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Restoring Faith

Armenians in western Ukraine rebuild church and community

text by Mariya Tytarenko with photographs by Petro Didula

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“You can’t imagine how shocked I was when I first entered the church in April 2001,” says 61-year-old Father Thaddeos Gevorgian, pastor of the Armenian Apostolic Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary in Lviv, Ukraine.

As the cathedral’s first pastor since Soviet authorities shuttered it in 1945, the priest indeed faced a daunting task.

At the time, the cathedral languished in a state of total disrepair. Rain and snow fell directly into the nave through gaping holes in the roof and broken windows. In the cool, damp air, a thick carpet of moss grew on the walls and ceiling, covering the vibrant 1930’s frescoes by Polish artist Jan Rosen.

But from the ruins came more than just a restoration of a building. The story of the cathedral’s revival is a testament to the steadfast faith and devotion of the Armenian people in Lviv.

The cathedral dates back to 1363. Originally a modest wooden chapel, it underwent major alterations in 1437, with the installation of a stone arcade; in 1527, with the erection of the stone belfry; and in 1630 and 1723, with the construction of the current stone nave in two phases.

In 1991, the Armenian Apostolic Church sent Bishop Natan Ohanesian from Armenia to Lviv to establish an eparchy to serve western Ukraine’s dispersed Armenian community. In 1997, local Ukrainian authorities initiated the formal surrender of the cathedral to the new eparchy.

The eparchy, in turn, charged Father Gevorgian with not only restoring one of Lviv’s oldest and most magnificent churches, but also rebuilding the local Armenian parish community.

“There was no money to restore the church, and the Armenian community was scattered,” he says. “And it turned out that Pope John Paul II was planning on visiting the church three months after my arrival.”

According to the priest, Pope John Paul II’s interest in the cathedral was nothing short of a blessing from God. “Because of the pope’s visit in June 2001, the government helped enormously to renovate the church. It would have taken me a full year to do the work it did in three days.”

Father Gevorgian also stresses the crucial role the papal visit played in raising awareness among Ukrainians about the country’s ancient Armenian community.

“The problem was that quite a few local people wrongly assumed, and some still do, that the Armenian Church was either Muslim or Jewish and not Orthodox Christian,” he explains.

Two years later, in May 2003, Armenian Apostolic Catholicos Karekin II visited Lviv to consecrate the renovated cathedral. “There were many honored guests,” says Father Gevorgian, “including Armen Khachatrian, a speaker of the Armenian parliament, Leonid Kravchuk, a former president of Ukraine, Charles Aznavour, a famous Armenian-French singer, and numerous Armenian ambassadors and representatives from different confessions.”

From the 17th century to the end of World War II, the cathedral served as the center of the Armenian Catholic community. Just before the war, some 5,500 Armenian Catholics lived in Galicia — the historic region comprising what is now western Ukraine and parts of southeastern Poland. The eparchy administered nine churches and 16 chapels in the region.

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