St. Nersess Armenian Seminary's majestic 80-year old Tudor main building was filled beyond capacity as more than 40 participants and staff members gathered for this year's Deacons' Training Program. 32 young men and nine staff participated in the nine-day institute from June 25-July 3.
"This year was a record," said V. Rev. Fr. Daniel Findikyan, Dean of the Seminary and Director of the Deacons' Training Program. Not since the 1970's has the Deacons' Program attracted so many participants. The participants came from 14 states in the Eastern and Western Dioceses. Most of the participants were teenagers who serve at the altar in their church parishes.
Skills to be Mastered
The intensive schedule of workshops and tutorials was designed to improve the students' knowledge of the music, rituals and practical skills that a deacon needs to master to assist in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy and other services of the Armenian Church. Classes were tailored to the students. Those with little or no previous experience serving at the altar devoted their time to the chants and rituals of the Divine Liturgy (Badarak). Advanced students worked on the deacons' part in the sacraments of Baptism and Matrimony.
Serving as instructors and counselors for the week, in addition to Fr. Findikyan, were Fr. Daniel Karadjian, Pastor of St. Sarkis Armenian Church (Charlotte, NC); Fr. Sahak Kaishian, Visiting Priest in the Eastern Diocese; Deacon Sarkis Altunian (St. Sarkis, Dallas, TX); Deacon Haik Diloyan (St. James, Watertown, MA); Deacon Mkrtich Ksachikyan (St. Peter, Van Nuys, CA); Peter Hanoian (Sts. Sahag and Mesrob, Providence, RI); and Emil Davitian (Armenian Church of Columbus, OH).
Most of the mornings were dedicated to learning musical chants and polishing practical skills such as vesting the celebrant priest of the Badarak and censing with the poorvar. Evening discussions led by guest instructors provided the opportunity to look deeper into the deacon's ministry and the traditions of the Armenian Church.
Deacon Haik Diloyan (left) works with participant
Harry Lang on chanting the Gospel
Fr. Daniel Karadjian, Pastor of St. Sarkis
Armenian Church, Charlotte, NC
Fr. Karekin Kasparian, Pastor of St. Gregory the Enlightener Armenian Church in nearby White Plains, NY, presented an informative and engaging survey of the life and heroic ministry of Catholicos Mgrtich, more popularly known as "Khrimian Hayrig." This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the death of this saintly leader, a true "good shepherd" of the Armenian people during a vulnerable period of our history. The young deacons were surprised to learn that this valiant Catholicos began his Christian vocation as a husband and father. Destined to suffer the death of both his wife and child, Khrimian turned to monastic life as a "shooshdag" vartabed (a widower who takes monastic orders).
In another evening discussion, Elise Antreassian-Bayizian, Coordinator of Christian Education at the Eastern Diocese in New York and a St. Nersess alumna, walked the young men through a chain of Bible passages that describe the origin and necessary qualifications of one who would serve the church as a deacon. Among others, the deacons looked to the example of St. Stephen, who was a deacon and the first martyr in Christendom.
(L-R) Aram Petrosyan, Narek Manukyan, Deacon Mkrtich Ksachikyan, Jano Minassian, Aaron DerderianAccording to the Bible, St. Stephen was chosen to be a deacon because he was "a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 6:5).
Razmig Dokmadjian from St. Sarkis Armenian Church, Dallas, TXAlso addressing the deacons was Dr. Albert Rossi, a clinical psychologist and Professor of Theology at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary. "All sin begins in the brain," he said, as he counseled the deacons in living a life worthy of the title "deacon" and pleasing to God.
Fr. Stepanos Doudoukjian, Director of Youth and Vocations was also on hand. "How does your decision to serve God at the altar on Sundays affect other decisions you make in your daily lives?," he asked.
He next had the young men sing the final song of the Badarak, "Orhnetseets uzDer hamenayn zham" orhnootyoon nora ee peran eem" (I will praise the Lord at all times"his blessing with always be on my lips). "Does the promise that you make in that hymn every Sunday contradict anything you do during the rest of the week?," he asked them. Holding no punches, he continued, "What about what you look at and post on the internet?"
Fr. Daniel with four dedicated altar serversFrom the first day it was quite clear. "By the end of this week, anyone who does not know how to read Armenian will learn," Fr. Findikyan said at the opening orientation. "And those of you who do know the letters, will improve your reading." Using "Discover Armenian" software developed by Dr. Thomas Samuelian, Emeritus Professor of Armenian Language and Literature at St. Nersess, the goal was achieved, as more than a dozen young men learned the Armenian alphabet. The software and laptop computers were donated by long-time St. Nersess benefactor, Dr. Sarkis Kechejian of Dallas, Texas.
At St. Nersess the seminary chapel is a sanctuary for prayer but also a laboratory for learning. Each morning the deacons, clergy and staff gathered for the Sunrise Service (Arevakal), while late at night they prayed the Peace Service (Khaghaghagan Zham). In so doing they learned such stirring hymns as Hareveleets, Nayats Seerov and Ee Ken Haytsemk, all composed by the Seminary's patron saint, Nersess "the Gracious" Shnorhali (d. 1173).
Participants and Staff at St. Vartan Armenian CathedralThese beautiful services were not limited to chapel-time. During daily Bible Study, small groups looked more closely at the prayers and hymns of the Sunrise and Peace services using Bible Study guides prepared especially for this summer's St. Nersess youth conferences.
Pilgrimage to St. Vartan Cathedral
An all-day "edifying and fun" excursion took the young men to St. Vartan Cathedral in New York to see and pray in the mother church of the Eastern Diocese, and to meet clergy, youth ministers, teachers and staff of the Department of Youth and Education. The deacons spent the afternoon and evening at New-Roc, an arcade and recreational center in New Rochelle.
On Sunday, St. Gregory Armenian Church in nearby White Plains, New York was enriched by the presence and participation of the deacons, who served at the altar and sang in the choir.