The Story of our Church
by Harry Missirlian – Pastor Emeritus (deceased)
Armenia is mentioned twice in the Bible. First, in Genesis 7:41, then Genesis 9:20-21. After the Great Flood, Noah’s Ark rested on Mount Ararat, which is the center of historic Armenia. After Noah got out, he planted a vineyard and made wine. He drank of it and got drunk. Today, Armenia is still famous for its wine and cognac.
The second reference to Armenia in the Bible is found in Jeremiah 51:27. The prophet predicts the downfall of the Babylonian Empire, The kingdoms with-in the empire and their neighbors will rise against her and destroy her. Among them are mentioned Ararat, Minni, and Ashkanaz which are parts of Armenia.
Christianity came to Armenia in the first century A.D. Tradition tells us about the Apostles Thaddaeus and Bartholomew having preached in Armenia. There were also small bands of devout Christian women headed by Hripsime’ and Gayane’, preaching and teaching the Christian Gospel and making new converts. Many of these Christian women were martyred for their faith including Hripsime’ and Gayane’. To honor their memory, two churches were built in 618 A.D.- St. Hripsime’, and St. Gayane’ in 630 A.D.. They are still being used today in Armenia.
It was in 301 A.D. that the Armenian King Dertad became Christian and proclaimed Christianity as State religion for the first time in history.
The first Armenian Church was built in 301 A.D. in Echmiadzin, near Erevan, Armenia. This church is still used today, it is the Mother Church.
The first Armenian bishop was Krikor Loovsavorich. (Illuminator).
In the year 551 A.D. the Armenian Church separated itself from the rest of Christendom and became an independent national church with its own liturgy, doctrine and hierarchy, headed by the Catholicos, Supreme Bishop of all Armenians.
In the course of time many foreign elements found their way into the practice and liturgy of the Armenian Church. Many attempts had been made to bring about reform. They had not been successful. In the early part of the nineteenth century the Peshtimaljian Seminary was opened in Istanbul, Turkey, to prepare new clergymen who hopefully could bring reform. Just at that time American Congregational missionaries arrived in Istanbul and they were welcomed by the Armenian Patriarch and the seminary president, Mr. Peshtimaljian. The Patriarch changed his mind, dispersed the students and drove out the missionaries. The reform minded believers were deprived of their civil rights and persecuted mercilessly. They were obliged to start a church of their own. This was the beginning of the Armenian Evangelical Church, instituted on July l, 1846, in Istanbul Turkey. The new church spread rapidly. Assisted by the American Missionaries, they opened new elementary, secondary schools, colleges, seminaries and hospitals throughout Turkey.
The first Armenian pioneers arrived in Fresno in 1883 and immediately sought to attend an American congregational church where they were warmly welcomed. Soon, because of cultural and language differences, the Armenians left the church. A group of them joined to form the Armenian Presbyterian Church in 1897. Others joined no church and waited and longed for the day when an Armenian congregational church could be formed.
1901 The Pilgrim Armenian Congregational church became a reality under the leadership of Dr. Alexanderian with fourteen members. Unfortunately we have only the names of six original members. They are the following: Dr. Nazareth and Elizabeth Alexanderian, Harutune and Takouhie Azhderian, Daniel and Esther Housepian. These are our founding fathers.
In 1903 Reverend Hovhanes Santikian assumed the leadership of the little flock after the departure of Dr. Alexanderian from Fresno. Reverend Santikian became the first resident minister. Under his leadership the membership grew fast. The congregation worshiped in public halls. They needed a large church to accommodate the worshipers. In 1911 the church and parsonage of the First Congregational Church at Van Ness and Inyo Streets were bought for $10,000.00. Reverend Arpiar Vartanian was the Minister.
In 1914 came the horrors of the First World War which shook the world. The Armenians were uprooted from their homes, lands and experienced the First Genocide of the 20th Century perpetrated by the Turks. Out of three million Armenians, a million and half were annihilated. The survivors took refuge in some countries of Europe, others in Russia, in the Arab countries and some in North and South America, some found their way to Fresno.
Due to the new immigrants in Fresno, the Pilgrim Church experienced unusual growth, extensive needs to help the immigrants, and orphans gathered in orphanages organized by the American Near East Relief Society became critical. The pastor of the Pilgrim Church was Reverend M. G. Papazian who feverishly sought help. The Near East Relief Society called him to join other Relief Society members to tour the United States to raise funds and supplies for the homeless, the hungry and the orphans. Reverend Papazian was also invited by the U.S. Government to expedite the sale of Liberty Bonds. Because of the distress caused by seeing the suffering of his people, Reverend Papazian retired in 1940 and died in 1943 after having served his beloved church for 26 years.
One of his great achievements during his ministry was the purchase of the church on “M” and Merced Streets in downtown Fresno. It was a big impressive and a dignified monument owned by the First Presbyterian Church of Fresno. The Presbyterians offered their church for sale because they wanted to relocate. The price was $100,000.00. It was financed by the sale of our old church on Van Ness and Inyo streets for $51,000.00 plus four lots we owned on Calaveras and “M” Streets for $31,000.00. The rest was borrowed from church members and the Northern California Congregational Conference. The sale was finalized on January 4, 1921. The church and parsonage served our congregation for forty years.
. In 1941, the Reverend Hagop Chakmakjian assumed the leadership of the Pilgrim Church. Soon he found himself very limited, due to the fact that 198 young men and women from our church served their country. Nine paid the supreme sacrifice. He did his best serving the remaining parishioners. When the youth returned from the war, the church was filled. Young families offered new opportunities and challenges. The church and the pastor responded favorably to those challenges.
July l, 1953, Reverend Harry M. Missirlian arrived to assume the leadership of the Pilgrim Church. The congregation was enlarged, the organizations had multiplied, the needs were many and urgent. Over 200 were attending Sunday School, over 125 attended three youth groups. The Church building could not accommodate all the needs and activities of the parish. New services, programs and projects had to be initiated to meet the demands of the parish. The pastor had to preach two regular sermons each service in two languages on different subjects. Additional leadership was needed. The services of a full-time Christian Education Director was employed in the person of Doris Fick and later Jo Ann Conard and Karl Avakian.
The old church building had to be remodeled to create more space to accommodate new needs. A survey was made by architects, engineers and City Officials and all agreed that the building could not be remodeled. Beautiful as it was, it could not serve us adequately anymore. Therefore, the congregation decided to relocate. Eight and half acres of land was purchased and plans were made for a new church. Funds had to be raised, a taxing project that needed the cooperation and generosity of the entire parish.
Ground was broken and construction of three units begun, a spacious Social Hall, an Administration Building and an Educational Building. By borrowing some money, we were able to pay for land and the three units at the cost of $430,995.00.
Ten years later the construction of the sanctuary was started. On March 15, 1970, the beautiful sanctuary was completed and dedicated with a joyful and meaningful service.
In 1970, Karl Avakian was employed as a full-time Christian Education Director. He was in charge of youth groups and Sunday School. He guided the youth to spiritual life retreats, conferences and conducted Bible study groups at Fresno State University.
By 1972, all building expenses were paid up and the church was free of all debts.
In 1965, a parsonage was built on church grounds, at the cost of $30,000.00 donated by the estate of Mrs. Ephtalia Heghin, a former parishioner of Reverend Missirlian in Chicago, in appreciation of love and care given to her by him in time of need and illness.
By the recommendation of Reverend Missirlian two funds were
A. A Memorial Fund – Gifts given in memory of loved ones by family and friends. From the income of this fund a new pipe organ was purchased and a beautiful illustrated Memorial Book was published. Only the income of this fund can be used for church needs.
B. The Endowment Fund – Gifts received from estates and from special celebrations make the bulk of this fund. Again, only the income of this fund can be used for church needs.
In August 1980, having completed twenty seven years of a fruitful ministry in the Pilgrim Church, Reverend Harry Missirlian retired with a feeling of contentment and joy in his heart.
Reverend Roger Minassian served the Pilgrim Church from 1980 until 1993. During his ministry, emphases on missions were stressed and contributions for that purpose were included in the budget. A two hour pre-worship program of Bible study was introduced plus additional weekday sessions. Reverend Minassian was instrumental in inspiring Harry and Zabelle Goorabian to build, finance and endow a Family Life Center for recreation, fellowship, study and outreach into the community. Reverend Calvin Sagherian was employed to serve the youth and young couples. Joan Hensleit Minassian was employed as Director of Christian Education for a short time. Reverend Sagherian introduced a mission to Mexico program for the church youth.
The Harry and Zabelle Goorabian Christian Family Life Center has it’s own Board of Directors and youth director in the person of Sam Sarkissian.
After the resignations of Reverend Minassian and Reverend Sagherian, the one year of interim ministry of the Reverend William Antablin was a blessed experience for our church family.
Reverend Bruce Baloian served the church from 1995 – 1997. His Biblical preaching and Bible study sessions were appreciated. He returned to his first love, teaching at Azuza University.
In 1992 Mrs. Margaret Josephine, in memory of her husband, Joe, undertook an extensive program of maintenance, renewal and preservation of our church grounds and buildings, and their beauty and care for present and future generations.
Some planted the seed, others watered it, but God made it grow. They served the Lord holding the torch of faith high and passing it on to the coming generations, so that they may bear witness to the faith of our fathers.
“Go forth therefore, make disciples and teach them to observe all that I have commanded you. Be assured I am with you always to the end of time.” Matthew 28:19-20.