By Hagop Vartivarian
ENGLEWOOD, N.J. – In 1916, a small group of Armenian Americans leaders took an oath at the Bingham House Hotel of Philadelphia to serve their nation and church. At this moment, the fraternity of the Knights of Vartan was born. It was a protest against the Ottoman Turks, who at that moment were engaged in perpetrating a genocide against the Armenian people in their very homeland.
Rev. Haigag Khazoyan, after consulting with Bishop Papken Guleserian and other Armenian leaders, realized the time had come to try to rally the Armenian people. A consultative meeting took place on February 28, 1916 in the Worcester, Massachusetts, home of Rev. Garabed Manavian, at which were present Guleserian, Khazoyan, Rev. Khachadour Benneyan, Rev. Antranig A. Bedigian, Mihran Kalayjian, Prof. Mardiros Ananigian (a member of the Ramgavar Party), Prof. Haroutiun Dadourian, Prof. Vahan Babasinian, Karekin M. Giragosian, Garabed Pushman, and Nazaret Gumushgerdan.
The meeting decided that a new organization was necessary to defend Armenian national values and traditions, especially the Armenian language, religion and literature. A committee was formed to study similar non-Armenian fraternal organizations and learn from their experiences and structures. Bishop Guleserian headed the committee, which soon produced a preliminary set of bylaws.
On May 27, 1916, the 12 founders assembled at Bingham House around Bishop Guleserian, a friend of the Ramgavar Party and established the new organization. Afterwards, they were joined by Fr. Hayg Adadourian, Mardiros Baghdasarian, Dr. Antranig Aivazian, Ramgavar activist Diradour Dikijian, Dr. Dikran Kabakjian, Dr. Garabed Kalusdian and Mihran Karageusian.
Its first executive was formed by Fr. Haigag Khazoyan as Grand Commander, Fr. Mihran Kalayjian, Assistant Grand Commander, Bishop Papken Guleserian, Senior Chaplain, and members Fr. Hayg Adadourian, Fr. Garabed Manavian, Fr. Khachadour Benneyan, Prof. Dadourian, Dr. Dikran Kabakjian and Dr. Garabed Kalousdian. These executive members served a three-year session. Lodges were quickly formed in centers with Armenian population such as, first of all, Boston, and then Worcester, New York, Philadelphia, Troy, Chicago, New Haven, Washington, DC, Fresno and Los Angeles.
A semi-martial order and structure was established. The first convocation or representative assembly was held in 1919 in New York City. After various changes in the statutes, in 1931, the executive structure that exists to this day, the Avak Tivan, or Grand Council, was adopted. A version in the English language of the bylaws was adopted in 1942, and subject to changes in 1956 and 1966.
In 1944, a convocation adopted the following plans for the fraternal organization: 1. To help the new generation of Armenian Americans strengthen their Armenian culture and faith; 2. To prepare cultural activists; 3. To help our churches in spiritual and academic education; 4. To help those Armenians helping the US army or serving in it after World War II.
A fundraising campaign was initiated which raised 17,065.50 dollars. This fund dedicated to educational purposes continued to grow over the years and served its intended purpose.
In 1927, at the ninth convocation, it was decided to honor past grand commanders and commanders. In addition, the custom of granting medals to members of the Knights who had served for 25 and 30 years was adopted. At the 47th convocation, it was determined to grant all members who served for 40 and 50 years plaques and certificates.
In 1933, the Grand Council decided to create a parallel organization for the wives of the Knights which it named the Daughters of Vartan, and the first lodge for the latter was created on December 18 of that year with 18 members. Today there are over one thousand members of the Daughters. Over the years, the Daughters have been helpful to Armenian churches, schools and some other organizations, chiefly in the Republic of Armenia.
On the 75th anniversary of the organization, a concise history of the Knights was prepared for members only.
In 1944, the Knights adopted a resolution on church unity, but in order to oppose the movement in Antilias, Lebanon, leading to a split in the Church of Armenia, in January 1958, the Grand Council issued a circular clarifying its stance on this topic. It criticized the political party advancing the split, and defended the primacy of the Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin.
The Knights published a number of important works for Armenian American students. Founder Bishop Guleserian wrote Kachn Vartan, while Dr. Garabed Paelian wrote Landmarks of Armenian History. Dr. Hovhannes Zovickian and Dicran Boyajian translated Yeghishe’s important historical work, while Dickran Boyajian edited Pillars of the Armenian Church, and wrote The Case for A Forgotten Genocide. Booklets on Armenian history and culture written by Ramgavar (Armenian Democratic Liberal—ADL) leaders such as Dr. Hovhannes Zovickian, Dicran Boyajian, Vahan Churgents, Krikor Kalousdian and Haroutiun Shalian were published over a period of years.
The fraternity played a great role in the construction of the Diocesan headquarters and St. Vartan Cathedral in New York City, and helped in the fundraising, so that it was not a coincidence that the cathedral was named after St. Vartan. Furthermore, a hall in the Diocesan complex was named “V. Hall” after Vartanants. This hall served as an appropriate meeting place for the lodges of the Knights in the New York area.
In the last few decades, the Knights continued to perform valuable services for the Armenian people. After the terrible December 1988 earthquake in northern Armenia, they sent temporary housing, medicine, and hospital equipment, and many Knights and Daughters went to Armenia to assist in their dispatch. They also have helped renovate schools in Armenia and construct new ones.
In New York, one of their ongoing accomplishments is the annual commemoration of the Armenian Genocide at Times Square on April 24. Thousands of Armenians assemble there to listen to prominent American officials like governors, senators and mayors. Sam Azadian and Hirant Gulian played important roles in this endeavor.
The Knights, like the ADL, continuously supported Echmiadzin. During the period of the assassination of Archbishop Ghevond Tourian, Dr. Hovhannes Zovickian, an ADL member who was head of the Knights, stood courageously against the Armenian Revolutionary Federation members who were trying to split the Armenian Church, and worked toward close collaboration between the Knights and the ADL.
Zovickian was grand commander of the Knights 1927-31, 1937-39, and 1950-51. Other ADL grand commanders include Dickran Boyajian (1935-6, 1961), Dr. Misak Odian and Dikran Simsarian.
Armenian national benefactor Alex Manoogian was grand commander of the Knights from 1943 to 1945.
The present grand commander, Steven Kradjian of San Diego, opened a communication office in Armenia and convened the first general meeting of Armenia in 2016. Thus, the Knights of Vartan started their second century directly with service in the homeland. Today the Knights continue the sacred mission of their founders, keeping the oath of secrecy their organization has embraced, without straying from their Armenian patriotic principles.