“God’s greatest gift”: White Plains parish celebrates the tenth anniversary of its church
A church built to last
by Gregory Lima
Published: Monday December 01, 2008
White Plains, N.Y. - The church in the New York countryside stretches out on its patch of grass and stone like a somewhat exotic wanderer that has found home and settled in. Its distinctive architecture speaks to your eyes of its identity, the expression of an unmistakable spirit and people, confirmed by the flag of Armenia raised high before it.
Here is the young Church of Saint Gregory the Enlightener, one among the new churches that have risen to the formidable challenge of extending sustainable roots in America as a growing part of a hyphenated new Armenia.
On this December 6, St. Gregory the Enlightener Church at White Plains in suburban Westchester, N.Y., celebrates the tenth anniversary of its consecration. The occasion demonstrates how people of faith can not only raise stone and mortar to create a spiritual home - a bridge of continuity over centuries and continents - but also in that process meet and interact to form a diverse and vibrant community.
The manner in which this community has grown as an interactive parish with mutually nourishing ties to Armenia offers a hopeful portend of the future of the Armenian diaspora in America.
This church would not have been possible unless its formation answered in a serious and sustained manner an emptiness and a need in the people who became the parishioners. Nor would it have been possible in the form it has taken without the Reverend Father Karekin Kasparian, his inclusive style and focus on the Armenian heritage as a worthy and living part of being a contemporary American in the modern scene.
Here is modern Armenia of the diaspora - an elective Armenia - not particularly tied to the heavy constraints of the reality of the Armenian homeland. It is consequential nevertheless, with its own reality and constraints, tied forever to the effects of the Genocide and the remade lives of the scattered survivors and their children. We are now in the era of the grandchildren and their children. It has its special challenges.
St. Gregory's is first and foremost an Armenian Apostolic Church with all that the preaching of the gospel of Christ entails in liturgy and tradition, with an altar over which is inscribed God Is Love in English and Armenian. Here is a church of beautiful choral voices, the scent of incense, rich vestments, and glowing candles. But it is not a church that dwells little further than its own walls. It started as a church without a wall of its own decades earlier, and it grew strong without walls. Its strength, its freshness, and perhaps its mission lies in the fact that it was a true community of Christians, even when at times it had no place else to meet but in a synagogue.
The idea of starting a church here began with the exodus from New York City to isolated private dwellings in the distant suburban green hills beyond the tangled urban highrise. Armenian families were part of the trend that scattered old neighborhoods, dissipating first, second, and sometimes even third generation interrelationships. As much psychological as physical, virtual isolation created the felt need for a more accessible new church for worship, a place to meet the rites of passage and a school where the children could learn the Armenian language and participate in the culture that is its provenance.
The project famously began seriously in 1971 when a small group of Armenians each put up $50 as a start, and then scoured the telephone books seeking the names of more Armenians in the area to join in. This early community development, the names of the people involved, the joint efforts, the volunteer labor, and the fund raising has become the stuff of parish legend.
A substantial step in realizing the idea of building a new church soon occurred with the discovery of a group of Armenians residing at St. Vladimir's, a Russian Orthodox Seminary at Harrison, New York. The Armenians were relocating their own seminary, St. Nersess.
Hovhannes Kasparian, Dean of St. Nersess Seminary, had earlier initiated Armenian heritage summer study seminars (continued to this day) conducted at various locations in the United States. Sponsored by St. Nersess, the seminars stressed Armenian history, rituals, culture, arts, and the spiritual imperatives of the Christian religion. He invited the community to join in similar studies through monthly cultural/educational gatherings and went on to set up Armenian language classes with three of the seminarians as teachers.
With his appointment by the Diocese as spiritual advisor to the Armenians in Westchester, the permission to form a new parish was received from Archbishop Torkom Manoogian. Soon thereafter Dean Hovhannes was ordained as Fr. Karekin and in addition to his other duties, he became the pastor of the new parish.
With no church of its own, the parish had to find places to worship. Among the places they would gather was a Seventh-day Adventist Church, for which they had to construct their own altar. They now became a wandering church with a folding altar. When the synagogue at New Rochelle offered them the use of the temple for Christian service, they added it to what was to become one of seven homes, the sixth of which, on their first purchased property, was a three-car garage the parishioners themselves converted to a church.
It is the palpable sense of being a church outside confining walls, of behaving in one's heart and spirit as an Armenian Christian in daily and communal life that first attracted and still holds in common purpose many of today's parishioners.
To be a practicing Christian outside the walls of the church is aided today by all that has found home within the church's atrium, the auditorium, the offices, and in the classrooms of the park-like church compound, starting with the Parish Council elected by the community and whose vital role in this achievement from its inception decades ago to this day needs a commemorative volume of its own.