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Worship of tradition

A new Armenian church in Pasadena has the Old World look of stone walls and soaring arches.

September 09, 2007|Deborah Schoch | Times Staff Writer

In an age when new churches can be as boxy and boring as shopping malls, the members of St. Gregory the Illuminator longed for arches.

They craved warm-hued stone dug from quarries in their ancestors' Armenia. While other growing parishes settled for former banks or castoff older churches, this parish housed in a former Coca-Cola distribution center wanted a building all its own -- a brand-new structure but one that would look centuries old.

Now, the graceful dome of their new stone-walled church rises 85 feet above the auto parts stores of Pasadena's Colorado Boulevard, a silhouette that recalls the skyline of Athens or Cairo.

Today at noon, church leaders will formally consecrate the church with a ceremony known as Navagadik. Festivities began Saturday evening with the opening of the church's carved walnut doors as priests chanted the Armenian liturgy and incense wafted upward.

Member Arthur Kokozian, whose parents brought him to the parish in 1971 when he was 11 months old, said he felt goose bumps as he heard the singing.

"It's part of our DNA," he said.

The story of this church says much about the history of the burgeoning Armenian religious community in the American Southwest and why, for many of its members, church architecture matters so much.

As those members put the finishing touches on the new St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Apostolic Church, they are rejoicing in the triumph of tradition: a marble-framed baptismal font, jewel-toned stained-glass windows and particularly the rounded arches both outside the church and setting off its glowing cream interior.

"We didn't want a box. We wanted arches," said project manager Hampo Nazerian, motioning at the windows and dome.

"They're inviting, they're warm, not squared or cold. Arches are like arms outstretched," said longtime volunteer Marguerite Hougasian, whose father helped start the Pasadena parish in 1947. The new church's Old World style reflects the importance of tradition in the 1,700-year-old Armenian faith, she said. "It's a way of strengthening and holding to the faith, keeping us bonded to our belief."

The building has a sturdy copper roof and drain pipes. Although early designs for the steel-framed church called for stucco walls, members later decided on an exterior of stone ordered from Armenia, in Southwestern Asia east of Turkey.

The stone was carried by ship to Houston, where it was delayed by U.S. customs officials unhappy with the shipping pallets, said architect John Byram of Pasadena. Project costs climbed from the $1.3 million approved in 1997 to more than $5 million today. Some church leaders blame the increase on delays and problems with initial designs and contractors.

Some members say that a stone-walled church serves to anchor the Armenian community after centuries of turbulence that forced thousands to flee the churches of their native lands. They point to the early 20th century genocide of more than 1 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks, and to more recent emigration from Lebanon, the former Soviet Union and Iran.

Many sought out Southern California, now home to at least 300,000 Armenian Americans.

The Burbank-based Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America is the largest outside of Armenia, said Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, primate of the diocese. That growth has church leaders rushing to train new priests and aid new parishes now renting church space in several cities ringing Los Angeles.

An October groundbreaking is planned for a cathedral in Burbank, followed by a church in Palm Desert, Derderian said. More churches are planned in La CaƱada Flintridge, Palmdale and other nearby cities as well as Seattle, Las Vegas and Denver.

That growth spurt comes as urban parishes of other faiths struggle with shrinking memberships.

Congregations of 100 or 200 people meet in high-vaulted churches built for four or five times that amount. Some parishes have sold their buildings to Korean or other fast-growing churches.

Other new churches are moving into former movie theaters and auditoriums.

In older cities like Pasadena, new churches are a rarity, and St. Gregory is the first in at least 10 years to be built from scratch. New church buildings are more common in suburbs, but few feature expensive imported stone or centuries-old details.

Some fundamentalist and evangelical Christian parishes have erected so-called mega-churches with an auditorium feel and warehouse-store boxiness. Many new churches "could be office complexes, could be corporate headquarters," said University of Hartford architecture chair and author Michael J. Crosbie.

He is editor of Faith and Form magazine, which is geared to artists and architects who design religious buildings. Some critics, he said, believe that this surge of "neutral" religious architecture appeals to churchgoers raised in mainline faiths who now are drawn to more evangelical parishes and are leery of stained glass and carved stone.

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