Surp Hagop (Saint Jacob) Armenian-Apostolic Church
64, Route de Troinex
|Type of Building:||Armenian Church|
|Area:||Approximately 163 m2|
|Building height:||17.10 m|
|Cost:||Approximately CHF 2.6 million|
|Owners:||Fondation St-Grégoire L'Illuminateur (Saint Gregory the Illuminator Foundation)|
|Architects:||Frédéric Gautier and Eduard Utudjian|
|Laying of the first stone:||1967|
|Construction period:||14 months|
|Inauguration:||14th September 1969|
|Religious tradition:||Armenian-Apostolic Church|
|Conception through to inauguration:||Approximately 9 years|
We are travelling on the number 45 bus to Troinex, a small suburb of Geneva. At the Les Crêts stop we get off and take the Route de Troinex back in the direction of Geneva. Trees blossoming with white and pink flowers surround a church shining white in the summer sun, with a relatively low, but extensive 16-sided tower. This rises from the middle of the cruciform structure of the church. At the top of the tower’s corrugated rood is a light grey cross, with slightly thicker ends and curved notches. Which style of architecture is this beautiful church?
It soon becomes clear that we are standing in front of the most visible sign of an Armenian presence in Switzerland: the Church of Surp Hagop, or St Jacob in English. It is built in classical Armenian church style, following the 6th-century Saint Haripsime church in Echmiadzin west of Yerevan. The façade has also followed tradition by using tuff, a volcanic rock. Dr. Abel Manoukian, priest of the Armenian community, says: «This is very common. People want to feel closer to home, and to Armenian architecture.»
On the right of the church porch is a memorial which commemorates the genocide of the Armenian people. Behind the church is the Armenian centre of Geneva. It has a stepped cube-shaped form, and its earth-red tones fit well into the rural surroundings.
Abel Manoukian says: «Our community has a 100-year history here in Switzerland.» At the end of the 19th century it was mostly students from Russia and Turkey who came to study in Switzerland. After the genocide of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire in the East, the association «Le Foyer Arménien» was established on 21st June 1921, which moved from Begnins to Geneva in 1922.
From 1925, the Armenians celebrated their Liturgies in a hall in Geneva. A small Church council, under the leadership of Setrak Papazian, organized the celebration of Masses, but initially these were only at Christmas and Easter. A portable altar was constructed for these ceremonies.
After the Second World War, Armenians from Lebanon, Iran, Turkey and Syria once again sought refuge in Switzerland. At this time the Armenian community in Switzerland was made up of about 300 people. Over time, the desire for a church of their own grew, and so in 1960 a project was started for the construction of a church. That year, the wealthy businessman Hagop Topalian (1897-1985), who then lived in Italy, donated about CHF 480,000 for the church building in memory of his parents. His conditions were that the Armenians of Switzerland would cover the costs for land, furnishings and upkeep of the church. Construction began in 1967 on commission from Catholicos Vazken I, and the church was consecrated on 14th September 1969 by the Archbishop of Paris Serovpé Manoukian.
Dr. Abel Manoukian was born in 1959 in Beirut and studied theology in Vienna and Armenia. He has been priest of the Armenian community in Switzerland since 1995. He is also president of the parish council, whose duties are primarily financial. Of his own work, Manoukian says: «I mostly take on the moral, spiritual and intellectual tasks.»
Father Manoukian notes that the Armenian community is well integrated in Switzerland. «Imagine, the community has a history here going back 100 years. Most were born here, grew up and went to school here.» Manoukian describes the relationship with the local community as «very good». Equally good is the relationship with the Reformed, Evangelical and Catholic Churches. Sometimes people from the neighbourhood also come to the church: «We never say that the Armenian Church is only here for the Armenians. If they want to pray in the church, or if we have a celebration and they want to participate, they are welcome.»
The Armenian Church is one of the oldest Christian traditions. Similar to the also ancient Coptic Church, it is not strictly part of the family of Orthodox Churches. It is sometimes described as Armenian Apostolic, as in the Church’s tradition, the disciples Bartholemew and Thaddeus were the first to bring Christianity to the Mountainous highlands around Mount Ararat. It is established that in about the year 300 King Trdat (Tiridates) III was baptized by the Armenian Apostle Gregory the Illuminator, and Christianity became a state religion for the first time. Shortly afterwards Gregory himself was elected Catholicos, head of the Armenian Church, by the king, nobility and army, which is why the Church is sometimes called Armenian-Gregorian.
The Armenian Church is closely linked to national identity in the minds of Armenians: Only Armenians can be members of the Church. In earlier centuries, Armenian were spread much farther than the present-day state of Armenia, in particular large areas of eastern Turkey. The political situation has also always largely corresponded to the Church. With the massacre of 1895 and the genocide of 1915-18, Armenian culture dies out almost completely in today’s eastern Turkey, and churches in the remote mountain valleys fell into ruin.
Like the «Jacobites» of the Syrian-Orthodox Church and the Copts, the Armenians did not accept the doctrine of the Council of Chalcedon (451), and maintained that Jesus Christ was only a divine nature, and not human at the same time, as the Church of the Byzantine Empire saw it. As early as 400 C.E., the monk Mesrop developed a separate Armenian alphabet, which became the basis for the Armenian Bible translation by Mesrop and the Catholicos Sahak, as well as a rich fountain of literature in the following centuries.
The Armenian Church has both unmarried priests, called Vardapet («teacher»), from which the Bishops are usually chosen, as well as married priests (who serve the community). The liturgy is celebrated in Old Armenian from the 5th century, and contrary to other Orthodox Churches, allows the use of organs or harmoniums. The Church year follows the Julian calendar. The birth of Christ is celebrated on the Epiphany (6th January).
The internal structure of the Church is complex, and as such, the seat of the Catholicos has moved several times. Since 1441 it has been in Etchmiadzin in Armenia, about 20 km west of the capital Yerevan. A second Catholicos is based in Antalias (Lebanon) and leads some 600,000 believers in eastern Mediterranean countries. There are smaller, but independent patriarchates in Istanbul and Jerusalem. Contact with the crusaders in the 12th and 13th centuries led to a temporary union with the Roman Catholic Church, but today’s Armenian Catholic Church which is united with Rome (since 1740), only has about 100,000 members.
The Armenian Apostolic Church counts some 3.2 million members in Armenia, as well as 1 million in various countries in the Middle East and around half a million in the western diaspora (mainly USA). Since 1999, Karekin II Nersissan has been «Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians».
The Armenian community in Switzerland take the name of Surp Hagop, St Jacob. It is under the patriarchal delegation in western Europe, based in Paris. Today the Armenian community in Switzerland is made up of about 5000 people.
As the number of Armenians in Switzerland continued to grow in the 1980s, the St Gregory the Illuminator Foundation, who own the church, decided to build an Armenian cultural centre on the same property. After several years, the money for construction was finally assembled for the building, which was inaugurated in 1991.
The centre has set itself the goal (collective or individual) «to morally and materially support cultural and humanitarian projects for the survival development of the Armenian people». It has housed the «Ecole Topalian» since 1994, which teaches children the Armenian language, history and religion. In addition, the centre features a library, lounge and conference rooms, a multipurpose hall and a Kiosk.
P. Dr. Abel Manoukian: La communauté arménienne de Suisse. Le présent et une histoire de plus de 100 ans, Genève/Toronto/Beyrouth: Eglise apostolique arménienne de Suisse, 2009, 119 Seiten (French, German, Italian, Armenian).
Text : Edwin Egeter
Photos : Edwin Egeter
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Last updated: 29th October 2015
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