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Armenian Church benefits from post-COVID revival in Boyle Heights


On the outskirts of Boyle Heights, a remnant of the neighborhood’s historic Armenian past is experiencing a revival.

Devotees travel from as far as Simi Valley and Cerritos to pray at Our Lady Queen of the Martyrs, a church once considered the center of Armenian Catholic life in Los Angeles.

Founded in 1952, the church welcomed around 400 parishioners per week at its peak. The establishment celebrated mass for Armenians in their native language, and its cultural center once served as a place to learn about their homeland from local lecturers.

But over the decades, the prominence of the cream-colored church has been eclipsed by St. Gregory’s Cathedral in Glendale.

Almost all of the Armenians who once settled in the blocks bordered by Pleasant Avenue and Echandia Street to Prospect Park and Bridge Street either died or moved to more affluent neighborhoods, such as Glendale and Pasadena. And faithful worshipers more recently were temporarily excluded when the Queen of Martyrs closed her doors due to public health orders related to COVID-19.

Yet in the midst of a year marked by record deaths, unbearable grief and economic uncertainty, the pandemic has unexpectedly found a way to revive this damaged place of worship.

Father Armenag Bedrossian leads a Sunday service at Our Lady of the Martyrs Church in Boyle Heights.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Long-time parishioners slowly return to sit on their squeaky benches that they themselves have designated. Reverend Armenag Bedrossian, the only pastor of the church, again hosts coffee and lunch after Sunday services. And he sees new, younger faces in the crowd – even those wearing face masks.

A parishioner holds a rosary

A parishioner holds a rosary during a service at Notre Dame Reine des Martyrs church.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

“People want to come back,” Bedrossian said. “I think the pandemic was like a spiritual retreat for them. This puts them on top of a hill. Either you are close to God or you are going to fall on your head. Which [are] you like?”

Founded in 1858, Boyle Heights was once commonly referred to as West Coast Ellis Island. It was the real melting pot of Los Angeles, a mixture of Mexican, Russian, Japanese, Italian and Jewish settlers. Today, the area is arguably the Mecca of Mexican-American culture in Los Angeles, with a predominantly working-class Latin American population and landmarks such as El Mercadito and Mariachi Plaza along 1st Street.

But traces of its ancient ethnic groups can still be found throughout the region. Otomisan, a small Japanese restaurant on 1st Street sandwiched between companies offering service in Spanish and English, still makes sushi and bento. Breed Street Shul, an Orthodox Jewish synagogue, has held services in its brick building since the early 1920s and was designated the city’s historic cultural monument in 1988. Evergreen Cemetery is the final resting place of many immigrants, elders and new.

Yet Armenian culture has all but disappeared from the region. Armenians in Southern California are best known for their enclaves in Burbank and Montebello.

“The center of Armenian life has shifted to Hollywood, Glendale and Orange County,” said Levon Marashlian, Armenian historian and professor at Glendale Community College. “It happens to other communities; they move and new models develop.

“Most Catholics now go to Glendale Cathedral because they live near Hollywood or Glendale, not Boyle Heights,” said Osheen Keshishian, founder and editor of the Armenian Observer, a weekly retracing Armenian life since 1969. [a] beautiful room with conferences and banquets.

An Armenian flag

An Armenian flag flies in front of the Church of Our Lady Queen of the Martyrs.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Surrounded by single-family homes and apartment complexes along Pleasant Avenue, Our Lady Queen of the Martyrs once again welcomes a significant number of Armenians on Sundays. Mass is celebrated indoors after a series of exterior services modified to comply with coronavirus safety guidelines. Sunday school has also resumed for the children.

“We survived,” said Catherine Alekian Hosharian, 77, a Montebello resident who joined the church at the age of 10. “And things got better.

Most feel attached to the parish because of the heritage it carries.

Tens of thousands of Europeans displaced by World War II – including Armenians – lived in German camps until they migrated to California from the late 1940s. For some time this generation associated with Holy Cross, an Armenian Orthodox church in downtown Los Angeles, until Cardinal James Francis McIntyre learned there was a void in the community. By 1952, Queen of Martyrs had become the first Armenian Catholic parish in California, according to the church’s website.

A boy lights a candle at an altar

Nikko Yeressian, 8, lights a candle before the Sunday service at Notre-Dame-des-Martyrs Church.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

After years without a suitable spiritual home, Armenian Catholics created a place of unity that was their own.

“Because Armenians live outside Armenia, regardless of denomination, the church is not just for religion,” Marashlian said. “It’s cultural significance. It is a repository. “

Those uprooted by the war would become the grandparents and parents of the parishioners of Boyle Heights.

“We feel like this is our home,” said Alekian Hosharian, member of the Ladies Guild, the church’s main source of financial support. “Even if our children don’t come to church, if you ask them, [they’ll say], ‘This is our church’, or [they’ll] come if they need a baptism or a wedding. “

Simon Hablian, 40, has been attending Notre Dame Reine des Martyrs since a young age. He remembers his parents and grandmother taking him and his sister to the historic building because it was the closest Armenian Catholic church to their home in Glendale.

Now, the Simi Valley resident puts his three children in the car every Sunday and drives nearly an hour to attend mass in downtown Los Angeles.

“It can be any Catholic church, but to this one I feel connected,” he said. “It’s a place where I always feel at peace. I love him with all my heart.

Father Armenag Bedrossian leads Sunday service

Father Armenag Bedrossian leads a Sunday service at Notre-Dame-Reine-des-Martyrs Church.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

His children were baptized at Queen of Martyrs, just like him. As one of the younger devotees, Hablian said he was happy to see new faces.

Among the new parishioners are the Vallefuocos, who fell in love with the resurgent church community a few months ago. They were part of the intimate wedding ceremony of a close friend at church which was officiated by Bedrossian. Spiritually, something clicked. And Bedrossian’s loud demeanor hooked them.

They do not practice Catholics or Armenians and do not know the language. But “we fell in love with Father David,” said Anna Vallefuoco, 43, a resident of Cerritos. Her two children recently completed their Confirmation and scheduled their First Communion.

“Even in Armenian much of it transcends the language. It doesn’t matter if it’s in another language. I still understand the meaning and the tone, ”she says.

Lately, there has been a lot to celebrate at the Boyle Heights place of worship.

The pandemic is receding. The faithful celebrated Armenian Easter on April 4. Three weeks later, President Biden officially acknowledged the murder of over a million Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Turks from 1915 as genocide – the first US president to do so. Recognition has served as a balm amid decades of geopolitical infighting.

It sounds like a “resurrection,” Bedrossian said.

Parishioners during Communion

Father Armenag Bedrossian distributes wafers to parishioners during communion at Notre-Dame-Reine-des-Martyrs church.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The pastor served as the glue for the weathered church, although his faith was tested.

By the time the new decade began, doubt had crept into his soul. The future looked bleak. His congregation is aging. What would happen to this church where he had spent so much time? It wouldn’t last much longer, he worried.

But now he does not entertain such thoughts and balks at the memory. He is also a changed man, reformed by the intense uncertainty of the pandemic. He has confidence in God’s plan and in his followers.

“I have always trusted this community. Otherwise, I would never survive here for 10 years, ”he said.





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