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A Firm Faith

With just five priests in the country, Armenian Catholics in Georgia persevere

text and photographs by Molly Corso

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After generations of Soviet oppression, Georgia’s Armenian Catholics still labor to rebuild their community and their faith. Soviet Georgia’s bureaucrats suppressed Armenian Catholic parishes, imprisoned priests and boarded churches, but they failed to dampen Armenian Catholic faith and resolve. Ironically, that resolve is in jeopardy in the reasonably open and democratic Republic of Georgia.

Latin (Roman) Catholic priests returned to Georgia in 1992, quickly reanimating parish life in two historic Latin parishes in the capital of Tbilisi. But it was not until 2002 that Tbilisi, home to more than 80,000 Armenians, received its first Armenian Catholic priest. Today, there are just five Armenian Catholic priests to tend to nearly 20,000 believers scattered throughout the country. Most live in a wide swath of villages southwest of Tbilisi in the predominantly Armenian region of Samtskhe-Javakheti, but the Georgian capital was, until a hundred years ago, the region’s largest Armenian-populated city.

The lack of priests on the ground means Armenian Catholics living in cities such as Borjomi, Ozurgeti and Chiatura attend Latin parishes, a phenomenon that impacts all Eastern Catholics where clergy and parishes are nonexistent. This means that a way of life, as well as a faith tradition, is imperiled. More Armenian Catholics are finding themselves disconnected from centuries of tradition without access to the sacraments and rites that have been a part of their faith and, in fact, their identity.

Yet, defying the odds, they stand firm. To spend time with Georgia’s Armenian Catholics is to rediscover the deep reservoirs of piety and purpose — and a remarkable strength of character — that have defined them for generations.

It is also to realize, above all, that the story of Georgia’s Armenian Catholics is one of unwavering faith.

“The Soviet period was a time of oppression for Armenian Catholic families,” says Tbilisi’s Rev. Mikael Khachkalian, the only Armenian Catholic priest in the city, of the challenges facing his flock in Georgia.

“The Soviet Communist regime’s deliberate policy gave birth to another problem — the Armenians of Tbilisi in particular don’t have a good command of the Armenian language, knowledge about their national Christian tradition and their rich, centuries-old history.”

Father Khachkalian estimates that around 80 percent of those worshiping in Tbilisi’s two Catholic parishes are in fact ethnic Armenians. The same problem exists around the country, outside the predominantly Armenian Catholic villages in southwestern Georgia, where the Armenian language and culture dominate. Yet even in these villages, the heart of Armenian Catholicism in the Caucasus, challenges exist. Priests must travel travel hundreds of miles in wretched conditions to provide the sacraments to far-flung congregations in shrinking communities largely empty of its men, most of whom have abandoned their families for work in Russia.

Solakat Davolian, 75, attends liturgy every morning in the small makeshift chapel in the Armenian Catholic center in Tbilisi, yet she prefers to attend Mass every Sunday afternoon at the Latin parish of Sts. Peter and Paul downtown.

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