Armeens Apostolische Kerk

Vicken Gulvartian, Los Angeles, 23 September 2010

Due to circumstances beyond our control the article couldn’t appear earlier – Editor

The Armenian community of Los Angeles is about to get a big new church on a freeway, the 5 Interstate to be exact. I say new, because there’s already a church on a freeway (the 101). That one is white. The new one is red, but not to be confused with the red Armenian church of Fresno.

Vicken Gulvartian, Los Angeles, 23 September 2010

Due to circumstances beyond our control the article couldn’t appear earlier – Editor

The Armenian community of Los Angeles is about to get a big new church on a freeway, the 5 Interstate to be exact. I say new, because there’s already a church on a freeway (the 101). That one is white. The new one is red, but not to be confused with the red Armenian church of Fresno.

These are testing times for the Armenian nation, particularly for far-flung communities. Those who are fortunate to live in active communities are blessed by the vibrancy of Armenian self-preservation. The building of a big new church is momentous, but also an occasion for contemplation, as the story I am about to tell will attest.

Amsterdam is hardly an appropriate venue for the story of a church. The city is a victim of its own success. Hollanders- rich and prosperous – seem to have not much to debate these days, except for issues of human pleasure, especially the illegal kind. They are willing to first legislate, and then liberate everything and anything: sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. I wonder, doesn’t mankind have more important things to liberate? I guess not. When you got the best, you become like the rest!

Amsterdam is also home to a sizeable Armenian community. An influx of immigrants from religious persecutions, political upheavals, and civil wars has gathered them from Turkey, Iran and Lebanon. Also, there’s hardly a big city in Europe nowadays that does not count a good number of hayastantzis in it. Add them to the fray, and you get an Armenian community much like all others: a mish-mash of dialects and attitudes loosely structured around a church.
That’s where my story begins.


 
Armeens Apostolische Kerk, the Armenian Apostolic Church of Amsterdam, Soorp Hoki (Holy Spirit) was built in 1715, at a time when Holland was at the height of its reach around the world. The Dutch merchant navy ruled the waves, and Holland controlled the trade routes all the way from Indonesia to the capitals of Europe, and a resourceful class of Armenian merchants from the Ottoman and Persian Empires played a pivotal role in moving pearls, diamonds, rugs, textile and spices between continents as early as the sixteenth century.

A parallel story had developed with another merchant class of Armenians- Those who had played an equally important role in the acquisition and foundation of the Mekhitarist monastery on the island of San Lazaro in Venice. Incidentally, those were Armenians of the Catholic denomination. Who knows, they may have been in a competition with the founders of Soorp Hoki at the time. For all we know, the different groups may have looked at the two churches as “theirs” and “ours”, much the same way Armenians react to two churches to this day.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Armenian church of Amsterdam was closed down, and eventually sold. Wars and conflicts, particularly the blockade of Holland during the Napoleonic Wars had taken its toll on the Armenian merchant class that thrived on the free movement of goods across the world. The emergence of the British Empire and English trading companies has resulted in further loss of economic power of the Armenian community of Amsterdam.

I found myself in Amsterdam in the mid 80’s, as a traveler between continents.  I visited the church escorted by a bolsahye whom I had met by chance roaming one of the city squares. When two Armenians meet anywhere in the world, they… well, they explore the local church I guess! The community had obviously grown, as Armenians had once again moved to Amsterdam and eventually repurchased the same church. A remarkable story, and a mark of pride and joy.

The church was located on a canal in the heart of the old city. I was impressed by the interior- clear, thick, white walls, covered with beautiful hand-painted murals. A small khoran, and original tinted glass windows. Nothing grandiose, simply small, intimate, and beautiful. A true gem oozing with history. I could almost feel the footsteps of past generations of Armenians walking its isles. When done touring, my guide then walked me through the must-see Red Light district to meet with other Armenians for a “Who are you”, “Where were you born” type of conversation. That’s Amsterdam for you!

I was again in Amsterdam last month, this time with my family. I made a point to take them to see the small Armenian Church on the canal. A phone call by the hotel concierge was fruitless, as we were told that the church does not accept visitors. I thought that an Armenian doesn’t need an invitation to visit his own church- so first thing in the morning, I gathered my family, hailed a cab and headed to Krom Boomssloot 22.

There it was, the white husky building, three stories high, located (as I remembered) on a quiet tree-lined street right on the canal.

Knock on the door. No answer.

Knock again, still no answer. Something was not right… as it turned out that it wasn’t.

Luckily, Amsterdam is full of friendly next-door neighbors willing to help. This one was a wine merchant by the entrance to the next building. I asked if the Armenian Church was open. He said, “Ya, but the building is not good”. “What do you mean it’s not good?” I asked. “Well, it’s sinking. It’s sinking into the canal”. He demonstrated “sinking” by holding his palms downward in an up-and-down motion.

When asked if mass was being held on Sundays, the answer was an emphatic “No”.

I had no words when I met my family outside. I just shook my head, meaning “No, it’s not open”. Is this what we have to deal with? I thought. Another national treasure condemned to be abandoned and forgotten?  I’m sure it too was built by people with the best of Armenian intentions, alas no one left to save their dream.
Back in Los Angeles, I cannot help but think about the small church on the canal as I drive past the big church on the freeway.  Let’s not forget the past; we may end up living it again… much, much (much) sooner than three hundred years from now.

I do not wish to dismissively shake my head about an Armenian church again. It hurts too much!

Other articles on Keghart by Vicken Gulvartian:

 
 
1 comment
  1. Thank you Mr. Gulvartian

    Thank you Mr. Gulvartian for this very interesting article. After reading it I kept on thinking why do we really invest so much in building churches when the millions that we spend could be invested in more important areas, such as our existing schools.

    Renovating them, upgrading their technical capabilities, subsidizing so that they are more affordable and thus attractive for average income families, etc.are some of things that come to my mind.

    Surely schools play a great role in preserving the community and ensuring that the next generation is well equipped to meet challenges in resisting assimilation.

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