"For a few moments, I thought I was in Armenia," Vazken I, head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, told 1,500 schoolchildren gathered Friday at Pasadena City College.
Most of the children, students at nine Armenian schools in the Los Angeles area, had never been to the Soviet Republic of Armenia, but they put together a program of traditional songs, dramatic recitations and original skits, all in Armenian and all conveying nostalgia for their parents' homeland and pride in their culture.
"Truly, it's only in Armenia that I can see this kind of gathering," said Vazken I, whose title is Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians .
Gratified by the comparison, the students were joined by their parents and teachers in a cheer.
A group of girls and boys, some in floor-length white gowns, others in blue and white school uniforms, waited on the auditorium's stage as Vazken I made his way down the center aisle, stopping frequently to bless members of the audience who reached out to him.
Although the audience was made up mostly of school groups, there were also a few families that came on their own.
Angela Deryeghian of Westlake Village said she brought her two sons because she wants to instill in them a love for their heritage. Deryeghian's friend, Sonia Albarian, who brought her three children, called the opportunity to see the Catholicos a once-in-a-lifetime event.
"He's 79 years old," she said. "We don't know if he'll be back again."
Shant Boshnakian, 16, a student at the Arshag Dickranian School, presented the patriarch with a letter signed by more than 2,000 Armenian young people. The sentiments were culled from essays written by students about their admiration for Vazken and their pride in their Armenian heritage.
Piece of Parchment
"We have learned about you from our parents, our grandparents and our teachers," Shant read from a piece of parchment covered with Armenian characters that he later placed in Vazken's hands. "In you we see all our past history and most especially, our future. Please accept these our words as a promise to walk the path you have outlined."
Shant kissed the patriarch's hand and the two exchanged a few words.
"He said, 'I am so proud of you,' " Shant said later.
Vazken I, who visited the United States in 1960 and 1968, expressed both surprise and delight at the growth in the number of Armenian schools in the country.
"I want to give my congratulations and encouragement to all those who have over the last 10 or 15 years established Armenian schools in the United States," he said.
He added that when he visited the United States in 1960, there were no Armenian schools. He was told that the community could not afford it.
"As I was leaving and received invitations for a next visit, I said, 'I will certainly come, whenever you open an Armenian school.' That dream has become a reality," he said.
Vazken spoke to the children of the importance of preserving their culture and language.
"Be proud to speak and read the Armenian language," he told them. "Learning and speaking good English should not impede you from learning and speaking good Armenian."
The children, who had been whispering to each other in Armenian and English throughout the morning, looked solemn and nodded. The pianist began to play a church song known as the Pontifical Hymn and the audience began to sing--in Armenian.