THE HISTORY OF ST. PAUL ARMENIAN CHURCH
Having had its first residents arriving in Fresno in 1871, the Armenian Community soon felt the urge to hold religious services. But with the fledgling community consisting of both Apostolic and Protestant Armenians, were too small to have their own church edifice, joint religious services were first held on September 17, 1883, in the First Congregational Church of Fresno.
By 1892, the community felt the need to form the Fresno Armenian Immigrants’ Society (Fresno Hay Kaghtaganats Miutiun,) later changed to Fresno Armenian Library Society (Fresno Hayots Kratarani Miutiun), because city officials did not like the earlier name. The Society lost no time in building its own structure, to be used as a library, reading room, classroom for Armenian language school, and meeting place. The site was at “F” and Monterey Streets.
Fortunately, for Fresno Armenians, an elderly Armenian priest, Father Aharon Melkonian, had come to Fresno to live with his son. He began to provide for the pastoral needs of the people.
Thus, when in 1895, the arrangement for joint services had ceased, Father Aharon led the Armenians in holding Apostolic Church services, in a rented space, in a church at “F” Street and California Avenue. At times, during the summers, services were held at riverside gatherings or in the mountains. This arrangement continued until 1899, when the Church Membership was about 150, and when the need to have its own place of worship was felt essential.
On February 25, 1900, a general membership meeting was held and a committee was elected and charged with proceeding to build a church.
HOLY TRINITY ESTABLISHED
On March 2, 1900, the committee decided on the location and the size of the Church. They decided to name it Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church. Sunday, April 1, 1900, was designated as Establishment Day, and a letter was sent to the people inviting them to “The Establishment of the city’s Holy Trinity Church in accordance with the traditions of the Holy Orthodox Church, which was to take place on Sunday, April 1, 1900, at exactly 9:30 A.M. on the grounds, where the church will be built at the corner of F and Monterey Streets…”
The construction was undertaken with the carpenters and other skilled craftsmen, as well as laborers, who were Armenian. The structure was to be simple; wooden, and without the need for the professional help of an architect. It was built alongside the Library Society’s Building, on “F” Street, with the altar and belfry toward the east.
The building was completed in October, and the consecration took place on Sunday, October 1, 1900, with Bishop Hovsep Sarajian officiating, in the presence of the Protestant Armenians, who were to have their own place of worship a year later.
Since Father Aharon was unable to satisfy the needs of the parish due to his advanced age, a permanent Pastor was designated by Bishop Hovsep, the Very Rev. Fr. Sahag Vartabed Nazaretian, who arrived in June 1902. Father Sahag served as Pastor until 1906, circulating among parishioners at their homes and farms on his bicycle.
Rev. Theodorus Isahakian (Isaacs) served as pastor. He arrived in December of 1906, and performed his first services on Armenian Christmas, January 6th , 1907.
ARMENIAN DIOCESE ESTABLISHED
It was at this time, that His Holiness, Mirtich Khrimian (Hayrik”). Catholicos of All Armenians, by his Encyclical (Gontag) dated July 2, 1898, established a separate Diocese of Armenians in America. The first Diocesan Assembly was held in Worcester, Massachusetts, on September 2, 1906.
It is interesting to note that in 1907, the income of the Holy Trinity Parish was $1,893, and the expenditures were $1,798.
With the resignation of Father Theodorus in 1907, the Fresno Holy Trinity Parish received Bishop Hovsep Sarajian, who had resigned as Primate of the Diocese. He arrived in 1908, and served as Pastor to the complete satisfaction of the Parish until 1911.
With the Bishop as Pastor, the Armenian School, which had been closed for a time, was reopened. Armenian classes were held in the adjacent building belonging to the Library Society, with 85 students attending.
Though the Library Building belonged to the entire Armenian Community, it was being used more by the members of the Holy Trinity Parish.
Responding to a questionnaire in 1910 from the Diocesan Office, in Worcester, Massachusetts, the Fresno Parish reported that there were 5,000 Armenians in California, of whom 4,000 were in Fresno, and the balance, in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The two other Central Area Churches, the Fowler Parish, St. Gregory, consecrated its church in April 1910, andt the Yettem Parish, St. Mary, consecrated its Church on July 3, 1911.
It is a noteworthy fact that, of the first four Armenian Apostolic Churches in America (and that would mean the entire Western Hemisphere) two were in the San Joaquin Valley (Fresno Holy Trinity number two, and Fowler, St. Gregory number four).
Bishop Sarajian was called away from his Pastoral position by the Catholicos, to serve as Primate of the Diocese of Van (in Anatolia, Turkey). The Fresno Parish tried in vain to have that called rescinded. The Bishop left on May 1, 1911.
The search for a new Pastor for the Holy Trinity Parish led to the arrival of the Very Rev. Vartan Dzayrakoon Vartabed Kasparian on April 6, 1912.
Feeling the need to build a new and larger Church, the Trustees of the Church, at its meeting on March 11, 1911, decided to buy four lots and the house at the corner of M Street and Ventura Avenue. The price was $3,000. That action was confirmed by the general membership on May 28, 1912. The necessary funds were to be obtained by selling six lots next to the Library for $2,000. It was also decided to sell the Church at “F” and Monterey, but under conditions that it be used as a Church.
At the time, 1912, the Pastor was being paid $75 per month. The choirmaster, who with the Pastor, served as teacher in the Armenian School, was being paid $50 per month. The School had 160 pupils. The Church had a membership of 125. Income for the year was $4,900, and expenditures were $793.00. During that summer the Parish held its first picnic; it was on the banks of the Kings River. Twenty-five children were baptized that day.
THE CATASTROPHIC FIRE
July 9, 1913, was a sad day for the Parish. Early in the evening of that fateful Wednesday, a small boy playing with matches, set fire so some straw that set his house afire. Fanned by strong winds, the fire engulfed all of the houses in that half block bounded by San Benito, Monterey, “F” Street and the alley. All but one of the houses consumed by the fire belonged to Armenians. The Fire Department arrived. However, due to difficulty in getting water, firemen were unable to contain the fire, which spread rapidly. The flames jumped across Monterey and set fire to the Church, and soon that half block also, between Monterey, Los Angeles, “F” Street, and the alley, was totally in flames. The sexton of the Church had kept the belfry bell tolling as long as it was possible. As a result may official records of the Church were destroyed.
Instead of being driven to despair, the members of the Parish were motivated to hurry with the construction of their new Church already in planning.
A membership meeting held on July 20, 1913, enlarged its already existing Building Committee, and also formed a Fund-Raising Committee. Fire insurance on the Church provided $4,500.
Church life continued with religious services being held in a rented hall ($10 per month). A hall at “F” and Ventura was used for Armenian School classes.
Ground breaking for the new Church (“M” and Ventura) was on November 1, 1913, less than four months after the fire. Cornerstone laying was on Sunday, January 4, 1914, in the presence of all Armenians of Fresno.
The first celebration of the Divine Liturgy took place on the Banquet Hall (basement) of the Church on Palm, Sunday, April 12, 1914.
The consecration of the completed Sanctuary took place on Sunday, December 13, 1914, with Bishop Moushegh Seropian officiating.
The cost of the new Church was $25,000. The architect was Paul Lawrence Kendourajian (Cone).
CALIFORNIA A SEPARATE DIOCESE
The year 1928 marked the start of a new era. The Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America was established by delayed directives from the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, dated November 28, 1927. A Diocesan Assembly, the first for the Western Diocese, had already been held on the Basement Hall of the Holy Trinity Church (which was designated as the Cathedral) on September 18, 1927, electing Bishop Karekin Khachdourian as Primate. The newly elected Primate arrived in Fresno on Saturday, May 26, 1928. Very Rev. Vartan Dzayrakooyn Vartabed Kasparian continued serving as pastor until 1933.
With the resignation of the Bishop Tirayre Der Hovhannesian, Primate of the Eastern Diocese in 1928, a proposal was made to the Diocesan Council of the Western Diocese to reunite as one Diocese. However, the proposal was rejected at a specially convened Diocesan Assembly.
CRISIS IN THE CHURCH
The tragic killing of Archbishop Ghevont Tourian, Primate of the Eastern Diocese, at Holy Cross Church, New York, on Sunday morning, December 24, 1933, reverberated throughout the Armenian communities of America.
The Apostolic Community in Fresno was intensely caught up in the turmoil, and a deep cleavage in the community resulted. Loyalty in the community became divided-was it to be fealty to the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, or to the secessionist movement (that would become a separate diocese under the hegemony of the Great House of Cilicia, in Antelias, Lebanon)? The parishioners of Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church were faced with making the decision of which way they were to go.
The pivotal, crucial moment came at a general membership meeting held on December 23, 1934. In that meeting, fraught with bitterness, those who would secede and abandon their Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin succeeded in wresting away the Holy Trinity Church from its loyal supporters.
Thus, those whose loyalty to their Mother See remained firm were left without a church edifice, and for a time without leadership.
ST. PAUL PARISH
A consultative meeting was held on June 2, 1939, to plan for the establishment of a new parish in Fresno within the Diocese under the jurisdiction of the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin. A formal appeal was made to the Western Diocese on March 31, 1940, for approval of a new parish to be named St. Paul.
In the interim, without an edifice of its own, the new St. Paul Parish used the St. James Episcopal Cathedral. The first services were held there on February 28, 1943.
In July 1943, the Parish purchased the First Armenian Presbyterian Church at Fulton and Santa Clara Streets, after that community had moved to its newer church on South First Street. The price was $5,500.
During the period until 1947 the newly formed St. Paul Parish was being served by a number of clergymen, on occasion. They were Rev. Arsen Torosian, Rev. Besag Sarkisian, Rt. Rev. Bishop Mampre Calfayan, Very Rev. Ghevond Vartabed Arabian, Very Rev. Vartan Dzayrakooyn Vartabed Kasparian, and Rev. Bedros Hagopian.
In a special Parish Assembly held on August 3, 1947, and presided over by Rt. Rev. Bishop (formerly Vartabed) Vartan Kasparian, the Rev. Nerses Odian was given the call to serve as permanent Pastor. He served until his untimely death in 1957.
During a short interval in 1957, two clergymen, Rev. Vahrich Shirinian and Rev. Bedros Kasarjian, served as Interim Pastors until Rev. Vartan Dulgarian, newly ordained on September 1, 1957, in St. Paul Armenian Church, was chosen as pastor. He served until September 1, 1968, when Rev. Shahé Altounian became the Parish Priest.
Soon, the parishioners felt the need for a new church. In 1949 land had been purchased at First and Mono Streets, for $11,500. Plans were progressing for building a new edifice there, and ground breaking was planned. But, the availability of the First Baptist Church at “N” and Merced Streets redirected the Parish plans. The full purchase price of $75,000 was paid in cash to acquire the church property.
After remodeling at a cost of $60,000, the Church was consecrated on January 24, 1954, by Archbishop Vartan Kasparian and Archbishop Tiran Nersoyan. The first Divine Liturgy was celebrated by the Very Rev. Shnork Dzatrakooyn Vartabed Kaloustian, Primate of California.
A NEW CHURCH COMPLEX
Progress and growth would not be checked. The St. Paul Parish, in keeping with its faith and devotion to the Church, acquired land at the corner of First and Dakota Streets.
Phase I of the Building Program contemplated starting with the hall and classrooms. Architect for the complex was James Nargis; the start came on May 2, 1976. When the hall was completed, the last services were held at “M” and Merced on March 6, 1977, and the first services in the new hall were held on the following Sunday, March 13, 1977.
Mr. Haig Bererian and family benefactors, have been remembered by naming the hall after them in grateful appreciation for their generous gift of $500,000.
A NEW SANCTUARY
Time had come for Phase II of St. Paul Parish’s Building Program. The year was 1977, and the Parish was to embark on its culminating effort to fulfill its aspirations. The Parish would build its sanctuary in the architectural idiom that proves its Armenian heritage. And so, the ground breaking ceremony was held on July 31, 1977, officiating by Archbishop Vatché Hovsepian, Primate of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America.
With the Grace of God, the undertaking was blessed with success, and the auspicious ceremony of the consecration of St. Paul Armenian Church took place on April 22, 1979, by Archbishop Tiran Nersoyan and Archbishop Vatché Hovsepian.
But, the growing needs of St. Paul Parish led to the feeling that it should have two clergymen, to serve as Pastor and Assistant. So, it was that the Primate of the Western Diocese, Archbishop Vatché Hovsepian, acting to satisfy that feeling, and with the concurremce of Rev. Fr. Shahé Altounian, appointed the Very Rev. Sasoon Vartabed Zumroukhdian, then Pastor of St. James Armenian Church of Sacramento, as Pastor of St. Paul, effective November 1, 1990.
Thus, St. Paul Parish was being served by two clergymen in pastoral positions. This arrangement continued until 1991 when the Parish Assembly, held on September 20, 1991, ratified the Very Rev. Sasoon Vartabed Zumroukhdian as the only Parish Priest. Fr. Sasoon served the parish until August 15, 1999. On March 5, 2000 Archbishop Vatche appointed the Rev. Fr. Arshen Avak Kahana Aivazian as the Parish Priest of St. Paul. On May 1, 2014 Fr. Arshen retired from the parish. On May 1, 2014 the Rev. Fr. Yessai Bedros was appointed as Parish Priest of St. Paul.