First American-Born Bishop Presides over ACYOA Weekend

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By Harry Kezelian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

MILWAUKEE, Wisc. — The youth convention in January, 1946 at which the Armeian Church Youth Organizaiton of America (ACYOA) was founded, was presided over by a clergyman born in Aintab, Historic Cilician Armenia – the late renowned theologian and administrator Archbishop Tiran Nersoyan.  Nersoyan’s dream was to transfer the beliefs, theology, history and spirit of the Armenian Church to a generation born in America to parents who fled here after the Armenian Genocide. That dream has long been realized and Nersoyan’s legacy has been the Armenian-American community of today with its values and ideals.

St. Vartan Cathedral was one realization of the dream, and St. Nersess Armenian Seminary was another, along with the many American-born clergy that it has produced. But perhaps the ultimate culmination of Nersoyan’s dream was realized this past Memorial Day weekend, in Milwaukee, as the Annual General Assembly and Sports Weekend of the organization he founded, the ACYOA, was presided over for the first time by an American-born bishop and primate, Bishop Daniel Findikyan of the Eastern Diocese.

Findikyan was born in Fort Worth, Texas, and raised in Binghamton, NY. His father was from Istanbul, but the future bishop grew up in the atmosphere of the Armenian-American community that the ACYOA had given birth to, with an early mentor being Fr. Kevork Arakelian, the first American-born priest to graduate from St. Nersess. But one did not need to know that backstory to appreciate the passing of the torch that took place on Memorial Day weekend. Fr. Avedis Kalayjian, pastor of the host parish, St. Mesrob Armenian Church of Racine, is himself an American-born graduate of St. Nersess, son of a priest, and within recent memory was an ardent member of the ACYOA. His Yeretzgin, Karen Khatchadourian, born in New Jersey of Dikranagerd lineage, was an equally ardent ACYOA member at the same time, if not more so. They were two of the most important mentors to the next age group of ACYOA members, who led the organization up to this year, when a new generation became fully ensconced in leadership roles.

Emily Janikian and Alina Grigorian of Racine did a splendid job as co-chairs of the weekend, with the General Assembly held at the Milwaukee Airport Crowne Plaza Hotel, the basketball and volleyball tournaments, the mixer held at a popular Milwaukee brewery, the dance held at the Harley-Davidson Museum and the spectacular banquet-dinner-dance held at the hotel ballroom. Grigorian, a third-generation ACYOA member was elected for the first time to the ACYOA Central Council and inducted with proud parents Avak and Meline Grigorian looking on, along with very proud grandmother “Medzmyrig” Naomi Zeytoonian, organizing committee member of the 1956 ACYOA Convention in Washington, D.C., and contributor to this newspaper. Sona Dagley (daughter of the late Fr. Haroutiun and Yn. Patricia Dagley) and Melissa Mardoian (daughter of Diocesan Council member Paul Mardoian and ardent ACYOA alumna, wife Susan Mardoian) were re-elected to Central Council, with Sona being chosen as the next chairwoman of the ACYOA. If one could possibly need more proof of the torch being passed to the next generation, it was fully in evidence at the Sunday night banquet.

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After an emotional Badarak in Racine celebrated by Bishop Daniel – his first as ordained bishop in one of the parishes of his diocese – the events continued as participants got ready for the main event, the banquet and dance on Sunday night. All ACYOA Alumni and local Armenian community members were invited to this very special event, and many of the alumni and parents buzzed during the cocktail hour as they waited for the “kids” to arrive. Once the banquet began, a surreal aura enveloped the room as Fr. Avedis Kalayjian presided, an individual who not too long ago was known as Deacon Saro and was an outspoken delegate at ACYOA General Assemblies. His wife, Yeretzgin Karen, got up to speak and it was hard to believe that this woman who had spent so much time as a representative of the “youth” was now the queen of the evening. The crowd cheered as it was announced that co-chair Emily Janikian had been engaged to be married only a few months ago yet had resolutely continued to work to plan the successful weekend. Newly elected Central Council member Grigorian, radiant in a long-sleeved red evening gown, thanked the attendees and participants. With parents, alumni, friends, and ACYOA members filling the room, looking at leaders who emerged from their own ranks to preside over the organization in the love of Christ, a feeling of familial togetherness filled the room.

And finally….the dancing began! And what dancing! Whoever said that young people didn’t appreciate traditional Armenian music anymore would have been stunned at the sight. The band was composed entirely of fellow ACYOA members with the youngest musician being a senior in high school. But this was a very special group of people. ACYOA alum and Chicago resident Shant Paklaian kept a steady beat on the dumbeg, and 18-year old blossoming talent Michael Kamalian of Wisconsin wailed away on the clarinet. But the heart and soul of the band were brothers Phillip and Andrew Hagopian from Fresno playing oud and guitar and taking turns with their spirited Armenian vocals. These two young men in their early 20s have learned their art, and learned it amazingly well for their age, from their grandfather, legendary Armenian oud master (and California ACYO alumnus), Richard Hagopian. The driven music of this group of 4 young men, billed as “the Kef Time Legacy Band” had the group of some 300 or so of their peers dancing all night long, with only one very short break, including folk dances not seen at Sports Weekend since the last millennium. It would not be an exaggeration to say that they played better and with more authenticity and soul than most musicians twice their age.

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