- Independent Journalism From Today's Armenia
 December 12 , 2003 

Shaken Foundation of Faith: 17 villages need new place of worship in Noyemberyan

The walls are holding, but it's not safe inside the church.

Eleven year old Vigen, school bag on his back, was running after other kids, screaming at them in Noyemberyan dialect: "Hey, kids go away, don't enter."

The boy runs till his cheeks are red and sweat shines on his forehead, acting as the unofficial security guard of St. Sargis Church.

"We live in this district. Vigen watches that nobody enters the church and vandalizes whatever is left," says Vigen's mother, 31 year old Voskehat, who sells candles at the church.

"I don't let the kids enter the church, but they broke the window and entered through it to play inside," explains Vigen.

There is nothing left in Saint Sargis church of Noyemberyan. There are pieces of broken glass on the floor, stones. Walls are decorated with big cracks.

"This church has had a hard life," says its priest, Father Hrayr Bejanyan.

In 1997 an earthquake in the villages of Koghb and Berdavan was, the priest says, St. Sargis "last stroke".

An hour after the quake Father Bejanyan took all the church belongings that were left, into a building that had been an office for a "kolkhoz" (collective farm) on the property. At it is there, ever since, that some 100 worshipers come for church.

"I couldn't give up everything and say that we don't have a church any longer," the priest says. "People need all these. I serve the liturgy and divine service in this hall."

"Church" is now held inside the business office of the old collective farm.

Saint Sargis was built in 1848. During Soviet times, the State took it over for housing a power generator. The noisy machine, Father Bejanyan says, shook the church walls and made them unstable. Later, the communists turned the church into a warehouse for a collective farm where fruits and cheese were stored.

A great number of spiritual leaders were killed in Lori and Spitak regions. Many of them, having been artificially labeled Kulaks (bourgeois) or ARF members were banished.

"Wherever the spiritual life was active, and there were some functioning cloisters, the communistic cells settled, and began rooting out the faith," says the prelate of Gugarats diocese, Sepuh Chuljyan.

St. Sargis belongs to Gugarats diocese, which includes the regions of Tavush and Lori. There are 18 churches in the diocese, but St. Sargis is the only one for Noyemberyan, a region that includes 17 villages and some 30,000 residents.

Inhabitants of nearby villages come here to get married or baptized. The first ceremony of baptism after the collapse of Soviet Union took place in 1990.

Father Bejanyan says that during the time when the church was not functioning, clergymen were organizing pilgrimages to this place. He proudly shows all the memorable pictures, kept with care.

"In 1995 we received Garegin I here. The work of the church was very important during the war years. We were sheltering soldiers here, we were blessing them, before they would leave for the battlefield. (Noyemberyan is near the border of Azerbaijan.) St. Sargis lived an ordinary church life," says Father Bejanyan

The Father and plans for rebuilding

After the communists moved out, St. Sargis was repaired and reopened. But in the '97 earthquake the repairs were ruined in a second and there has been no money to rebuild.

Voskehat says: "I very often hear old women say 'This is the office of our sovkhoz (the Russian word for collective farm) this is not a church. It seems to be just formal". Many people kneel down before the outside walls (of the broken church) and say their prayers there".

About a half-dozen marriage ceremonies take place in St. Sargis every year. Believers come here on Sundays to listen to liturgy, and Voskehat sells about 100-150 candles. Generally there are more visitors in winter time.

"There are days when nobody comes. I sit there alone and wait. I am sure that the repaired church will attract more visitors," says Voskehat.

According to His Holiness Sepuh, the reconstruction of the church will require at least $150,000.

Vice-mayor of Noyemberyan Grisha Gulkanyan says: "When we didn't have a state system, our nation was saved and protected by the church. Many, complaining of the conditions, leave the city nowadays, and the role of the church in terms of keeping them here will be great."

It is quiet inside St. Sargis. The baptism font and altar are empty. However sunset rays, penetrating through the windows, embrace the whole church.

A khachkar (stone cross) propped against the the wall, is proudly looking from behind a spider's web. Vigen is praying on his knees, and is kissing the dusty khachkar.

"Noyemberyan is on the border. It is the railway gate of Armenia," says Father Bejanyan. "Not only good but also evil enters through the gate. The church reconstruction is indeed a great necessity."

To learn more about efforts to reconstruct St.Sargis: Call the church, (374 66) 2.32.43 or the deputy mayor's office, (374 66) 2.32.04. To make a contribution to ArmeniaNow's HyeSanta project, click here.


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