When Larry Zarian's family moved to Glendale in the early 1950s, there were, he recalled, about 10 Armenian families in town. "When I went to high school, many of my friends did not even know what an Armenian was," said Zarian, who is now a Glendale city councilman.
Through the '60s and '70s, increasing numbers of Armenian families moved to the Glendale area, attracted by the quiet neighborhoods and good schools and by relatives and friends who had preceded them. By 1975, there were about 2,000 Armenians, enough to warrant the founding of their own church, St. Mary's Armenian Apostolic Church, in what had been a small Protestant church on East Carlton Drive.
Then, trouble exploded in the Mideast and a new wave of Armenians began leaving Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon in large numbers for the security of America, and California in particular. The Armenian population in the Glendale area increased tenfold in the past decade, bringing with it a boom in Armenian cultural, educational and political organizations based in the city.
And, of course, with the Apostolic Church a center for community life, St. Mary's 200-seat church and 10-car parking lot soon became crowded. Neighbors began to complain about parishioners double-parking and making the sidewalks a de facto Armenian community center on Sundays.
The little one-story, nondescript building tucked onto a side street was no longer fitting for what had become a large and prosperous community. "It was too small, too small," said Stepan Kabadaian, chairman of St. Mary's board of trustees.
So the congregation, which includes residents of Burbank, Sunland-Tujunga and northeast Los Angeles, last year began looking for a new home. Boosted by a $1-million donation from one family and other large pledges, it recently bought for $3 million an imposing 950-seat, Colonial-style church building on Central Avenue at Chestnut Street. A Christian Scientist congregation wanted to sell the building so it could consolidate with a sister congregation in northern Glendale.
With its location on a main thoroughfare close to the Galleria and business district, its 200-car parking lot, its large social hall, its impressive columns and staircase and its prominent sign in Armenian and English, the new St. Mary's seems to announce to the world that Glendale's Armenian community has truly arrived in style. The planned addition of a dome and a new marble altar later this year will add to that impression, church leaders hope.
"It is something to be proud of," said Ara Terminassians, the real estate developer whose family donated $1 million to the church in memory of his late father, Vazguin, and brother, Arthur. Asked why his family made the donation, Terminassians said: "More than anything else, the church has helped us to survive as a people."
So many Armenian-Americans from around Los Angeles County were curious about St. Mary's that, police estimate, about 8,000 people tried to attend its unofficial opening on Easter. The result was an unprecedented Sunday traffic jam a mile long and the need for some quick reshuffling of police manpower to direct traffic, city officials said.
Last Sunday, the church was formally opened with services led by Bishop Yeprem Tabakian, prelate of the Western United States of the Beirut-based branch of the Apostolic Church, who read telegrams of blessings and congratulations from the Armenian Catholicos, or pope, Kharekin II in Lebanon.
(The Armenian Apostolic Church split in a political dispute in 1933. One branch is headquartered in Soviet Armenia and the other, which includes most of the Armenian churches in the United States, in Beirut. In addition, some Armenians belong to their own Protestant denomination and some to their own branch of Catholicism under the authority of Rome).
An estimated 1,500 people attended Sunday, many standing along the walls of the wide, pale-blue sanctuary as the bishop, in his gold-colored robes, led prayers from a temporary wooden altar bedecked with a painting of the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus. As is traditional, a red curtain was sometimes drawn across the altar for the bishop, out of sight of the congregation, to prepare the bread and wine for Communion. A choir sang and parishioners lighted candles.
In his sermon, St. Mary's pastor, the Rev. Anoushavan Artinian, warned parishioners not to antagonize their new neighbors with noise, litter and illegal parking. He said he did not want a repetition of complaints generated on Carlton Drive.
Meanwhile, in the lobby and on the portico, a continuous crowd of more than 100 chatted with friends and relatives. And on the sidewalk and in the parking lot, pamphleteers handed out literature ranging from advertisements for a local travel agency to strident propaganda calling for the re-establishment of an independent Armenia, which is now divided among Turkey, the Soviet Union and Iran.