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Around the Foothills

The gesture was a barely noticed sign that this was more than the visit of a distant prelate.

July 14, 1988|DOUG SMITH

After dashing about Southern California for a month, the cherub-faced Armenian prelate with the pointed black hood and the 12-word title made his last call in Glendale Sunday.

His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Lebanese branch of the Armenian church, had already visited an Armenian school in La Crescenta and returned last weekend to oversee the annual games of the Armenian Athletic Union and Scouts at Glendale High School.

His Holiness, as he is called for short, came again Sunday to conclude a two-day ceremony consecrating a church had waited 3 1/2 years to receive his blessing.

The consecration could have been done earlier by a bishop when the church was purchased from the First Church Of Christ, Scientist. Father Nareg Shrikian, pastor of St. Mary's Armenian Apostolic Church, waited, however, in the knowledge that he could make the event "a memorable one, to be told to the future generations that this church is consecrated by His Holiness."

It was all of that, a ceremony right in its ritual, its ornament and especially in its music.

Before the 11 a.m. service, Glendale police shut off several streets around the church at 500 S. Central Avenue and a small group of plainclothes officers scanned the worshipers filing in.

As anticipated, His Holiness brought out the congregation in its fullest. The parishioners formed an indelible picture of Old World men and women in Old World suits and dresses pressed together with the young and modern--some bare headed and open necked, others in high-fashion suits and Easter-like bonnets and satin dresses.

The church seats 1,000. Many more than twice that number came and left during the two-hour ceremony. They stood in the aisles to see or edged their way to the marble cornices in the four corners to light prayer candles. Then they moved out to the foyer or the sidewalk, yielding their places to others.

An assemblage of more than a dozen priests, monks, bishops and an archbishop stood on the proscenium alter. The bishops and archbishop wore red and yellow capes and tunics intricately embroidered in gold. His Holiness stood with a group of priests who wore the everyday black robe of the clergy.

They alternately read the liturgy in Armenian and sang it with the choir. Sometimes the melodies warbled in the tones of the Middle East. Sometimes they were simple and clean like Gregorian chants. Sometimes they soared, as blithe as Wesleyan hymns. And sometimes the combined voices were as colorful as a Verde chorus.

That much was no different than any Sunday at St. Mary's Church.

"The whole Mass is done musical and by singing," Shrikian said later. "The deacons, the priest and the choir is done like in the Catholic Church. They call it High Mass. We do it every Sunday."

This Sunday diverged when His Holiness and the mitered bishops began to make their way around the outer aisles, stopping 16 times in front of small picture frames, each holding a gold cross. They represented the 12 Disciples, the two Apostles and two special figures, St. Paul and St. John the Illuminator.

Taking turns, the priests repeated a prayer and anointed each with a holy oil.

Then, briefly His Holiness shed his familiar demi-smile and hood. Changed into the more elaborate ceremonial gown, he stood alone on the alter, rod in his left hand, green scarf in his right, no miter upon his hairless head.

For 20 minutes he spoke in Armenian in a strong, textured voice that sometimes rose and sometimes cracked with emotion.

He said it was a day to be held in the heart because the church isn't represented by the building but by its faithful children, Shrikian recalled later.

"He wanted the new generation to follow the old generation, keeping the faith of the Armenian and the Christian Church, also keeping their native language, the traditions, which are, of course, ways of continuing being Armenian," Shrikian said.

After communion, the offertory and more prayer and song, Karekin II sat in a wooden chair in the church social hall downstairs and shook every hand that was offered.

Most of the worshipers kissed his hand or touched their foreheads to it. Some asked for blessings and received them.

After almost an hour, His Holiness stood and was led away, stopping to pinch the cheek of a teen-age girl who stood nearby.

The girl was Nairy Shrikian, daughter of the parish priest, and the gesture was a barely noticed sign that this was more than the visit of a distant and forbidding prelate.

The girl's grandfather--Shrikian's father--was the parish priest in the town of Syria where Karekin II grew up. It was he who nudged the future prelate onto the clerical path, Shrikian said.

"He kept his closeness to our family always," Shrikian said of the prelate. "He felt very sorry that he couldn't see my father also, because the day he was coming here, we had the burial ceremony."

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