PALM HARBOR, FL – Two distinguished individuals were honored for their support of the Armenian Church and the larger Armenian community at the annual Awards Banquet held as part of the 115th Diocesan Assembly in Palm Harbor, FL, on Friday evening, May 5.
Diocesan Primate Archbishop Khajag Barsamian presided over the banquet, which was hosted by St. Hagop Church of Pinellas Park, FL.
The award for the “Friend of the Armenians” was bestowed on U.S. Congressman Gus Bilirakis. A longtime supporter of Armenia and an advocate for Armenian Genocide recognition, Congressman Bilirakis has also been an outspoken proponent of preserving the Christian heritage in Turkey and the Middle East.
As the vice chair of the Congressional Armenian Caucus, he has worked to strengthen relations and economic cooperation between the U.S., Armenia, and Nagorno-Karabagh.
“This award means very much to me. I feel like I’m more than a friend—I’m a cousin,” Congressman Bilirakis said, referring to his Greek-American heritage.
He recalled hearing stories about the burning of Smyrna as a child, and being raised in a hardworking, pious Christian community. “We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors,” he said, “As long as they’re not forgotten, their sacrifice will continue to have meaning now and into the future.”
He went on to speak about his commitment to protecting Christians in the Middle East, creating opportunities for Orthodox church leaders to be heard by government officials, and pursuing efforts for Genocide recognition.
“Congressman Bilirakis, I want you to know that the entire Armenian Church community is grateful to you,” Archbishop Barsamian said. “We are proud to have such an honorable friend as you, lending your voice and strength to our own. I know you are a man of faith, and I want you to know that our prayers are always with you.”
Receiving this year’s “Armenian Church Member of the Year” award was Sandra Shahinian Leitner.
Ms. Shahinian Leitner has served the Armenian Church in a variety of capacities in her home parish of St. Leon Church of Fair Lawn, NJ, and on the Diocesan level. She is currently a Diocesan Trustee and board member of the Fund for Armenian Relief.
Ms. Shahinian Leitner recalled how she became involved in church leadership in her local parish and learned valuable lessons there that she took with her to other roles both on a Diocesan and global levels. She also noted the example of other women who have served the Armenian Church and laid the groundwork for women’s involvement in church leadership.
“My legacy is fleeting,” she had said in an interview prior to the awards banquet. “If anything, I hope that I have both touched individuals and influenced ways of thinking that will benefit us as a community of people who want to do good in the world.”
Both awards were presented by Archbishop Barsamian and Diocesan Council chair James Kalustian.
“Sandra puts all her energy, attention, and creativity into everything she is involved with—and it always leads to success,” Archbishop Barsamian said.
“On a personal level, Sandra is an individual of very fine character; honest, hard-working, and positive in outlook; a woman of grace, fine taste, and discernment,” he added. “She is friendly and generous with people from all walks of life.”
The Rev. Fr. Hovnan Demerjian, pastor of St. Hagop Church, spoke about the importance of keeping Christ at the center of our daily lives. He said it is up to the new generation to carry forward the legacy of the visionary founders of the Eastern Diocese.
“Our diocese is like Noah’s Ark—it delivered our people to safety after the Genocide,” he said. “Our ancestors built Armenian churches in America and said thanks to God, like Noah did.”
Stepan Serpekian, St. Hagop Church Assembly committee chair, welcomed the clergy, delegates, and parishioners to the celebratory evening. He expressed gratitude to the St. Hagop Church Assembly committee for their hard work in organizing the weekend’s meetings.
As St. Hagop Church is marking its 10th anniversary of consecration this year, parish council chair Dr. Michael Shahnasarian noted all the people who have contributed to building the community over the last decade. “We have great fellowship and a great community,” he said.
Aram Megerian served as the master of ceremonies. Susanna Hovhannisyan sang the national anthems of the U.S. and Armenia. Tatev Baroyan performed arias from Puccini and Babajanian.
LUTZ, FL – The 115th Diocesan Assembly was preceded by the annual clergy conference, held May 1 to 3, at the Bethany Center in Lutz, FL. Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Primate of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern), presided at the event where members of the clergy gathered for prayer, services, and a series of presentations on various aspects of the ministry.
Two visiting priests from Holy Etchmiadzin—the Rev. Fr. Arsen Mirzoyan and Rev. Fr. Sahak Sahakian—spoke about the church’s activities in Armenia. Fr. Mirzoyan spoke about Holy Etchmiadzin’s chancellery office, including its work to organize meetings of the Supreme Spiritual Council and the Ecclesiastical Representative Assembly. Fr. Sahakian spoke about the introduction of master’s and Ph.D. programs at the Gevorkian Theological Seminary.
Fr. Sahakian also read the message of His Holiness Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians. His Holiness reminded the clergy that they play a crucial role in strengthening the bond between young generations of Armenian Christians and the Armenian Church. He also encouraged clergy to continue making parish pilgrimages to Armenia and helping their local communities form bonds with the homeland.
The Rev. Fr. Hovhan Koja-Eynatyan reported on the activities of the Sacred Music Council, mentioning its publications, youth choir programs, fundraising efforts, and parish workshops. Fr. Gomidas Zohrabian reported on the Junior Choir subcommittee’s activities, highlighting the development of a Junior Choir Handbook, a calendar for parish visitations and workshops, and a promotional video.
The Very. Rev. Fr. Mesrop Parsamyan made a presentation called “Heart to Heart” on how clergy find peace and unity through their common worship experience. All the clergy discussed the topic further in small groups.
The Rev. Canon Michael and Mrs. Bonnie Jean Durning of the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida gave a talk titled “Creation of Policies for Prevention of Abuse and the Use of Social Media.” They covered the concept of creating and maintaining spaces free from harassment, abuse, and exploitation. They also gave advice on when and how clergy should respond to evidence of abuse in a parish or other church-sponsored settings.
Jay Einspanier of Villanova University gave a presentation on marketing strategies for parish use.
Dn. Artur Petrosyan of the Diocese spoke about the new Creative Ministries project. He encouraged parishes to get involved by promoting the videos and resources in their communities, providing suggestions, and offering financial assistance.
Rev. Fr. Tavit Boyajian and Rev. Fr. Kapriel Mouradjian spoke about the work of the Clergy Benefits Committee, focusing on health and life insurance and other matters. The Rev. Fr. Yeprem Kelegian made a presentation about the Fund for Armenian Relief and encouraged parishes to visit FAR sites when they travel to Armenia.
The Very Rev. Fr. Daniel Findikyan gave a talk on the Divine Liturgy of the Armenian Church and presented some recent developments in liturgical scholarship.
In his message to clergy, Archbishop Barsamian gave an overview of the Supreme Spiritual Council meeting held at the Diocesan Center in November 2016, the opening of the new campus of St. Nersess Seminary, and plans for the celebration of the 50th anniversary of St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral next year. He also reminded the clergy to tend to their physical and spiritual health, two important facets that can be overlooked amid the everyday stresses of modern life.
The Clergy Conference was chaired by the Very Rev. Fr. Oshagan Gulgulian. The Rev. Fr. Kapriel Mouradjian served as vice chair; and the Rev. Fr. Sevak Gabrielyan and Rev. Fr. Avedis Kalayjian served as the Armenian and English secretaries, respectively. A total of 48 priests from across the Diocese took part in the annual gathering.
The clergy conference was hosted by the St. Hagop Church of Pinellas Park, FL, under the guidance of its pastor, the Rev. Fr. Hovnan Demerjian, the local parish council, and organizing committee.