Armenian Cleric spreads faith's traditions


His Holiness Karekin II, the head of the worldwide Armenian Apostolic Church, consecrates the new St. Gregory the Illuminator Church altar on Monday in Pasadena.

His Holiness Karekin II, spiritual leader of the world's 10 million Armenians, visits with worshipers on a two-day trip to the Southland.

By Louis Sahagun, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
October 3, 2007

With the pouring of holy oil and the release of 50 white doves, the head of the worldwide Armenian Apostolic Church on Tuesday ended a tour of Southern California's Armenian American community, a trip highlighted by the groundbreaking for a cathedral and the consecration of a new church's altar.

The consecration with muron, or holy oil, of the pink marble altar at St. Gregory the Illuminator Church on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena was an apt metaphor for the unifying force of the Armenian church on the community of about 300,000 people in the region. The muron -- a mixture of herbs, flower extracts, spices, wine and olive oil -- has ties to an original batch mixed in Armenia at the church's founding 1,706 years ago.

The oil is replenished every seven years by pouring old into new. In a way, that was the role of His Holiness Karekin II during his pontifical visit, infusing the growing local church with the spirit and traditions of the nation that some local Armenians refer to as the Motherland.

Clad in robes of purple, light beige and burgundy embroidered in gold, with a black cowl denoting celibacy, Karekin presided over the consecration in a 90-minute service before about 1,000 worshipers. Karekin's personal blessings coincided with the 80th anniversary of the Burbank-based Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America. His presence was hailed as fitting acknowledgment of the region's stature as a burgeoning crossroads of Armenian American culture, business, religion and success.

There was a lot to be thankful for. Over the centuries the people of Armenia have been decimated and dispersed by war, conquest and genocide. But here, the Armenian American population has exploded over the last 20 years into one of the greatest concentrations of Armenians outside Armenia.

In his third trip to the United States, Karekin II's primary goal was to visit with East Coast congregations. The fact that he made time for a two-day swing through Southern California "symbolizes the importance of the community in terms of numbers and its financial ability to support the Holy See and the Armenian Republic itself," said Richard Dekmejian, director of the USC Institute of Armenian Studies.

On Monday night, amid acrid plumes of incense and bursts of chant and choir song, Karekin, patriarch of the world's 10 million Armenians, consecrated the altar at St. Gregory, continuing a river of sacraments and symbols that flows back to the year 301.

The ritual began with a welcoming ceremony in which five young girls wearing white veils and traditional floor-length blue dresses greeted Karekin at the church gates with a symbolic offering of bread, salt and water served on silver platters.

Karekin proceeded to the church entrance under a large silk canopy resting on four poles held by four prominent congregants. Along the way, priests waved incense burners, deacons rang bells and Karekin gently tapped bowed heads on each side of the procession with a fist-sized gold cross studded with gemstones.

Among the faithful was Joseph Melkonian, 55, a deacon at St. Gregory and a general contractor who built the exterior limestone walls of the $5-million domed church. "I feel a special connection between this moment and 301. Our church is unbeatable," Melkonian said.

Inside, the altar was washed with wine and water by its "godfathers," or major funders, including the Imasdounian brothers -- Vahe, Daniel and Vasken -- who donated $150,000 toward its construction.

"This is a very fulfilling day; a joyous, joyous achievement," said Vahe Imasdounian, chairman of the Armenian General Benevolent Union, the largest Armenian charitable organization in the United States. "Our souls are at rest."

Karekin took up a silver vessel shaped like a dove and poured muron into a chalice. Then, as the choir sang "alleluia, alleluia," he dipped his thumb into the oil and made the sign of the cross on the marble while intoning alone, "Blessed, anointed and sanctified be the top of this divine holy altar with this sign of the holy cross. . . ."

The ritual rendered St. Gregory, the first church built in Pasadena in 10 years, officially open for Holy Communion and worship. Karekin addressed the congregation in Armenian, and a priest then repeated the remarks in English.

"Orphaned from their homeland for centuries, traversing the road of the immigrant, many Armenians found refuge and safety in the United States by the grace and mercy of God," Karekin said. "The Western Diocese was founded as a testimony to the rebirth of Armenians."

"Through your assistance and contributions," he said, "countless programs in the spheres of Christian education and socioeconomic and cultural development are being realized in Armenia."

On Tuesday, he presided over the groundbreaking for a $12-million cathedral in the 3300 block of Glenoaks Boulevard in Burbank. The ceremony was attended by more than 500 worshipers, dignitaries and supporters of various faiths, some of them waving small red, blue and orange Armenian flags.

As work crews on earthmovers waited for the ceremony to end, Karekin told the crowd of his mission to restore old churches and build new ones. So far, more than 50 new churches worldwide have been consecrated under his leadership.

His newest house of prayer in Burbank, he said, "shall soon rise up from this ground to the heavens on the blessed land of America, where within her walls and under her roof, she shall keep bountiful the spirit of faith in Christ and national identity in the souls of our Armenian sons and daughters on the banks of the Pacific."


View an interactive photo gallery of Karekin II's visit at