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Montreal: A Pioneer of the Armenian Church: 32-year-old primate speaks of regeneration

The Gazette (Montreal, Quebec)

June 21, 2003 Saturday Final Edition

A Pioneer of the Armenian Church: 32-year-old primate speaks of
regeneration: ‘There is a new understanding, a new wave, a new
breath’

by : HARVEY SHEPHERD

“I am trying to understand what is happening to me,” said the new
primate of the Canadian diocese of the Armenian Holy Apostolic
Church.

Vardapet (or Archimandrite) Bagrat Galsdanian, 32, acknowledged he
was still “in a learning process” when I met him around the end of
his first week in his office at St. Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral
in Outremont.

For the previous few months, he had been acting head of a diocese in
his native Armenia.

Armenian Orthodox delegates from across Canada, mostly lay, elected
him primate in Toronto May 31. He succeeds Archbishop Hovnan
Derderian, 46, as primate of a U.S. now based in Burbank, Calif.

Tomorrow, Galsdanian will be consecrated as a bishop by Karekin II,
“Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of all Armenians,” in Etchimiadzin,
Armenia, where the Mother See (governing body) of the church is
marking the 1,700th anniversary of its foundation.

(“Catholicos” is an ancient title that has nothing to do with Roman
Catholicism.)

Galsdanian, less than half the average age (about 65) of a Roman
Catholic priest in Montreal, is no stranger to responsibility or
change.

He has lived through the end of the Communist regime in Armenia, has
studied in England and has served as editor-in-chief of the magazine
of the Mother See and as the first head of its television station. He
has been dean of a seminary and acting head of a diocese.

He entered the seminary in Etchimiadzin at age 18 in 1988. That was
the year armed conflict began in Nagorno-Karabakh, where the Armenian
population wanted to rejoin Armenia rather than stay in Azerbaijan,
which is mainly Muslim.

Galsdanian found it “very difficult, personally,” that the monastic
life of a seminarian prevented him from supporting the Armenian cause
more actively.

He was still in the seminary in 1991, when both Armenia and
Azerbaijan became independent. He graduated in 1994, the year of the
cease-fire.

The Soviet period had been disastrous for the church. About 20
priests remained in Armenia.

In the seminary, he was one of only 32 students permitted by the
Communist government; numbers had been even lower a few years before.

Galsdanian recalled that Vazken I, catholicos from 1955 until his
death in 1994, “tried to do everything for the students.” The
seminary remained open, sometimes without electricity and with little
heat, when most universities and colleges in Armenia were closed.

After the collapse of the Communist regime, enrolment in the seminary
quickly trebled. Soon, two new seminaries and a centre for the
training of mature candidates for the priesthood were established. He
was made dean of the seminary in Sevan in August, 2000, and remained
there until shortly after he was appointed acting head of a the
diocese of Aragatsotn last October.

Church traditions say the gospel reached Armenia within a few years
of Jesus’s death and resurrection. In 301, Armenia became the first
nation in the world to formally embrace Christianity. St. Gregory the
Illuminator was consecrated the first patriarch of the church two
years later.

Life is still hard in Armenia, but under the leadership of Karekin,
52, the ancient church “is being regenerated,” Galsdanian said.

“There is a new understanding, a new wave, a new breath.

“We were the pioneers of this new age.”

In Canada, the challenges are great. The coast-to-coast diocese,
seeking to minister to an Armenian community of about 80,000, has
seven married priests serving seven full parishes and eight mission
parishes. One of them was established by Derderian last year in
Yellowknife.

(Armenians are also served by several Armenian Orthodox parishes,
including Sourp Hagop Cathedral in north-end Montreal, that are part
of a branch of the church based in the Middle East.)

The average age of his priests is about 40, Galsdanian said, and he
hopes to bring in more from Armenia.

“Everybody is young like me.

“The courage is there, the faith is there and the future-looking
vision is there.”

hshepherd@thegazette.canwest.com

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