From ONE Magazine

No-nonsense Nuns

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.

The inhabitants of the Armenian Catholic villages near the northern city of Leninakan (now Gumri) took note of our work in Spitak. They wrote to our superiors in Rome, asking that the Armenian sisters send a few of their number to live and work in the villages. Sister Arshagouhie answered the call, working diligently throughout the winter of 1991 to reopen the doors of the church in the village of Arevig. Closed by the communists in the 1930s, the church, like many in the former Soviet Union, had been used as a warehouse. Today the restored structure stands as a monument to faith.

On 8 September 1992, our first convent – a cement house without electricity or running water, the gift of a French non-governmental organization – was formally established in Arevig. A month later, we received a new member, Sister Rebecca, into our small community.

Difficult living conditions did not affect our apostolic zeal. In 1992 the Armenian government’s ministries of Education and Religious Affairs, respectively, approved our educational credentials, thus providing us with an opportunity to teach in state schools. We were given an hour a week per class to teach catechism – or the “history of religion,” as the authorities preferred to call it – to the first- through tenth grade students of Arevig, Lantchig and Panik. We have taught some 1,000 students on a weekly basis, preparing them for Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist and Reconciliation.

We have also visited the elderly and the sick and have organized public seminars.All these activities have been made possible through a vehicle donated by CNEWA, which has carried us back and forth from village to village.

Our classes and presentations were the first formal catechetical lessons offered to Armenian Catholics since the country was annexed by Soviet Russia in 1922. The communists ruthlessly suppressed the Armenian Catholic Church, together with all other Eastern Catholic churches in the Soviet empire, closing churches and schools, imprisoning priests and nuns. Therefore, catechesis and pastoral support are much needed to sustain the very few – approximately 30 – historically Catholic villages of northern Armenia.

The majority of all Armenian believers are members of the Armenian Apostolic Church, which traces its roots to the end of the third century when King Tiridates III adopted the faith from St. Gregory the Illuminator. Armenian Catholics, in full communion with the Church of Rome, share the customs, liturgy and rites of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

The present Armenian Catholic communities of northern Armenia and southern Georgia were formed in the 19th century. Thousands fled Ottoman harassment, leaving their ancient homeland in Cilicia, or little Armenia (south central Turkey), for the protection offered by the Russian tsar in ancient Armenia. They built churches and schools, sent their clergy to theologates in Europe, and prospered under the guidance of the Mekhitarists. A calendar printed in 1916 in Tbilisi, Georgia, lists some 51 parishes and 42 priests in the Caucasus.

While the current community may claim some 70 Armenian Catholic villages throughout Armenia and Georgia, only seven priests have been assigned. This great void of priests requires our sisters to become actively involved in the pastoral work of the church. We prepare parents and children to receive the sacraments of Christian Initiation and encourage young adults to marry in the church. Choirs have been organized in Arevig and Lantchig while a theater group travels to a variety of hamlets presenting the Gospel through dramatized episodes from the life of Jesus.

Our community has since outgrown that simple cement convent in Arevig. Our mission, placed under the care of Our Lady of Armenia, is now located in Gumri. We have extended our activities and established convents in the village of Heshdia in southern Georgia (1994) and the Armenian city of Tashir (1995).

Eight small communities in the south Georgian regions of Ninosminta and Akhalkalaki enjoy the presence of Sisters Eudoxie and Haguinte, who work with the parish priest in his pastoral duties. The sisters also teach in the state schools of three villages and hold adult religious education classes in the convent.

“When Armenians walk by a church, they feel the urge to enter, to light a candle and make the sign of the cross,” Sister Eudoxie reports. “The majority of the people have a superficial faith; they are not familiar with the liturgy and the concepts of our faith,” she continues. “We have a lot to teach.”

Nevertheless, in many villages the people demonstrate an overwhelming enthusiasm for the faith:

“When our church was closed during the Soviet regime,” says Mariam, a 70-year-old native of Tzkhalpila, a village in southern Georgia, “we would gather in our houses every Sunday in order to pray.”

Now Mariam makes up for all of the liturgies she missed. Three times daily, Mariam walks up a jagged village road to the church, where she attends morning prayer, Eucharist and evening prayer.

Some 35,000 Armenian Catholics live in Tashir, a region bordering Georgia. Ninety percent of the population in 24 Tashir villages are Armenian Catholic. The largest village, Medzavan, prides itself on its restored fifth-century chapel and the tomb of its exiled pastor, Father Chobanian.

Sisters Arshagouhie, Am and Arpine bear the pastoral burden for the entire area; a priest has not yet been assigned. Weekly visits by Father Mikayel Mouradian, who is stationed in Gumri, barely satisfy the demand for the sacraments:

“When will you come to our village to baptize and celebrate the liturgy?” complains a respectable elder of Lernovit village.

The inhabitants of Kuzultash are disturbed that, after several requests, their appeals have brought no priest. The village of Norashen, which has expelled all religious groups and sects, has extended a warm welcome to the Armenian sisters, provided they profess the faith of their ancestors.

Our sisters, although engaged with their teaching assignments and after-school programs, visit many of Tashir’s Catholic communities; it is physically impossible, however, to call on every community.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, social and economic crises have plagued the former republics. The Soviet regime provided employment, housing and security. Now, individuals must take care of themselves.

Confronted with unemployment, many fathers and heads of households have left Armenia for employment opportunities in Russia. Some never return. This socioeconomic problem has created another impoverished class, orphans.

In 1994, Sisters Madeleine, Rebecca, and I began a summer camp program for these orphans. Some 640 children have benefited from our three-week camps during the last three summers. Located on lovely grounds on a slope of Mount Aragats, the camp, thanks to several Western donors, has provided proper nutrition and an enriching educational experience for these children.

This year CNEWA enabled our sisters to enlarge the scope of our camp with a grant to include choir members and university students contemplating their call to become lay catechists. And to help us in our endeavor we invited biblical specialists, church historians, musicologists and professors of education from the Middle East, Italy and the U.S.

The shortage of priests and sisters has hindered the growth of the Armenian Catholic Church in its historic homeland. If we wish our people to remain faithful to the faith of their fathers, and not follow the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals and other sects that have inundated Armenia, we must prepare lay catechists. The harvest is vast and the laborers so very few.

Sister Arousiag is Superior of Our Lady of Armenia convent in Gumri. Armineh Johannes also contributed to this article.