By Suren Oganessian
FLArmenians Tampa/St. Petersburg Contributor
Sunday, August 13, 2017 was a day of two celebrations at St. Hagop Armenian Church in Pinellas Park, Florida. Not only was it the day of the annual Blessing of the Grapes, but it was also the date chosen to celebrate Rev. Fr. Hovnan Demerjian’s tenth anniversary of being ordained into priesthood. Local Florida Armenians traveled from as far as Sarasota to be a part of this special event, which was not only an important anniversary for Rev. Fr. Hovnan Demerjian, but for the Armenian community of Tampa Bay itself.
Fr. Hovnan has accomplished much in the U.S. and in Armenia, having taught there with the U.S. Peace Corps from 1996 to 1998, and then helping to establish the Armenian Volunteer Corps in 2000. He joined the Diocese of the Armenian Church in 2003, and in June 2007 he was ordained and assigned to be a pastor at St. Hagop. Before the establishment of St. Hagop Armenian Church, Armenians of the Tampa Bay area had no place else to conjugate, not without a long drive to Orlando or Boca Raton. In the last decade, the church has become a beacon for the local Armenian community, which though small is finally beginning to establish itself in the area. “The Armenian community here is very welcoming,” Fr. Hovnan told FLArmenians.com. “People here are from everywhere, making it very diverse. The community is always looking forward,” he said.
The day began with the Divine Liturgy, moving on to the Blessing of Grapes and a celebratory luncheon for Rev. Fr. Hovnan Demerjian. Presiding over the ceremony was Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Primate of the Eastern Diocese, who traveled all the way from New York City. It was one of many visits he has made to St. Hagop Armenian Church over the last ten years. He has watched the local parish grow from 23 members in 2007 to over 150 today. “With God, things become possible,” said Archbishop Barsamian at the accompanying luncheon. “To have an Armenian Church in St. Petersburg 50 years ago would have been seen as a dream. But it is good to dream.” Thanks in part to the excellent spiritual leadership Fr. Hovnan Demerjian, he went on to say, that dream has come to fruition.
Fr. Hovnan Demerjian accepted the praise of his peers with humbleness and optimism for the future. While Fr. Hovnan’s immediate mission in coming to Tampa Bay – to build the church and the accompanying Shahnasarian Hall – has been completed, he notes that the long-term mission to “bring people together in a family of God” is ongoing. Over the next ten years, Fr. Hovnan has even bigger plans. “The work of building the Armenian community we all want has just begun. In the next ten years, we hope to have an improved Sunday school and even more faith and heritage programs,” Fr. Hovnan said.
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.