The Inspiration Of My Teachers

Fr. Untzag Nalbandian

I studied at the Melkonian Institute in Cyprus, which, this year, was closed after 75 years. This is where, for four years, I received my high school education from 1967 to 1971. While there I had a number of teachers who influenced my thinking and inspired me. Now don’t forget, Melkonian Institute was a boarding school. Students came from 17 different countries. That means 17 different cultures and many different languages: Arabic, Greek, Turkish. Students came from Addis-Ababa–they spoke Ethiopian in addition to Armenian. It was a multicultural school of 200 students, boys and girls. It was not a seminary, it was a high school. Our teachers were Greeks. Arabs, British, Soviet Armenian professors like Professor Bedros Bedirian, who taught us Krapar and medieval Armenian literature. So we had all kinds of exposure to many cultures, both from students as well as from the faculty.

In Pursuit of Armenian Studies

I came to Melkonian from Lebanon. My first year was difficult but after that I really enjoyed every minute of it. In my third and fourth years I decided what I was going to be. I decided to go to Armenia and pursue Armenian Studies to become an armenologist. At that time, Alex Manoogian, the AGBU President, established a policy whereby he would support any Melkonian graduate who decided to go to Armenia to further his studies. But my main reason for wanting to pursue Armenian Studies was the inspiration of my teachers.

At the time my brother [Fr. Zenob Nalbandian] was in the Seminary in Etchmiadzin and we used to correspond. When he heard that I wanted to study at Yerevan State University he wrote to me that the best place to pursue Armenian Studies was in the Seminary of Holy Etchmiadzin. At the time the Seminary had renowned professors such as Antosyan, Shahbazian, Hadidian, and so on. My brother told me that I should at least try it for one year. After that I could transfer to Yerevan State University if I didn’t like the Seminary. So he convinced me.

After I graduated Melkonian, I went back to Lebanon. After a time a certain Hayr Kevork from Etchmiadzin interviewed me and I went to Armenia. When I arrived, whom did I see? I found Hayr Haigazoun [Najarian] — he was a deacon. Anania Srpazan [Arabajian] — he was a deacon. Bishop Yeznig Bedrosian — he too was a deacon. I took an entrance exam and was given advanced standing because of the good foundation I had received at Melkonian. Right away they placed me in the fourth class. After one year they ordained me deacon.

Not My Place

In my mind, I was thinking, “For sure I am not going to be a priest. I am not priestly material. My interest is Armenian history, Armenian language,” and so forth. My hope was to become a teacher. I remember every morning and evening, during the church services, I had no interest in learning the sharagans [hymns]. I would stand there and dream about the day when I would finish the Seminary and move on to Yerevan State University. I felt that I didn’t belong in the Seminary. I came from a different environment. It was not my place.

But the main reason that I am a priest today is because of my seminary teachers, mainly, Artun Hadidian, who was a vartabed. Barkev Shahbazyan, Samuel Antosyan, Yervant Melkonian (who died not long ago); Krikor Gulian, and Gamsar Avedisyan.

The Church Needs You

Avedisyan taught geography. He was from Yerevan State University. He was an old man who would come once each week to teach us. He lived near the University. I visited his home many times and met his wife. They were a very educated, intelligent couple. He would push me: “Vatch Sargavak.” My name was Vatch. “You need to become a celibate priest.” I would say, “Why?”. He would say, “Because the church needs you.” But I would say, “Baron Avedisyan, I am not really interested. I am not priestly material.”

Doing What I Always Wanted to Do

But as a few years passed, I liked what these teachers gave me. They always reinforced what my brother would say: “This church is intertwined with the Armenian culture. You cannot separate them. If you want to become an Armenian teacher, you can become a teacher by becoming a priest. All priests are teachers, teachers of Armenian faith and language and history.”

As I look back on the 27 years that I have served as a priest, that’s what I am doing. I am doing what I always wanted to do since I was in high school. I teach everything that is connected with the Armenain nation’s culture, which is, of course, a Christian culture.

I am Going to Ordain You

These teachers influenced me. They pushed me to change my mind. They guided me. No one twisted my arm. After I graduated Seminary I went to France but kept my contact with Catholicos Vasken. He told me that if I wanted to continue my studies he would support me. He very much wanted me to become a celibate priest. I told him that I would be a priest, but not a celibate priest.

Sometime later, Torkom Srpazan [Manoogian] invited me to the United States. He wanted me to continue my studies. He assigned me to the parish in Niagara Falls, New York, where I also enrolled in Niagara University nearby. After six months he called me and said “I am going to ordain you.”

I said, “But I didn’t finish my education. I just started my studies.”

He said, “That’s o.k. You go to school and you will be a priest.”

So he ordained me within six months of my arrival in the United States. I became a priest before I knew what the country and culture were all about. But I finished.

About 15 years ago when I went to Trumbull, Connecticut, I asked Khajag Srpazan [Barsamian] if I could go back to school for religious studies. I did and I earned a Master’s degree.

Priestly Material

I am not sorry for a minute. I enjoy being a parish priest. I think I am parish priestly material. I love my job, working with people, comforting people, being with them, good times, bad times and so on. I ended up staying in the Trumbull parish for the last 22 years. The parishioners change, the parish keeps changing.

In my life my teachers influenced me. I could not betray them and everything they gave me. I could not just take all of that and say I’m not going to be a priest. It would have hurt me all my life.

Sometimes we ask a young man, “Do you want to be a priest?” What does the poor man know if he wants to be a priest or not? For sure I did not want to be a priest. But once I started on that path, I stayed there a few years, everything changed and I became a priest. And I’m not sorry for a minute.