His Holiness Catholicos Karekin I Passes Away

By Matthew Maroot




On Tuesday, June 29, 1999, Armenians the world over suffered an immeasurable loss. His Holiness Karekin I Sarkissian, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of all Armenians, passed into eternal rest after a long period of severe illness.

H. H. Karekin I was elected in 1995 by the National Ecclesiastical Assembly as the 131st Catholicos to occupy the throne of St. Gregory the Illuminator. He served as Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia for 18 years before taking the throne at the See of Holy Etchmiadzin where he guided the Armenian Church and the Armenian nation with a profound sense of devotion.

During his last visit to Fresno in February, 1996, H.H. Karekin I was the guest of the Armenian Studies Program and spoke to a capacity crowd at the Satellite Student Union.

News of his passing despite a long and serious illness, was no less tragic. "As much as you prepare for something that you know is inevitable, there was nevertheless a feeling of despair when we lost His Holiness," said Mark Shirin, Arch Deacon at the Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church in Fresno. "He was not just a great church leader, he was a great writer, a scholar, an orator, a theologian, an ecumenist. He was someone who captured the hearts of a lot of young Armenian-American people," Shirin said.

His Holiness Karekin I was born Neshan Sarkissian on August 27, 1932. He attended an Armenian elementary school near his native village of Kessab, Syria and in 1946 was admitted to the Theological Seminary of the Armenian Catholicate of Cilicia. In 1949 he was ordained as a deacon before graduating with high honors in 1952. His Holiness took the name Karekin when ordained as a celibate priest on Sept. 28, 1952. He was renamed Karekin in memory of the late Catholicos H.H. Karekin I Hovsepian.

H.H. Karekin I worked tirelessly to not only develop and nurture the spirituality of the Armenian people, but to unify them as a nation as well. He also dedicated much of his time to make Armenians throughout the Diaspora feel as much a part of the Armenian Church as those who worshipped at Etchmiadzin themselves. Many believe H.H. Karekin I had much more to accomplish in his already accomplished life. "His tenure was too short, he really didnít get to accomplish all that he wanted to," said Ben Krikorian, chairman of the parish council at St. Paul Armenian Church in Fresno.

In preparation for the celebration of the 1700th anniversary of the adoption of Christianity in Armenia, H.H. Karekin I oversaw the renovation of numerous churches and monasteries that had previously been in a state of disrepair.

Also under his direction, a new assemblage of future spiritual leaders studied at the Gevorgian Seminary which had been completely renovated. The efforts of H.H. Karekin I also led to the expansion of the Center for Christian Education and Preaching and the opening of the St. Mesrop Seminary in Oshakan.

Thanks in large part to the prolific writings of H.H. Karekin I, the press of the Mother See was greatly expanded and included a number of works authored by His Holiness. H.H. Karekin I authored more than 50 works on subjects such as literature, history, theology and prose. "He was one of the most articulate and charismatic individuals I met in the Church," said Dr. Varouj Altebarmakian, Deacon at the St. Paul Armenian Church in Fresno and chairman of the Armenian Studies Program Advisory Board at California State University, Fresno.

H.H. Karekin I also concentrated his efforts on strengthening the spiritual ties between those living in the Motherland and those in the Diaspora. In doing so, H.H. Karekin I gained the attention and the respect of citizens and leaders throughout the world as a man who was genuinely concerned for the spiritual, cultural and physical well-being of everyone he met. "He had a feel for the concerns of the Armenian people and the Armenian Church," said Richard Darmanian who served as a member of the Executive Council of the Prelacy during one of His Holinessí visits to Fresno.

In reflecting upon his numerous accomplishments throughout his spiritual service, Shirin acknowledged His Holinessí work in involving the Armenian Apostolic Church with the ecumenical movement.

I think 100 years from now people will read about that," Shirin said. " I think his scholarly works are going to be looked upon as important for future generations. Not only did he author a lot of books himself, he always encouraged his students to become prolific writers," Shirin said.

Shirin said he has very fond memories of His Holinessí visits to Fresno. Shirin served as co-chair in organizing one of his visits to Fresno in 1990. Shirin said H.H. Karekin I was no stranger to Fresno. In fact

he visited Fresno as an Archbishop on a fundraising trip for the Armenian community in Lebanon.

Armenians, non-Armenians and church leaders recognize the tremendous impact that His Holiness Karekin I made on the Armenian church. H.H. Karekin I reached out to people of all ages throughout the world to make each and everyone of them feel strongly tied to the Armenian Church and the Armenian Nation. And as the century draws to a close, His Holiness Karekin I stands out as one of the most prominent figures of the 20th century.

"The Church is going to be hard-pressed in the upcoming election to find someone with the caliber and with all the talents that H.H. Karekin I had. He was truly a unique churchman," Shirin said.

"We hope that the new Catholicos will continue the work that he anticipated and the vision that he had for the Armenian Church. He certainly wanted to see the church grow and he also was very much concerned about the participation of the young people in the church. Hopefully that will continue to be a prime objective of the church," Darmanian said.