Seminarians Benjamin Rith-Najarian and Stan Dikran Sheridan serve at the holy altar of St. Sarkis Armenian Church, Damascus, Syria.
"Last year at this time my speaking abilities in Armenian were limited to 'parev' and 'anotee em'," said Sheridan, who grew up in St. Mesrob Armenian Church in Racine, Wisconsin. "Being immersed in Syria was very intimidating at first, but once I got over my initial fear, I began to use my Armenian more and more. After a few weeks I realized, 'Wow, I'm speaking Armenian!," he said excitedly.
The idea of sending the seminarians to Syria was conceived by Dr. Seta Dadoyan, the Seminary's dynamic Adjunct Professor of Armenian Language and Literature. The seminarians were the guests of His Grace Bishop Armash Nalbandian, Primate of the Armenian Diocese of Damascus.
Stan and Fr. Daniel Findikyan at the ruins of the Cathedral of St. Simeon the Stylite north of Aleppo
Who Goes to Syria?
"I was very reluctant at first. I mean, who goes to Syria?," said Benjamin Rith-Najarian, who was born in Philadelphia but grew up in northern Minnesota, four hours away from the nearest Armenian Church. "But we were received so warmly by the local community and Armash Srpazan cared for us like his own sons," he said, adding, "Syria is very different from what we are led to believe."
September 24, 2009
Two St. Nersess seminarians are conversing comfortably in Armenian after having spent the summer in the Armenian community of Damascus, Syria.
Stan Dikran Sheridan and Benjamin Rith-Najarian were participants in a special immersion program to strengthen their knowledge and command of Western Armenian.
Dikran teaches the local Armenian boys "American" football in the courtyard of the Armenian Church
Immersed in a Western Armenian Speaking Community
Why not immerse the seminarians in Armenia to improve their speaking skills? Because the Seminary traditionally teaches Western Armenian. For those seminarians who are learning Armenian as a second language, the Eastern dialect spoken in Armenia is different enough to confuse them.
Stan and Fr. Daniel Findikyan at the ruins of the Cathedral of St. Simeon the Stylite north of Aleppo."In recent years, as travel to Armenia has become so routine, we found that our seminarians would make good progress at St. Nersess in their Armenian language classes; then they would go to Armenia for a few weeks and return speaking something that is neither proper Western Armenian nor proper Eastern Armenian," said the dean, Fr. Daniel Findikyan. "We decided we should build a strong foundation in Western Armenian before sending the guys to Armenia," he said.
Ben and Stan making mas in the
Armenian Church courtyard in Damascus.
While in Damascus, the seminarians resided at the Armenian Church Center in the old city of Damascus. Many people do not realize that Syria is part of the Holy Land. The Armenian Church is located on "Straight Street," the only street name that is mentioned in the BIble [Acts 9:11]. Footsteps away are sacred Biblical sites, especially places connected to the life of St. Paul the Apostle.
"Contrary to what we are often led to believe, I found Syria to be a remarkably beautiful country, in many ways more religiously tolerant than even the United States," said Fr. Findikyan, who travelled with the seminarians to Syria and stayed for ten days to set up the logistics of the immersion program. "The Armenian community is vibrant, secure, and very proud of its heritage in Syria," he said, adding, "I am convinced that our two Syrian Pilgrims returned with a vastly more profound sense of their Armenian identity and a broader appreciation for the diversity of Armenians in the Middle East and the United States."
Stan poses in front of the main altar of
St. Gregory Armenian Church in Aleppo.
Historic Aleppo - Tragic Der Zor
Stan poses in front of the main altar of St. Gregory Armenian Church in Aleppo.Stan, who arrived in Syria a few weeks before Benjamin, had the opportunity to visit the historic city of Aleppo, which, in the early twentieth century became a staging ground for Armenian Genocide survivors who would later settle throughout the Middle East, Europe and North America. He and Fr. Findikyan also made a pilgrimmage through the Syrian desert to Der Zor, where they were greeted by the local Armenian community and led to the Martyrs' Chapel and museum.
His Grace Bishop Armash Nalbandian, Primate of the Armenian Diocese of Damascus, flanked by seminarians Stan Dikran Sheridan and Benjamin Rith-Najarian.
"It was a pleasure to have Dikran and Benjamin live and study in our community this summer," said Bishop Nalbandian. "I was gratified to see two mature and devout American-Armenian university graduates aspire to become priests of our church. They are outstanding young men who will become excellent priests for the Armenian Church," he said, adding, "We hope to welcome more St. Nersess seminarians to live and study in our community."
That may happen sooner than the bishop realizes. Benjamin's sojourn in Syria was somewhat shorter than Stan's because he had to complete a summer course in the U.S. before traveling. When asked if he was disappointed that he did not have the chance to visit Aleppo he said, "Not really. I'll see it when I go back next year to polish my Armenian!"