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History of St. Nersess Armenian Seminary

Founding

St. Nersess Armenian Seminary was established in 1961 under the auspices of the Eastern and Western Dioceses of the Armenian Church in America (and more recently of Canada). The General Assemblies of the Eastern and Western Dioceses, at their respective meetings on April 15 and 30 of that year, adopted resolutions giving approval to the formation of a seminary. In accordance with these resolutions, a number of clergymen were invited by Archbishop Sion Manoogian, then Primate of the Eastern Diocese, to a meeting held in Evanston, Illinois, on August 11-12, 1961. At this meeting, the organizational foundation of the seminary was laid with the formation of a Board of Directors and the adoption of a set of By-Laws. A mansion was purchased in Evanston to house the school (1456 Ridge Avenue) on November 1, 1961 through the generous contribution made by Mrs. Satenig Ouzoonian of California.

The Board of Directors held its first annual meeting on June 22, 1962, and the seminary, affiliated then with Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, opened its doors on September 5, 1962. Archbishop Tiran Nersoyan (1904-1989), a man of enormous wisdom and vision, who conceived the founding of the seminary, became its first dean.

The seminary was named after one of the most revered fathers of the Armenian Church: St. Nersess Shnorhali—the Graceful—a great hymnographer, theologian, ecumenist, and Catholicos (1166-1173AD). The seminary’s mission is inspired by its patron saint’s commitment to theological inquiry, pastoral care, liturgical revival, and ecumenism. As the fundamental figure in a movement for Armenian self-understanding, and for the mutual understanding and reconciliation of Christians East and West, St. Nersess is the outstanding paradigm of the clerical ideal to whose standard we strive to prepare our students and ourselves.  The school functioned in Evanston until 1967 before it moved to New York.  The move to New York was deemed necessary, among other reasons, in order to bring her close to the Diocesan Center.  Negotiations with St. Vladimir’s Seminary resulted in St. Nersess becoming a satellite institution. The Rev. Fr. Karekin Kasparian was appointed Director, then Dean of St. Nersess, with responsibilities of teaching and managing the school operation.

A Mission to the Youth

The first St. Nersess Summer Religious Study Program was held in the summer of 1963. The program, directed by Fr. Karekin Kasparian (then Dn. Hovhannes), brought American-Armenian high school and college-age young people to the seminary for two weeks of prayer and study of the Armenian Church’s faith, history and Christian culture. Participants enjoyed warm fellowship and the rare opportunity to mingle with Armenian clergy. These programs have continued for 50+ years under the leadership of many summer conference directors, including Fr. Karekin Kasparian, Fr. Mardiros Chevian, Fr. Arakel Aljalian, Fr. Stepanos Doudoukjian and Fr. Daniel Findikyan. In more recent years, some conferences have been directed by St. Nersess alumni: Fr. Ghevond Ajamian, Fr. Tavit Boyajian, Fr. Samuel Rith-Najarian and Fr. Shnork Souin. The Summer Conferences include a High School session and a Deacons’ Training Program which was initiated by Fr. Karekin. In the summer of 2022, the Yn. Diane Chevian Memorial Youth Choir Workshop will be offered to students ages 13-18. And a Young Adult Winter Conference is offered in early January. These conferences continue to motivate thousands of young people who aspire to hold positions of leadership in the Armenian Church. A vast majority of the seminary’s ordained and lay alumni were first exposed to the seminary through its youth conferences, and a majority of parish council members in the Eastern Diocese are past participants of the St. Nersess Summer Conferences.

Seminary Moves to New York

In search of higher education in orthodox theology and stronger ties with churches of the Christian East, the seminary was moved to New York and became affiliated with St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood in 1968. Our students were enrolled in the Master of Divinity program at St. Vladimir’s, where they resided while maintaining their own liturgical life and substituting some of their courses with a special program of studies offered by St. Nersess and bearing on priestly ministry within the Armenian Church. Upon completion of the joint program, St. Nersess students received the Master of Divinity degree from St. Vladimir’s and a Diploma in Armenian Church Studies from St. Nersess.  This is when Fr. Karekin initiated exchanging some Armenian courses for St. Vladimir’s courses for credit.

​In 1978, a property in New Rochelle was purchased and the beautiful Tudor building was adapted for use as a seminary. Instrumental in identifying the Stratton Road property was the late Edward Essayian of New York. In 1982, the Rev. Fr. Arshen Aivazian became the first St. Nersess alumnus to be appointed Dean, serving until 1984.

Growth and Maturation

From 1984, Fr. Mardiros Chevian, who had served as full-time recruiter for the Seminary for three years, was appointed Rector. Fr. Mardiros’ efforts resulted in a period of growth, record enrollment, and the most fruitful period in the seminary’s history in terms of graduates and ordinations. It was during this time that through the efforts and munificence of Louise Manoogian Simone, the seminary’s endowment fund swelled significantly. In 1986, the seminary’s bylaws were amended to include the Primate of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of Canada as ex officio second Vice-President of the Board of Directors. This brought St. Nersess under the auspices of all three dioceses of the Armenian Church in North America that fall under the jurisdiction of the Holy See of Etchmiadzin. St. Nersess enjoyed its first pontifical visit, when His Holiness Catholicos Vazken I (†1994) included the Seminary in his itinerary during his 1988 visit to the United States. Fr. Mardiros served at St. Nersess until 1991.

Dn. Hratch Tchilingirian served as Dean from 1991-1993, working with Armenian Orthodox theologian Prof. Vigen Guroian, whom the Board of Directors appointed Academic Dean. When Dn. Hratch left the seminary to pursue doctoral studies, Fr. Arakel Aljalian, another St. Nersess alumnus, was appointed Rector. He served in that capacity until 1999. During Fr. Arakel’s term, and with the assistance of Professor S. Peter Cowe, the St. Nersess Theological Review was established in 1996 as the only English-language scholarly journal dedicated to the theology and Christian culture of the Armenian Church.

Through the generosity of a number of generous benefactors solicited by board member Dr. Raffy Hovhanessian and his wife Shoghag, the building underwent extensive renovation and expansion in 1995. Added was a more suitable space to accommodate the library of Archbishop Tiran Nersoyan, bequeathed to St. Nersess upon his death in 1989. As well, the eastern wing of the mansion was remodeled to increase office space. The renovated building was dedicated by His Holiness Karekin I, Catholicos of All Armenians, on January 14, 1996. (His Holiness graced the Seminary with a second visit on May 5, 1998).

Resident and Adjunct Faculty

Under the leadership of His Eminence Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, elected Primate of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America in 1990, the Board of Directors resolved to fortify the Seminary’s Armenian Church Studies offerings by establishing, for the first time, a full-time resident faculty in 1991. In September 1997, Dr. Abraham Terian, an internationally renowned theologian and expert in medieval Armenian Christian literature and history, was enlisted as Professor of Armenian Patristics and Academic Dean. At the same time, newly-ordained Very Rev. Fr. Daniel Findikyan, another seminary alumnus who had recently completed doctoral studies at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, was brought on board as Professor of Liturgical Studies. As part of the same movement, Fr. Vahan Hovhanessian, a St. Nersess graduate and recent Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Fordham University in New York, was appointed Dean two years later.

Upon Fr. Vahan’s return to pastoral ministry late in 2000, Fr. Daniel Findikyan was appointed Dean of the Seminary. Dr. Terian and Fr. Daniel sought to elevate every aspect of the seminary’s operation in order to conform to the standards of the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada, the accrediting agency for seminaries and theological schools. Admissions procedures were tightened; graduate course offerings in Armenian Church Studies were augmented; adjunct faculty were appointed; a scholarly monograph series, AVANT: Treasures of the Armenian Christian Tradition, was established; the seminary’s website was vastly expanded to include a Global Classroom for distance learning opportunities; and renewed emphasis was placed on recruitment, and on parish and youth outreach initiatives. Upon his retirement from teaching in 2008, Dr. Terian was named Emeritus Professor of Armenian Theology.

In 2001 Professor Roberta Ervine was brought on board as the third full-time faculty member. Dr. Ervine earned her doctorate in Middle East Languages and Cultures from Columbia University and studied under the late Archbishop Norayr Bogharian, curator of manuscripts in the Monastery of Saints James in Jerusalem. Known for her stimulating lectures, Dr. Ervine teaches courses in Classical Armenian, Armenian Church History and medieval Armenian literature and spirituality. With its newly augmented academic forces, the seminary established an annual public lecture series on topics of relevance to the history, theology, and contemporary ministry of the Armenian Church.

Besides the resident faculty, from 2008 on, several adjunct instructors, both lay and ordained, men and women, have been teaching at St. Nersess, making the seminary a dynamic and attractive community of learning in the service of God and the Armenian Church.  The instructors have included Very Rev. Fr. Krikor Maksoudian, Very Rev. Fr. Mamigon Kiledjian, Very Rev. Fr. Papken Anoushian, Very Rev. Fr. Vahan Hovhanessian, Rev. Fr. Arten Ashjian, Rev. Fr. Karekin Kasparian, Rev. Fr. Untzag Nalbandian, Rev. Fr. Yeprem Kelegian, Rev. Fr. Nicholas Porter, Maestro Khoren Mekanejian, Dr. Thomas Samuelian, Dr. Herand Markarian, Dr. Edward Mathews, Dr. Seta Dadoyan, Mr. Krikor Pidedjian, Rev. Fr. Davit Karamyan and Ms. Nectar Sarkisian Munro. Please check the current list of Instructors.

Facilities Expansion

Since shortly after the seminary’s move to New Rochelle, the Board of Directors persistently considered options for ensuring that the seminary has adequate facilities to fulfill its mission. An ambitious plan to construct an Armenian-style chapel, dormitories and classrooms on the Stratton Road grounds was abruptly halted late in 1988 in the wake of the devastating earthquake in Armenia. In 2004, a significant donation was made to St. Nersess by Mr. and Mrs. Haig and Elza Didizian of London, England, and their families for the construction of a chapel and classroom/library complex in memory of His Holiness Catholicos Karekin I. An initial plan was abandoned due to excessive costs.

A New Campus

In 2012, the Board of Directors approved the purchase of a 5.5 acre of land in Armonk, NY, to build a new St. Nersess campus that would support its expanded student body and mission. Mr. and Mrs. Haig and Elza Didizian graciously donated the land as well as a new 8,400 sqft St. Hagop Chapel and Karekin I Theological Center. The new center includes an extensive library, classrooms, offices, and a chapel built in Armenian-style architecture.

In addition, four existing buildings on the property were renovated through the generosity of many donors to allow for separate single and married and faculty residences, a dining facility, a dean’s residence, and recreation complex. Click here to view all donors. In 2021, Dean Shahinian, Esq., donated the recreation complex in memory of his parents, Paul and Grace (Jelalian) Shahinian.

Consolidated Program of Studies

By 2007, twenty-five years had passed since the formalization of the joint Master of Divinity curriculum with St. Vladimir’s Seminary. A complete revision of the program was carried out that year by St. Nersess seminary’s resident faculty, collaborating with the new dean and chancellor of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. The revised “consolidated” M.Div. program streamlined the curriculum by removing redundancies in coursework, assigning full academic credit to all courses in Armenian Church Studies, and placing an emphasis on pastoral skills. The result is a program that far better prepares St. Nersess seminarians for ministry in the Armenian Church in North America.

Recruitment Efforts

Recognizing the need to intensify efforts to recruit future seminarians from among the parishes of the Armenian Church in North America, in 2007 the Board of Directors appointed the Rev. Fr. Stepanos Doudoukjian as Director of Youth and Vocations. Fr. Stepanos, a St. Nersess alumnus, experienced pastor and long-time Director of the Summer Conferences, was charged with promoting Armenian Church vocations, especially priesthood, to American-Armenian youth throughout the three North American dioceses, and assisting young men who are discerning their vocation.

Today

In 2012, the Rev. Fr. Mardiros Chevian was appointed seminary dean for a second time by the St. Nersess Board of Directors. Fr. Mardiros is working diligently with parish priests in both the Eastern and Western Dioceses to help recruit young men who are seeking the priesthood. He is also directing and increasing the number of seminarians as well as overseeing the St. Nersess expansion of mission on the Armonk campus, which includes an Acculturation Program that further prepares Armenian clergy from abroad in pastoral care, American culture and traditions, ecumenical and inter-church relations, youth ministry, and administrative practices of our parishes in the United States.

Fruits of the Seminary

With 60+ years since its establishment, St. Nersess Armenian Seminary has solidified its place at the heart of the Armenian Church in North America and as the gateway to its bright future.

St. Nersess has given more than 50 priests, including four primates and many lay ministers who are serving the Armenian Church today. The hierarchs include His Eminence Archbishop Avak Assadourian, former Primate of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of Iraq; His Grace Bishop Vahan Hovhanessian, former Primate of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of France; His Grace Bishop Nareg Berberian, Primate of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of Brazil; and Bishop Daniel Findikyan, former Primate of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America. A large number of the clergy of the North American Dioceses have studied at St. Nersess, of whom several are the pastors of the largest parishes within these dioceses. Most of the clergy in the Eastern Diocese have studied at St. Nersess. The priests of the six largest Armenian Church parishes in the United States are St. Nersess alumni. Another unique aspect of the seminary’s program of study is that it offers theological education to lay people as well. Many share the conviction of the former President of the Board of Directors and Primate of the Eastern Diocese, His Eminence Abp. Khajag Barsamian, that “There is no future for the Armenian Church in America without St. Nersess Seminary.”

​St. Nersess Seminary recognizes that it cannot succeed in its mission without the ancient Hierarchical Sees of the Armenian Church. The seminary considers itself a junior partner in the consortium of our Armenian Church seminaries, most especially the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin and the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, from where it draws its inspiration.

Rectors/Deans of St. Nersess Seminary

Archbishop Tiran Nersoyan
(1961-1966)

Rev. Fr. Karekin Kasparian
(1967-1978)

V. Rev. Fr. Arshen Aivazian
(1982-1984)

Rev. Fr. Mardiros Chevian
(1984-1991)

Dn. Hratch Tchilingiran
(1991-1993)

Rev. Fr. Arakel Aljalian
(1993-1999)

V. Rev. Fr. Vahan Hovhanessian
(1999-2000)

V. Rev. Fr. Daniel Findikyan
(2000—2012)

Rev. Fr. Mardiros Chevian
(2012- present)