedral on its 50th anniversary and invited guests to peruse the photo exhibition and “witness the journey of our predecessors, become absorbed in their passion and commitment, and give thought to the ways of being part of this ongoing story.”

The thought-provoking photo timeline educated and evoked nostalgia for visitors, who themselves had been present at significant religious and cultural events throughout the cathedral’s history, from the One World Festival to pontifical visits by Catholicoi, to famous names who entered the sanctuary doors, notably Aram Khatchaturian, Alan Hovhannes, Jesse Jackson and Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Above all, the exhibition demonstrated the strength of unity among Armenians as well as the ecumenical community, who together created 50 years of storied history and were present not only for momentous occasions, but also gathered on the cathedral grounds during more solemn times, including the Artsakh movement and Armenia’s earthquake in 1988, as well as the Armenian Genocide centennial services in 2015, which were all shown through captivating images.

The exhibition also give viewers an interactive opportunity, through the writing of post-it notes on a creatively designed final panel, to share their thoughts on the cathedral’s future, and how they could be part of that future by helping invoke changes they themselves wanted to witness.

The evening continued with the Sacred Music Concert in the cathedral sanctuary in a program curated by pianist Sahan Arzruni and featuring award-winning performers, including clarinetist Narek Arutyunian, pianist Sahan Arzruni, soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, concert organist Haig Mardirosian, conductor Hovhannes Mirzoyan, flutist Sato Moughalian and The Nikolai Kachanov Singers, under the tutelage of Nikolai and Tamara Kachanov (with special appearances by tenors Sergey Tkachenko and Jason Weisinger and baritone Vagharshak Ohanyan), who performed a range of sacred and liturgical works by Komitas Vardapet, Alan Hovhaness, Hampartsoum Limondjian and Baghdasar Tbir.

Narek Arutyunyan (photo by Albin Lohr-Jones/Eastern Diocese)

The young voices of the next generation were also part of the program as students of the Hovnanian Armenian Day School, Holy Martyrs Armenian Day School and St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian School, sang the Hayr Mer and Pontifical Ode under the direction of conductor Khoren Mekanejian and organist Louise Yardumian.

“I don’t recall another occasion in New York when Armenian sacred music was featured exclusively in a concert setting,” said Arzruni, a Steinway artist who has recorded over 20 albums, who was specially requested by Archbishop Barsamian to organize a special program for the 50th anniversary. “I wanted to present the material in its purest form, for the sharagans to be realized in a way that was done traditionally and to present the Komitas Divine Liturgy in a way that Komitas heard in his inner ear, by male singers only and without the accompaniment of organ.”

For some of the performers, the evening was more than a concert. A number of them had grown up alongside the cathedral and remember its founding, including organist Dr. Haig Mardirosian, Dean Emeritus at University of Tampa and American University, who was at the time of the consecration was “a young performing musician at the cusp of a concert and academic career.”

“I became keenly aware of the singular position of St. Vartan Cathedral from the beginning,” said Mardirosian.

In the late 1960s he accepted several invitations by the late Patriarch Torkom Manoogian, to perform at the cathedral, particularly for Armenian Genocide commemorations. Performing in the sanctuary again almost 50 years later, he felt that “the promise of St. Vartan Cathedral had been faithfully fulfilled.”

“To hear the poetic and fluent music-making of my compatriots and colleagues on the program was to understand that the cathedral had satisfied the dreams of its creators, patrons, and stewards to be the center of aspiration, expression, morality, and art to which one returns again and again for the reminder of the best of human experience and heavenly aspiration,” said Mardirosian.

In his remarks, Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Primate of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern), congratulated the evening’s cultural programs and highlighted the cathedral’s “golden anniversary,” which was a “great opportunity to honor those who built the first Armenian cathedral in the United States.” He thanked the grand benefactors of the 50th anniversary, Nazar and Artemis Nazarian, as well as the support of the Dadourian Foundation, in addition to all of the committee members.

“We celebrate today as we look back and see all of the achievements of the past fifty years,” said Barsamian. “We also look forward to a great future with the leadership of our new American-born new Primate, Very Rev. Fr. Daniel Findikyan. May God bless you and all the souls of all those who built St. Vartan Cathedral.”

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