Reflecting on the Life of Humility: Deacon Hrair & Anoush Dekmejians
by Fr. Vazken Movsesian
Deacon Hrair Dekmejian has given 80+ years of service to the Armenian Church. Along with his wife Anoush (nee Hagopian), they have been an anchor for faith for deacons, priests, bishops and most importantly, for the hundreds of people they have infected with their love for Christ through the Armenian Apostolic Church.
I have had the good fortune of knowing the Dekmejian family for the past 25 years, since assuming the pastorate of the St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Church in Pasadena in 1996, where they served at the altar and in the choir. We continued to serve together as we established the St. Peter Armenian Church Youth Ministries Center in Glendale in 2003.
As a professor of Political Science at the University of Southern California, Dr. Dekmejian possessed a keen understanding of geopolitics. He was always called on by the media to give his analysis of world events. But his love for the Church has always been first and foremost on his list of priorities. I will never forget when the second War in Iraq was announced. We were in the Lenten season and holding Lenten evening vigil. When I dismissed the congregation that night, we stepped outside the church building to a flood of lights and cameras! A large CNN truck with antennas hoisted was humming with reporters and technicians scrambling to find Dr. Dekmejian. Like a seasoned pro, Dr. Dekmejian approached the reporters and proceeded to offer his commentary with analysis about the Iraqi war. I turned to his wife Anoush looking for some answers as to why the church grounds had been converted to this ad hoc studio. She said, “When CNN called for an interview, Hrair told them he was going to church that evening. If they wanted an interview it would have to be after services.” And so it was. That evening the world received analysis from this humble deacon on the steps of the St. Peter Armenian Church in Glendale.
During this quarter-of-a-century that I have enjoyed working with Dn. Hrair and Anoush Dekmejian, I have been in the unique position of observing humility in service. Here is a man who deserves the highest accolades and honors in his field, yet his humility is always the hallmark of his service. While at USC, he opened the doors for me to serve as Chaplain for the Armenian Student Association (1997-2010). The chaplaincy program became the grounds on which we established the Youth Ministries Center in Glendale. Together we shared in a very special mission to the Armenian Youth, bringing together thousands of young people and families, in what Dr. Dekmejian himself identified as “ground zero… a place that Armenian organizations have ignored and forgotten, where education, identity and prayer have to come together.” With the blessing of His Eminence Archbishop Hovnan, we were able to articulate and chart a course for youth to become active in issues of social justice and human welfare. It was there, at and through the Youth Ministries Center that the In His Shoes organization was born and became a voice for the suffering.
In the 25 years we have worked together and through the countless opportunities that we have had to contemplate, talk, discuss and act on our actions, Dr. Dekmejian has placed his highest priority on the sense of service, one which he defined through the Armenian Church. His knowledge of the sharagans, sacred hymns and prayers of the Armenian Church are second to none. Only once – that’s right – only once did he miss church services, and that was because he was delayed that Sunday morning after breakfast with the King of Bahrain. He sat with kings, presidents, and ministers, yet for him his greatest service has always been his service through the diaconate of the Armenian Church.
The Armenian Church here in America has a unique life. Established in the late 19th century, the Church has been at the center for community life since the great exile of people following the first massacres in the 1890s and ultimately after the Genocide of 1915. Building the communities and helping to bring normalcy to lives devastated by barbarism and traumatized by the horrendous acts of Genocide became the life-long mission of church members, endowed by wisdom and dedication. While many will recognize the names of the “heavy-weights” of the Armenian Church during the 20th Century – from Archbishops Nersoyan, Manoogian, Khatchadourian, Ghazarian to Catholicoi – the Dekmejians knew them personally and were intricately involved in the mission of offering faith, hope and love through the divine institution of the Church along with these giants of the Armenian Church.
Hrair Dekmejian began his journey in the church as an altar boy in Allepo, Syria in what was identified as the “Aintabtzi” church. In 1950 he came to the United States and began serving at the St. James Armenian Church in Los Angeles, alongside Bishop Mampre Kalfayan and Father Asoghig Ghazarian (later the archbishop of Iraq). In 1951 he was ordained a deacon by Bishop Hrant Khatchadourian. He attended Yale Divinity School. In 1954, Hrair married Anoush and they were blessed with three boys: Gregory, Armen and Haig.
In 1955 Hrair volunteered in the US Army, in intelligence at SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe) in Fountainbleu, France. During those years, he continued to serve at the Armenian Church, this time in Parish France, never missing a Sunday service.
Returning to the United States in 1957, he became a full-time student at the University of Connecticut, conducting deacon services and training choirs at churches on the East Coast, wherever life called the young family. Archbishop Khoren (later Catholicos of Cilicia) granted Hrair the title of Arch-deacon (Avak-sargavac). His service marks are left at St. Gregory, Massachusetts, St. Stephen, Watertown, St. Vartanants, New Jersey, and St. Gregory, NYC, where he often led services, and taught English to the newly arrived clergy, becoming a living-translator for the new and budding Armenian communities. In 1960 he received an MA from Boston University and in 1964 he received his PhD. From Columbia.
While in New York, at the St. Gregory Armenian Church in Binghamton, he served with Fr. Mesrob Semerdjian, Fr. Yeghiseh Kizirian (later archbishop of London), Fr. Arshen Ashjian, Archbishop Tiran Nersoyan (longtime family friend with Aintabtsi roots), and life-long friend, Fr. Karekin Kasparian. He shared his love for music, in particular the Armenian sharagans with Fr. Oshagan Minassian and with Bishop Torkom Manoogian (later the Patriarch of Jerusalem). He became a mentor to two budding priests, Fr. Kevork Arakelian and Fr. Daniel Findikian, (now the bishop of the Eastern Diocese) and has kept a very strong relationship with both and their families to this day.
In 1986 he moved to the Los Angeles to assume the position of the Chairman of the Political Science Department at USC. As mentioned, in 1997 he invited me to be the Chaplain of the Armenian Student Association of USC. We charted new grounds together, as for the first time ever, Armenian Students had an official meeting spot and presence within the religious groups on campus. In 2001 we held a Conference at USC dedicated to the 1700th anniversary of Christianity. In 2005 he hosted His Holiness Karekin II on campus where he shared his analysis of the Armenian Church and charted a course for Armenian Church and youth in Western society.
At USC his Genocide and Terrorism classes were among the most popular on campus, with standing room only in the lecture hall. He’d invite me once a year to talk and lead discussions with students about identity. It was through his efforts that the Institute of Armenian Studies at USC was founded and established.
During their time at the St. Peter Armenian Church and Youth Ministries Center, both Dn. Hrair and Anoush were inviting to all. His form of leadership was very basic but effective. For instance, as choir leader he suggested not to order choir robes so that the choir is not separated from the congregation. With this simple suggestion, one of the most striking features of Sunday morning worship at the church was that everyone sang the Divine Liturgy from beginning to end, hence fortifying the sense of community by including everyone in the corporate worship of the Church.
In 2016, we both left St. Peter Armenian Church and even in his retirement he has not tired from attending our weekly Bible Studies and offering and sharing his knowledge and love for the Armenian Church.
On this occasion, as one more voice in the congregation, I salute Deacon Hrair and Anoush Dekmejian for their unwavering support and love for the Armenian Church. They have successfully taken Christ’s commission to spread the Gospel, understanding that as God humbled Himself for our salvation, it is in that humility that love flourishes. We pray for their health and strength so that they may continue to inspire us all.