A Short History of St. Nersess Armenian Seminary
St. Nersess Armenian Seminary was established in 1961 under the auspices of the Dioceses of the Armenian Church in America (and more recently of Canada). The General Assemblies of the Eastern and Western Dioceses, at their respective meetings on April 15 and 30 of that year, adopted resolutions giving approval to the formation of a seminary. In accordance with these resolutions, a number of clergymen were invited by Archbishop Sion Manoogian, then Primate of the Eastern Diocese, to a meeting held in Evanston, Illinois, on August 11-12, 1961. At this meeting, the organizational foundation of the Seminary was laid with the formation of a Board of Directors and the adoption of a set of By-Laws. A mansion was purchased in Evanston to house the school (1456 Ridge Avenue) on November 1, 1961 through the generous contribution made by Mrs. Satenig Ouzoonian.
The Board of Directors held its first annual meeting on June 22, 1962, and the Seminary, affiliated then with Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, opened its doors on September 10, 1962. Archbishop Tiran Nersoyan (1904-1989), who conceived the founding of the Seminary, became its first dean and thereafter honorary president for life.
The Seminary was named after one of the most revered fathers of the Armenian Church: St. Nersess Shnorhali—the Graceful—a great hymnographer, theologian, ecumenist, and Catholicos (in office 1166-1173AD). The Seminary’s mission is inspired by its patron saint’s commitment to theological inquiry, pastoral care, liturgical revival, and ecumenism. As the fundamental figure in a movement for Armenian self-understanding, and for the mutual understanding and reconciliation of Christians East and West, St. Nersess is the outstanding paradigm of the clerical ideal to whose standard we strive to prepare our students and ourselves.
A Mission to the Youth
The first St. Nersess Religious Study Program for youth was held in the summer of 1962. The program, directed by Rev. Fr. Karekin Kasparian (then Deacon Hovhannes), brought American-Armenian high school and college-age young people to the Seminary for two weeks of prayer and study of the Armenian Church’s faith, history and Christian culture. Participants enjoyed warm fellowship and the rare opportunity to mingle with Armenian clergy. In the nearly fifty-year history of the Seminary, the summer conferences have continued unabated, and have grown from one program per year to eight, including a Christmas Conference for college students. Under the leadership of Fr. Kasparian’s successors, Fr. Mardiros Chevian, Fr. Arakel Aljalian, and currently Fr. Stepanos Doudoukjian, the St. Nersess Summer Conferences have motivated thousands to aspire to positions of leadership in the Armenian Church: the vast majority of the Seminary’s ordained and lay alumni were first exposed to the Seminary through its youth conferences, and over 60% of parish council members in the Eastern Diocese are past participants of the St. Nersess youth conferences.
Seminary Moves to New York
In search of higher education in Orthodox theology and stronger ties with churches of the Christian East, in 1967 the Seminary was moved to New York and became affiliated with St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood. Our students were enrolled in the Master of Divinity program at St. Vladimir’s, where they resided while maintaining their own liturgical life and substituting some of their courses with a special program of studies offered by St. Nersess and bearing on priestly ministry within the Armenian Church. Upon completion of the joint program, St. Nersess students received the Master of Divinity degree from St. Vladimir’s and a Diploma in Armenian Church Studies from St. Nersess.
In 1977, the present campus in New Rochelle was purchased and the beautiful Tudor building was adapted for use as a seminary. Instrumental in identifying the Stratton Road property was the late Edward Essayian of New York. V. Rev. In 1982 Fr. Arshen Aivazyan became the first St. Nersess alumnus to be appointed Dean, serving until 1984. In 1982 an affiliation with St. Vladimir’s was formalized.
Growth and Maturation
In 1984, Rev. Fr. Mardiros Chevian, who had served as full-time recruiter for the Seminary for three years, was appointed Rector. Fr. Chevian’s efforts resulted in a period of growth, record enrollment, and the most fruitful period in the Seminary’s history in terms of graduates and ordinations. It was during this time that through the efforts and munificence of Louise Manoogian Simone, the Seminary’s endowment fund swelled significantly. In 1986 the Seminary’s bylaws were amended to include the Primate of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of Canada as ex officio second Vice-President of the Board of Directors. This brought St. Nersess under the auspices of all three dioceses of the Armenian Church in North America that fall under the jurisdiction of the Holy See of Etchmiadzin. St. Nersess enjoyed its first pontifical visit, when His Holiness Catholicos Vazken I (†1994) included the Seminary in his itinerary during his 1987 visit to the United States. The founder of St. Nersess, Abp. Tiran Nersoyan, passed away on September 1, 1989.
Deacon Hratch Tchilingirian served as Dean from 1991-1994, working with Armenian Orthodox theologian Prof. Vigen Guroian, whom the Board of Directors appointed Academic Dean. When Deacon Tchilingirian left the Seminary to pursue doctoral studies, Fr. Arakel Aljalian, another St. Nersess alumnus, was appointed Rector. He served in that capacity until 1999. During Fr. Aljalian’s term, and with the assistance of Professor S. Peter Cowe, the St. Nersess Theological Review was established in 1996 as the only English-language scholarly journal dedicated to the theology and Christian culture of the Armenian Church.
Through the generosity of a number of generous benefactors solicited by Board member Dr. Raffy Hovhanessian and his wife Shoghag, the building underwent extensive renovation and expansion in 1995. Added was a more suitable space to accommodate the library of Archbishop Tiran Nersoyan, bequeathed to St. Nersess upon his death in 1989. As well, the eastern wing of the mansion was remodelled to increase office space (alas, eliminating the old Florida room with its beautiful fountain). The renovated building was dedicated by His Holiness Karekin I, Catholicos of All Armenians, on January 14, 1996. (His Holiness graced the Seminary with a second visit on May 5, 1998).
Resident and Adjunct Faculty
Under the leadership of His Eminence Abp. Khajag Barsamian, elected Primate of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America in 1991, the Board of Directors resolved to fortify the Seminary’s Armenian Church Studies offerings by establishing, for the first time, a full-time resident faculty. In September 1997, Dr. Abraham Terian, an internationally renowned theologian and expert in medieval Armenian Christian literature and history, was enlisted as Professor of Armenian Patristics and Academic Dean. At the same time, newly-ordained V. Rev. Fr. Daniel Findikyan, another Seminary alumnus who had recently completed doctoral studies at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, was brought on board as Professor of Liturgical Studies. As part of the same movement, Fr. Vahan Hovhanessian, a St. Nersess graduate and recent Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Fordham University in New York, was appointed Dean three years later.
Upon Fr. Hovhanessian’s return to pastoral ministry late in 2000, Fr. Daniel Findikyan was appointed dean of the Seminary. Dr. Terian and Fr. Findikyan sought to elevate every aspect of the Seminary’s operation in order to conform to the standards of the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada, the accrediting agency for seminaries and theological schools. Admissions procedures were tightened; graduate course offerings in Armenian Church Studies were augmented; adjunct faculty were appointed; a scholarly monograph series, AVANT: Treasures of the Armenian Christian Tradition, was established; the Seminary’s website was vastly expanded to include a Global Classroom for distance learning opportunities; and renewed emphasis was placed on recruitment, and on parish and youth outreach initiatives. Upon his retirement from teaching in 2008, Dr. Terian was named Emeritus Professor of Armenian Theology.
In 2001 Professor Roberta Ervine was brought on board as the third full-time faculty member. Dr. Ervine earned her doctorate in Middle East Languages and Cultures from Columbia University, and studied under the late Archbishop Norayr Bogharian, curator of manuscripts in the Monastery of Saints James in Jerusalem. Known for her engrossing lectures, Dr. Ervine teaches courses in Classical Armenian, Armenian Church History and medieval Armenian literature and spirituality. With its newly augmented academic forces, the Seminary established an annual public lecture series on topics of relevance to the history, theology, and contemporary ministry of the Armenian Church.
In 2004 Professor Edward G. Mathews, Jr., a renowned specialist in the languages and literature of the Christian East including Armenian and Syriac, began to teach regularly and to collaborate with the faculty as Recurring Visiting Professor of Early Christianity. His classes have become a magnet for non-Armenian students from educational institutions and churches in the greater New York metropolitan area, thereby increasing the Seminary’s stature in the academic community.
In 2007 Professor Satenig Dadoyan, formerly of the American University of Beirut, was enlisted as Adjunct Professor of Armenian Language and Literature. Her expertise and passion for Armenian Studies have vastly enhanced the Seminary’s Armenian language program.
Besides the resident faculty, during the 2008-2009 academic year, seven adjunct instructors, both lay and ordained, men and women, were teaching at St. Nersess, making the Seminary a dynamic and attractive community of learning and prayer in the service of God and the Armenian Church.
The fortieth anniversary of the Seminary’s establishment was commemorated in 2002 with an international scholarly conference on the liturgy of the Armenian Church and neighboring eastern churches. At the time it was the largest gathering of scholars in the field of Eastern Liturgiology ever assembled. An evening dedicated to the memory of the founder, Archbishop Nersoyan, and a weekend reunion for alumni of the summer youth programs rounded out the year-long comemmoration.
Since shortly after the Seminary’s move to New Rochelle, the Board of Directors has persistently considered options for ensuring that the Seminary has adequate facilities to fulfil its mission. An ambitious plan to construct an Armenian-style chapel, dormitories and classrooms on the Stratton Road grounds was abruptly halted late in 1988 in the wake of the devastating earthquake in Armenia. In 2004, a significant donation was made to St. Nersess by Mr. and Mrs. Haig and Elza Didizian and their families for the construction of a chapel and classroom/library complex in memory of His Holiness Catholicos Karekin I. An initial plan was abandoned due to excessive costs. Currently the Building Committee of the Board is making preparations to build a somewhat more modest building in the very near future.
Consolidated Program of Studies
By 2007, twenty-five years had passed since the formalization of the joint Master of Divinity curriculum with St. Vladimir’s Seminary. A complete revision of the program was carried out that year by St. Nersess Seminary’s resident faculty, collaborating with the new dean and chancellor of St. Vladimir’s, Rev. Frs. John Behr and Chad Hatwick, together with the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, Dr. John Barnet. The revised “consolidated” M.Div. program streamlines the curriculum by removing redundancies in coursework, assigning full academic credit to all courses in Armenian Church Studies, and placing an emphasis on pastoral skills. The result is a program that far better prepares St. Nersess seminarians for ministry in the Armenian Church in North America.
Recognizing the need to intensify efforts to recruit future seminarians from among the parishes of the Armenian Church in North America, in 2007 the Board of Directors appointed Rev. Fr. Stepanos Doudoukjian as Director of Youth and Vocations. Fr. Doudoukjian, a St. Nersess alumnus, experienced pastor and long-time Director of the Summer Conferences, is charged with promoting Armenian Church vocations, especially priesthood, to American-Armenian youth throughout the three North American dioceses, and assisting young men who are discerning their vocation.
Fruits of the Seminary
As it approaches the fiftieth anniversary of its establishment, St. Nersess Armenian Seminary has solidified its place at the heart of the Armenian Church in North America and as the gateway to its bright future. St. Nersess has given 39 clergy to the Armenian Church from among its graduates, including Archbishop Avak Assadourian, Primate of the Armenian Diocese of Iraq. 80% of the clergy of the Eastern Diocese have studied at St. Nersess. The priests of the six largest Armenian Church parishes in the United States are St. Nersess alumni. Every major youth program of the Eastern Diocese is directed by a St. Nersess graduate. St. Nersess is the only seminary of the Armenian Church offering theological education to lay men and women. St. Nersess has more graduates serving the Armenian community full-time than any Armenian university chair or institution in the western world. Countless devout American Armenians share the conviction of the President of the Board of Directors and Primate of the Eastern Diocese, His Eminence Abp. Khajag Barsamian, that “There is no future for the Armenian Church in America without St. Nersess Seminary.”
Rectors/Deans of St. Nersess Seminary
Archbishop Tiran Nersoyan (1961-1966)
Rev. Fr. Karekin Kasparian (1966-1977)
Rev. Fr. Arshen Aivazian (1982-1984)
Rev. Fr. Mardiros Chevian (1984-1991)
Rev. Deacon Hratch Tchilingiran and Dr. Vigen Guroian (1991-1994)
Rev. Fr. Arakel Aljalian (1994-2000)
V. Rev. Fr. Vahan Hovhanessian (2000)
V. Rev. Fr. Daniel Findikyan (2000—)