Ter Nerses Shahnazaryan: "We teach children to respect the Armenian traditions and be law-abiding citizens of Ukraine"
Every day in the morning and especially on Sundays, here in Chernivtsi the doors of the temple at the corner of Armenian and Ukrainian streets (what a symbolic coincidence in the names of streets!) are always open. For the Church of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul is a smallisland of homeland for all Armenians living in Bukovyna.
After Sunday liturgy, people usually assemble, and their children attend Sunday school: the wife of a priest, a teacher by profession, teaches them Armenian language.
Father (“ter” in Armenian) NersesShahnazaryan, his wife Louise and two daughters - Mane and Nare, are true Chernivtsi residents now, although they belong to two countries - Armenia and Ukraine. Nevertheless, once a year they go to their native Yerevan so that children could feel where their roots are.
The Armenian temple today is the only religious building in Chernivtsi, which has not been transferred to the community. Over the past few years, the parishioners and artists of the Hall of Organ and Chamber Music have peacefully coexisted here. Our conversation that took place in the church was over when the music began: musicians came for rehearsal. "We have been staying a little bit too long,” smiled the priest, “as everyone has his own schedule, which shall be conscientiously observed. And once there is such a situation, we all should feel comfortable.” "Why should it be otherwise?” the priest’s wife, Louise, who teaches in Sunday school at the Armenian Church, is smiling. Together with her husband, they are raising two daughters.
- Father Nerses, you seem to be the first priest who works in the Armenian Church in Chernivtsi since it was allowed to serve Liturgy? ...
- Exactly. I came to Chernivtsi in 2008. By this time there was no one, the church as such did not function – it has been closed for 40 years. I arrived on March 1 and on March 12, a decision of Chernivtsi regional council was issued permitting us to perform worship in the church. Since then and until now every day at 10 am, we have a small morning prayer. On Sunday, about 11 we serve Liturgy that is attended by some 50 people. Of course, mainly Armenians come (there are those who were born here, some are married to Ukrainians), but also a lot of tourists or just curious people come to look at our liturgical rite. For us this is a church, although here there is an organ hall and the concerts are held. Thank God, today there are no problems or misunderstandings between the Philharmonic and us. We stick to the schedule, respect each other, because we are like a family.
A growing parish life: not long ago in our yard Khachkar was installed – a stone cross, dedicated to the 25th anniversary of the earthquake in Armenia. Everyone remembers that December 7, 1988, 30 percent of our country was completely destroyed ...
- By the way, are there any people in Chernivtsi from the affectedareas?
- Yes, there are 26 families. After the earthquake, they moved here. All of them are very grateful to Ukraine, which gave the Armenians this place. Their children were born here. It is not only Armenian traditions that we teach our children. We teach them that they are law-abiding citizens of Ukraine. As now we have two motherlands - native Armenia and beloved Ukraine is very loved.
- Can everyone willing attend Eucharist at the Armenian Church?
- Of course! We do not practice prohibiting people enter the temple. It does not matter in what way a person does a sign of cross, according to the Orthodox or Catholics Latin rite. Actually, Armenians, put a sign on the cross like Roman Catholics do. On major holidays, I even try to say sermons in Russian so it was clear to non-Armenians too, so that people could better discover our church that dates back to ancient times. Armenians adopted Christianity as a state religion in 301, while other countries have tortured and persecuted Christians. Then throughout 65 days, all Armenians got baptized in Aratsani river!
-It is interesting that you belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church, and the church bears inscription that it was built as a Catholic-Armenian church...
- The main thing for us is that Armenians built it. The church was built when the priest who served here was an Armenian Catholic. But then there were Armenians, Catholics and Orthodox among parishioners.
- To what extent have you become a true Chernivtsi resident for 7 years you have stayed here?
- I am an absolute resident of Chernivtsi. Our youngest daughter was born here in Chernivtsi, she is a citizen of Ukraine. And the eldest was born in Armenia, she is already 11. I had served two years in Odessa before I came to ChernivtsiAnd before that, upon graduation from the seminary in 2003 in Armenia, I served in several places of my country. It was a large parish – up to 80 thousand Armenians. And I was only 24 years old ...
- is it difficult for an Armenian to get adapted to a Slavonic country?
- There is a saying: where there are at least three Armenians, they build a church, open a school and issue a newspaper. We are so much united – by the church, by the Sunday school. Besides Chernivtsi I perform services in Kamyanets-Podilskyy, Shepetivka other cities of Western Ukraine, there they are all united as well.
For example, in Kamyanets-Podilskyy, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Armenian templewas given the Orthodox of the Kyiv Patriarchate, because then the Armenians were few. We asked and they agreed without any conflict to give the temple back to us!
In Shepetivka there are 70 Armenian families. And there opened Sunday school (in regular school) to teach Armenian. Yes, we, the Armenians, observe and transfer our traditions to children. Nevertheless, we respect and love the country where we live. Therefore, we observe its laws and traditions.
Of course, we longed for Armenia, when we came to Ukraine. And now we see that our children have gradually forgotten the Armenian language. Although we do everything in Armenian - services, Sunday school, but it is difficult for children to write competently. For example, our youngest daughter, who is six years old, says 50 percent of Ukrainian words when speaking Armenian ...
- You and your wife both come from the capital of Armenia - Yerevan ...
Louise, wife of the priest, joins the conversation:
- It was there I met my husband. By profession, I am a teacher. When studying at the institute, on vacation I was sent to practice in camp. My husband stayed on vacations there with his friends from seminary. We got married in 2003, and by that time, we had dated four years. For if the seminarian wants to marry, he must do it until he graduates. AndNerses was a third year student then. I was 18 years old.
- As you know, ordination to the priesthood takes place after marriage. In addition, in the Armenian Church there is a requirement that you cannot become a priest until a child is born. We got married in the cathedral city of Echmiadzyn. For every Armenian it is a sacred place. For it is here, not far from Yerevan, the residence of the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church – Catholicos, is located. By the way, Echmiadzin Cathedral is one of the oldest churches in the world, built in the V century.
- They say that when a girl meets a seminarian, to some extent it is a guarantee that he will be a good husband, isn’t it?
- In principle, yes, it is. However, my future husband was a very good guy. I even did not know who he is, and he instilled confidence. As soon as we met, I saw that he is different,he isunlike others, he is smarter. On the part of me said, "Oh, you easily can you trust him, for he shall be a priest." Nevertheless, trust does not depend on whether he will be a priest.
- How did you receive news that you are going to Ukraine?
- Very difficult at first, to be honest – I was to some extent frightened. Odessa is a beautiful city and beach. However, it was not interesting during my first month. My thoughts were all in Yerevan. After all, it is not as difficult for us as for ordinary Armenians. It takes time to get used, to find friends. But he is a priest, and the people gather around him.
- Your teacher profession was useful for you in the Sunday school ...
- I love this job! I am working with nearly 20 children. We have three age groups, according to the level of command of Armenian. For example, there are children who hear Armenian at home, but can hardly read and write. It is difficult for them to translate into Armenian, because they know Ukrainian better. I tell them: you teach language not for yourselves but for your children.
- Does it matter where you serve as a priest or is it the place and number of parishioners that matters?
- If you love what you do, it does not matter whether you are in London or in a small village. For example, in Bukovina approximately 250 families of Armenians live, in Odessa – about 8000. Nevertheless, all of them here and there are trying to help the church somehow. As a priest, I devote myself to the Church. Before we were ordained, the bishop said, "This is not an easy ministry. But if you perform it with love, everything will be different.” My father is also a priest, he served in a number of churches in Armenia, then in Kharkiv, now in Kyiv. My older brother is a musician in Armenia, and the youngest lives with his father in Kyiv (his mother died two years ago), studying at the university there. Dad has always been for me an example of a good priest who loved people.
- What language do you speak at home?
- Armenian. I also know Russian. Nevertheless, the daughters speak Ukrainian better as they hear it in kindergarten, in school. Once we were on vacations in Odessa, and one woman, seeing that our appearance is not Ukrainian, but children speak Ukrainian, came to us and asked: "How come that your child speaks Ukrainian?".
- What Armenian traditions do you practice here in Ukraine?
- Just as Ukrainian Christians, we mark Easter, Christmas. However, for example, on Easter, we put something different into the basket. A painted red egg is obligatory; it’s a symbol of the spilled blood of Christ, and green is a symbol of new life. We also put fish and pita, and of course wine. I am often asked how can you carry wine to church?But for us it signifies the blood of Christ. And it is the wine that we drink throughout the holidays.
- Speaking of celebrations, we have two such good traditions. First, on February 13 at Candlemas, when a priest blesses those who recently got married. Thereafter we light the fire in the yard of the church, and jump through it. In summer, on the feast of Transfiguration, we have a custom – we pour water on each other. In Armenia, no one can remain dry this day, and no one is offended.
- And what is your home kitchen - Ukrainian or Armenian?
- Of courseit is mostly Armenian. We cook a tolma - grape leaves stuffed with meat. The leaves are usually brought from Armenia. But surely this dish is popular, for in Ukraine we can already buy and preserve leaves. We also cook a halisa - wheat and chicken are cookedduring 5 hours, it all becomes a mess, but it’s very tasty dish.
- And I like hominy very much. When my father studied at the seminary, the head of the Armenian Church was an Armenian born in Romania. So, my father told me that he often invited students to hominy. In Armenia, there are also dishes that are prepared exclusively by men. For example, the hash is a liquid hot meal, a variety of soup, one of the oldest Caucasian dishes. It is cookedof calf legs. Everything is cooked over low heat. The Armenian dry pita and garlic are added. In Armenia, everyone knows: when invited to a hash, only men must be present. This is a purely men’s meal for purely male company.
- Do you also know how to cook it?
- Unfortunately, I cannot cook hash. But in Odessa, my deacon cooks this dish very well, though he was so young. He cooked it all by himself and invited everyone. Incidentally, the hash is cooked only in the winter when it is cold. It is a very satisfying meal; you will not eat anything else then. Nevertheless, as every Armenian man, I can cook barbecue.
- What do the trips to Yerevan mean to you? Do you often go there?
- Once a year is obligatory. Although it is very expensive, because the distance is great. But for us it is a duty, especially for children. They are not guilty that their dad is here, but they should feel Armenians and communicate with Armenia. After all, nobody knows what will happen later. As for myself, if tomorrow I am told to return to Armenia or to go to another city, I am always ready. But I know well enough that I will really miss Chernivtsi ...