THE ARMENIANS OF ORANGE COUNTY : Armenians Save Their Culture : Social, Ethnic Ties Are Stressed to Pass Along Traditions

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In 1972, when organizers of the then-tiny Armenian immigrant community in Orange County were looking for a place to hold their first meetings, they picked Vache and Makrouhi Madenlian's restaurant in Huntington Beach.

But of course.

The Madenlian place was the only Armenian restaurant in Orange County and already the favorite social spot for Armenians, who otherwise had to commute to Los Angeles or Glendale for ethnic meals.

And when organizers considered the best way to take an informal census of Orange County's Armenian-descended populace, they did so with the same sort of practicality.

They took to the phone books--but of course.

"We knew there were increasingly more Armenians here in Orange County, because we kept bumping into each other in L.A. or in some stores here," recalls 54-year-old Vache Madenlian, an engineer as well as a food-business proprietor, sitting in his Huntington Beach home one recent afternoon.

"Someone said the simplest and surest way to count noses was to look up every last name in the phone book with an '-ian' ending," he said. "It was a great idea! Nearly every Armenian name ends that way."

Madenlian, a Lebanon-born immigrant who first came to the United States in 1957 to study at Cal State Los Angeles, is one of the most appropriate persons to trace how the Forty Martyrs Armenian Apostolic Church, the first Armenian-language church in the county, was founded.

He was the first chairman of the Forty Martyrs board of trustees. And he is current chairman of the regional executive committee of his congregation's parent body, the Armenian Apostolic Church of America.

Eighteen years ago, a few of those 200 "phone book" families represented solidly assimilated Armenian-Americans of several generations. "They weren't really interested in our project," Madenlian explained. "They had become too distant from or disinterested in something this ethnic."

Besides, he said, the remaining families were enough of an activist corps--led by parents like the Madenlians, who came from the Middle East, fresh from long-established, highly distinctive Armenian enclaves in such countries as Lebanon, Syria and Iran.

And this new immigrant group, whose occupations also included store owner and merchant, wanted more than anything to establish the institutional anchor to any Armenian community--a traditional Armenian-language church.

At first, the new Orange County congregation--60 full-time member families and their pastor, the Rev. Ashod Kochian--held monthly, then weekly, afternoon services in a rented church space in Huntington Beach.

Even founding members such as Madenlian are astounded by the swift growth of their community since 1972. In fact, Southern California is now home to 300,000 persons of Armenian ancestry, easily the largest and fastest-expanding such concentration in the United States.

While Orange County's numbers do not match those to the north--45,000 (mostly Soviet Armenian immigrants) in Hollywood, 150,000 in the rest of Los Angeles, and 35,000 in Glendale--this area has maintained the same pace. In 1980, the Orange County congregation grew to 700 families. Today, 3 1/2 years after the opening of the $3.5-million Forty Martyrs church complex in west Santa Ana, the total is 1,500.

To keep up with the anticipated increases in immigrant population, the congregation's leaders, including the presiding dean, the Rev. Moushegh Mardirossian, are planning more facilities at their McFadden Avenue-Euclid Street complex.

Madenlian said enrollment at the church's Ari Guiragos Minassian School, now 110 children ranging from preschool to 5th-grade levels, will be expanded to include scores of more students in the higher grades. The Armenian language and Armenian history, in addition to the state-required standard curriculum, are taught at the 13-room school.

Although the complex already has a large meeting hall, plans call for the construction by other community organizations of a full-sized cultural center for exhibits, performances and other arts and lectures.

There is talk also of even more joint projects with Southern California groups under the jurisdiction of a separate body--the Armenian Church of North America--including a 140-member Orange County congregation that was formed five years ago.

No matter what the plans, the crucial underlying premise is still that of preserving and passing on the traditional culture that had flourished in now mostly vanished old Armenia--and to do so as a tightly knit ethnic community.

The Madenlians are typical of this, including the American-born children. Arpie, 23, a student at Cal State Fullerton, where she is majoring in nutrition studies, has taken the Armenian language classes given Saturdays by the local Armenian Relief Society.

And Aram, 19, a biology major at Cal State Long Beach and a graduate of an Armenian high school in Montebello, visited Soviet Armenia in 1984--where his family has distant relatives--with 35 other Armenian-American students.

Such open displays of community pride among minority groups are now more widely accepted in the United States, Vache Madenlian said.

"There was a time, some decades back, when Armenians had a rough time in America, when people in some areas tried to keep Armenians from speaking the old language or living in certain neighborhoods," he said. But the ethnic-pride movement beginning in the 1960s, he added, has since made the practice of cultural diversity fashionable.

"If some people still suggest that maintaining our old culture and staying together as a community is somehow being too separate--then that is narrow thinking," Madenlian said. He and his Makrouhi became American citizens nearly 30 years ago.

"This is, after all, one of the most important reasons why our people came to America in the first place," he said. "You have the freedom here to be different, to be proud of your past, and still be good Americans," he said.

"Is this not," Madenlian added, "a nation of immigrants?"

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