No-nonsense Nuns

text by Sister J. Arousiag Sajonian
photographs by Armineh Johannes

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On 7 December 1988, news of a devastating earthquake in Soviet Armenia reached our motherhouse in Rome. As horrifying images of the dead and desolate flooded our television screen that night, sisters volunteered to heal the wounded, console the survivors and give hope to the desperate.

In September 1990, after months of waiting, the Soviet authorities permitted me to fly to Armenia. My destination: the town of Spitak, the epicenter of an earthquake measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale. My experience as an educator was put to use; in that devastated town I worked with mourning teachers and shell-shocked children.

“Life is meaningless when all your loved ones are gone,” remarked Kayane, the director of a school, who had lost her husband and three children.

One child troubles me still. Eight-year-old Armen was the only member of his family of six to survive an earthquake that killed an estimated 25,000 people. “I wish to join my folks in heaven,” he said one day.

Natural disasters may be explained and even analyzed but, for the survivors, the bitter consequences may never be understood. Only faith subdues fear and anxiety. And inspiring that faith was the real challenge for our community, the Congregation of the Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception. We labored to reconcile the goodness of God with the rubble of shattered lives.

Anthony Cardinal Peter IX Hassounian founded our congregation in 1847 in Constantinople (now Istanbul), the capital of the Ottoman Empire. Established to serve the youth of the extensive Armenian diaspora, the congregation grew quickly, building schools and convents throughout the empire. These achievements ended when, in 1915, the Turks slew more than 1.5 million Armenians, including 13 Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception. Some 40 others were deported.

Not without some difficulty, our community began anew, erecting schools in areas where survivors of the genocide had fled. In 1922, the community’s headquarters and novitiate moved to Rome; from there it directs 20 schools located throughout the Middle East, Europe and North America.

Our work with the citizens of Spitak was a turning point for the Armenian sisters. For years we had dreamed of offering our time and talents for the welfare of our historic homeland. Since the 1970s, I had intended to serve there. My superiors supported my intention, provided I retained my United States nationality. This plan, however, did not seem feasible during the Soviet regime in Armenia.

My colleague, Sister Arshagouhie, and I wanted to remain in Armenia indefinitely. In 1991, we were officially posted there. At that time, Armenia had achieved independence, the Soviet Union had collapsed, and the Holy See had appointed Father Nerses Der Nersessian, former Superior General of the Mekhitarist fathers, as Ordinary for Armenian Catholics of Eastern Europe.

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