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Armenians to Dedicate First Church in County

Times Staff Writer

Everything about the new Armenian church in Santa Ana, where the first Mass will be held today, speaks of history.

The county’s first Armenian congregation will gather at the nearly completed Apostolic Church and Community Center, a milestone for the growing Armenian population, to observe the 71st anniversary of the massacres perpetrated on the Armenians by Ottoman Turkey.

The name of the church, “Forty Martyrs,” refers to a group of Roman soldiers, posted to Armenia during the Roman Empire, who died rather than recant their newfound Christian faith.

Church Is a Memorial

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In the centuries since then, many churches in Armenia have taken the name, including one in where the late Manuel Keuilian, considered a patriarch of the Armenian community of Orange County, saw his brother and other children killed by Ottoman Turks in the early years of this century. For 13 years, until his death several months ago, Keuilian worked to build a new church that would bear the same name, as a memorial to his brother and the countless others.

Even the architecture of the sanctuary carries a message, said Dr. Bedros H. Kojian of Santa Ana, a trustee.

The lower, segmented sections of the roof symbolize “a broken people,” he said. But the overreaching arches and distinctive dome suggest a risen nation.

“This church demonstrates that we can be destroyed, but that we can build up again,” said Father Ashod Kochian, pastor of the congregation, which has been meeting every other week at St. Wilfrid’s Episcopal Church in Huntington Beach for the last decade.

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Leaders of the Armenian community in Orange County, gathered on the eve of the church’s opening, traced the growth of the community from less than 200 families in 1973, when planning for the church first began, until today, when the estimate is more than 2,000 families.

Magnet for Community

According to Hagop Melkonian, chairman of the board of the church and a moving force behind its development, the congregation has more than 1,500 families.

“We think that the church and community center will have a magnetizing effect on the community,” said Melkonian, an engineer.

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Included on the 2.3-acre site is a two-story day-school with 16 classrooms, scheduled to open this September with 250 students.

“It will be a hub,” said Dr. Garo M. Tertzakian. “The community is ready for it.”

Geographically, most of the county’s Armenian community is scattered along an axis from Santa Ana through Fountain Valley to Huntington Beach. The majority are professionals or operate small businesses, church leaders said.

Much of the growth over the last 15 years, said Tertzakian, consists of “so-called newcomers” from the Mideast, fleeing war and upheaval in the region.

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“It’s had a very positive affect,” Tertzakian said of the immigrants, particularly from a cultural point of view. “They speak the language, and it’s an infusion of new blood.”

One of the reason given for the growth of the church, said Sarkis Yegenian, vice chairman of the board, was a concerted effort to minimize political differences within the sometimes-fractious Armenian community.

The fund-raising brochure for the church states: “This complex will fulfill the needs of all Armenian Americans in the community regardless of political and religious affiliation or preference.”

But anyone is welcome, Yegenian said. “We try to keep the church and school neutral.” Armenians who are not members of the Apostolic Church, an Eastern Rite denomination, are invited to use the community center.

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The choice of this Sunday for the first Mass, just days after the April 24 date observing the Armenian genocide, was no coincidence.

Concerned About Assimilation

“It’s the one time when there are no political boundaries,” Melkonian said.

After years of persecution, said Sylvie Tertzakian, Armenians are concerned about the issue of ethnic and cultural assimilation in the more benign atmosphere of Orange County. “That’s what we’re facing today,” she said.

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The goal is “not to stop it (assimilation), but maybe to slow it,” she said.

Her husband, Garo Tertzakian, said, “We see no contradiction between being a good Armenian and being a good American.”

The half dozen men and women gathered Saturday in an affluent Santa Ana home and were quite willing to address the sensitive issue of anti-Turkish violence sometimes associated with the Armenian community. Over the last five years there have been several violent incidents in Orange County attributed to Orange County citizens of Armenian decent, including a bomb placed near the Anaheim convention center before a Turkish Folk Dance Troupe was scheduled to perform and pipe bombs found in a burned-out Armenian-owned bakery in Anaheim.

“Nobody in this room or the Armenian community condones terrorism,” Dr. Tertzakian said, although he said Armenians were concerned that little effort was made to understand the reasons why “hotheads” and “some young kids, upset over what happened in the past,” may have done.

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“We actively advise against that kind of activity,” Melkonian said.

“Armenians in Orange County are a vibrant community,” he said. “We want the church to become a center for peace.”


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