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Armenian Church Diocesan Banquet Honors Congressman Gus Bilirakis, Sandra Shahinian Leitner

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.


Armenian Church Diocesan Assembly Convenes in Florida

PALM HARBOR, FL – More than 125 clergy and lay delegates, representing parishes from across the Eastern Diocese, gathered in Palm Harbor, FL, from May 4 to 6, for the 115th Diocesan Assembly, hosted by St. Hagop Church of Pinellas Park, FL.

Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Primate of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern), presided over the meeting. In his message to delegates on Friday morning, May 5, Archbishop Barsamian spoke about ways the church must expand its ministries to reach people in the 21st century.

He noted the Diocese’s new Creative Ministries project, which teaches the history and traditions of the Armenian Church through video and audio episodes, and mentioned other efforts to use technology for outreach.

Turning to some of the challenges facing the Diocese, he spoke about recent meetings with parishioners in different regions and their concerns about declining membership, modern social ills, and the difficulty of attracting young people, among other things.

“Admittedly, some of these are issues our church cannot simply settle overnight,” he said. “But at the same time, I feel that none of these concerns is so great that we cannot overcome them—together. We need to speak openly together. Plan and work together. And above all, pray together—pray for the well-being of each of our parish communities.”

He went on to speak about the Diocese’s commitment to preparing pastors through the program at St. Nersess Armenian Seminary. Archbishop Barsamian mentioned the seminary’s new campus in Armonk and the Diocese’s support of clergy pursuing advanced degrees through the continuing education initiative.

Reflecting on this spring’s release of “The Promise,” the new feature film about the Armenian Genocide, Archbishop Barsamian reminded clergy and delegates that the generation of 1915 charted a new course for their children and children.

“In a world where ugliness, suffering, madness was all around them, they never lost sight of the beautiful, the gentle, the holy,” he said of the Holy Martyrs of the Armenian Genocide.

“They held onto those qualities like precious seeds, and they replanted them here, in this country, when they resettled their lives. We today are the inheritors of what they planted.”

Rev. Fr. Arsen Mirzoyan read the message of His Holiness Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians. Fr. Mirzoyan and Rev. Fr. Sahak Sahakyan both attended the Diocesan Assembly as representatives of Holy Etchmiadzin.

“We exhort you to make the Eastern Diocese and our church prosper with God-pleasing works and commitments for the glory of God and for the well-being of our God-loving people,” His Holiness wrote.

The Rev. Fr. Avedis Kalayjian gave the report of the Clergy Conference, held from May 1-3 at the Bethany Center in Lutz, FL.

Gail Guroian gave a report of the Parish Council Chairs meeting held on the morning of May 4. The meeting was led by Diocesan Council member Paul Mardoian, and gave parish council chairs a chance to address discuss issues, such as outreach, welcoming new members, hall rentals, and other parish building initiatives.

Diocesan Council chair James Kalustian highlighted accomplishments of the previous year. He noted that the council has been working with several parishes which are in the process of building new sanctuaries and halls, including Hye Pointe Church of Bradford, MA; St. Gregory the Enlightener Church of White Plains, NY; St. James Church of Watertown, MA; and St. Sarkis Church of Dallas, TX. He also mentioned the renovation of Haik and Alice Kavookjian Auditorium at the Diocesan Center and the increase in rentals the Diocese looks forward to in the coming year.

Regarding the council’s strategic plan, Mr. Kalustian mentioned efforts to continue developing topic-driven programming, support continuing education for clergy, and assisting parishes with community outreach.

Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, Diocesan Legate and Ecumenical Director, spoke about the plight of Christians in the Middle East and the importance to advocate on their behalf in the United States. He described his trip to Iraq last January, where he met Christian refugees and heard first-hand about the threats they face in their daily lives.

Archbishop Aykazian also spoke about his efforts to advocate for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide and work with the new administration to boost support for Armenia and Artsakh.

On Friday morning, May 5, the Diocese’s communications and ministries staff members made a presentation about the new Creative Ministries project. They screened several videos in the “Bread & Salt” series, discussed podcasts, and shared supplemental materials available for parish schools and study groups.

Clergy and delegates then had an opportunity to attend small group sessions, where they heard reports from various Diocesan department leaders, as well as representatives of St. Nersess Seminary, the Fund for Armenian Relief, Armenian Church Endowment Fund, ACYOA, Sacred Music Council, Ararat Center, and the Women’s Guild.

In the afternoon, delegates heard from the Auditing Committee and Diocesan Council treasurer Roseann Manoogian Attar. They approved the revised 2017 budget and the proposed $4.6 million budget for 2018.

Melanie Dadourian and Oscar Tatosian, co-chairs of the Diocese’s Endowment Campaign, spoke about the effort to raise $15 million to support Diocesan and parish programs. The “Our Church, Our Legacy” campaign was launched last fall to inspire every Armenian, strengthen their faith, and make the church a relevant part of daily life.

“Our goal is to make the church more relevant to every parishioner in every region of the Diocese,” Ms. Dadourian said. “We want everyone to feel a part of this effort and help us grow the church.”

She announced that $8 million has already been raised. “We have a very strong start,” added Mr. Tatosian, “but there’s still a long way to go.”

Another campaign now underway across the Diocese aims to raise funds to restore Christ’s tomb in Jerusalem. The Rev. Fr. Arakel Aljalian and the Rev. Fr. Mardiros Chevian, members of the “Save the Tomb” campaign committee, gave an overview of its progress, noting that more than a third of the $300,000 goal has been raised to date. They encouraged delegates to support fundraising receptions planned for the coming months, and announced that the Diocese will organize an Easter pilgrimage to the Holy Land next year.

Charles Takesian was presented with the “St. Vartan Award” in recognition of his leadership of the Armenian Church community of Ocala, FL.

On Saturday, May 6, clergy and delegates received the reports of the NEA and ERA Bylaws Review Committee. They approved a proposal directing the Diocesan Council to centralize administrative services—such as health insurance, payroll, or human resources policies—to leverage the collective strength of the parishes. A second proposal to ensure that assembly minutes are finalized and distributed to delegates in a timely manner was also approved.

In closing the meeting on Saturday, May 6, Archbishop Barsamian expressed his gratitude to clergy and delegates for their commitment to the Armenian Church. He also thanked the officers of the assembly and the host committee for their hard work in organizing the weekend’s events.

The 115th Diocesan Assembly was chaired by Diran Jebejian of St. Leon Church of Fair Lawn, NJ, with Alex Topakbashian of St. Sahag and St. Mesrob Church of Wynnewood, PA, serving as vice chair. Laurie Bejoian of St. James Church of Watertown, MA, served as the secretary.

The assembly host committee was led by the Rev. Fr. Hovnan Demerjian, pastor of St. Hagop Church of Pinellas Park, FL, and Stepan Serpekian, committee chair.

The 116th Diocesan Assembly will be hosted by St. Gregory the Enlightener Church of White Plains, NY.


Below are the names of individuals elected to Diocesan boards and positions during the 115th Diocesan Assembly.

Diocesan Board of Trustees
Haig Ariyan

Diocesan Council
Very Rev. Fr. Aren Jebejian
Rev. Fr. Stepanos Doudoukjian
Antranig Garibian
James Kalustian
Mona Karoghlanian
Oscar Tatosian

Auditing Committee
Russell Kashian

Proposals Committee
Rev. Fr. Mesrob Hovsepyan
Rev. Fr. Avedis Kalayjian
Rev. Fr. Khachatur Kesablyan
Bruce Ashbahian
Dn. Serop Demirjian

Nominating Committee
Rev. Fr. Ghevond Ajamian
Rev. Fr. Abraham Malkhasyan
Rev. Fr. Hratch Sargsyan
Nancy Basmajian
Ara Jeknavorian

NEA / ERA Review Committee Alternates
Rev. Fr. Arakel Aljalian
Rev. Fr. Mardiros Chevian

Armenian Clergy Meet in Florida for Annual Conference

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.