Union of Armenian Evangelical Churches of France: History at a Glance
By Rev. Joël Mikaélian*
Beginning in 1923, many Armenians took refuge in France, and a large number of Evangelicals were among them. In those days, Armenian immigrants faced hardships in a completely unfamiliar environment. On September 22, 1922, Dr. Paul Berron founded a mission called “Christian Mission in the East” (Action Chretienne en Orient) in the state of Alsace, and he played a caring role in the Armenian Evangelical Church in France to establish churches.
Dr. Berron invited Rev. Joseph Barsumian, one of his relatives, to France. Arriving in France on March 21, 1924, Rev. Barsumian soon formed a group of believers, some of whom were already gathering in their homes for prayer meetings.
In the beginning, the worship services were held in one of the halls of the Salvation Army. On May 11, 1924, a Church Council was formed, followed by a Women’s Committee for visits. At the time the community consisted of 71 families (226 people, 20 of whom were church members). After three months of activity, Rev. Barsumian was sent to Lyon, and was succeeded on May 19, 1924 by Rev. Hovhannes Ghazarossian, who suggested the possibility of using the local Reformed Church on Delille Street in the center of Marseille, which later became the property of the Armenian Evangelical Church. Rev. Ghazarossian became the means of a powerful spiritual awakening, which gave a great impetus to the Armenian Evangelical Church in France, whose far-reaching impact is felt to this day.
It is interesting to note that the spiritual awakening first broke out among young people during a prayer meeting attended by 14 of them who were listening to the pastor. Soon after, evangelical gatherings, prayer meetings and Bible studies were added to the regular meetings. The fire of spiritual awakening began spreading inside and outside the Church. The Church Council members were shocked by this impulse. Young people in particular, some even far from Church circles, repented in large numbers. Immediately, divided among the neighborhoods of the city, they began to hand out Bibles, and spiritual literature, testifying to all about their faith.
The persecutions and the oppositions were not late. Armenian political newspapers started ridiculing and even threatening. But nothing could stop this impulse. From Marseille to Paris, Armenian Evangelical Churches were founded one after another. Repentance multiplied everywhere.
One of the most important consequences of this spiritual awakening was the birth of pastoral callings. Consequently, many young people were sent to theological seminaries in France and Switzerland. Revs. Zacharia Boudakian, Vahan Sahagian, Samuel Bakalian, Israel Abrahamian and Nerses Khatchadourian were the fruits of this spiritual awakening.
The movement gradually spread, and religious and Armenian language courses were organized in Marseille and its suburbs. Five churches were established in the state of “Bouches du Rhône” ̶ Marseille (downtown), Saint-Loup, Beaumont, Saint-Antoine and Gardanne.
In Saint-Loup, the spiritual work started by Rev. Ghazarossian a few years before, with the support of the lay brothers, continued when Rev. Sahagian was appointed pastor of that church in 1933. Not long after, land was purchased and a chapel was built in 8 months and inaugurated on October 28. The first Armenian Evangelical Church in France was built in Saint-Loup. The spiritual work soon expanded in that Armenian-populated district.
The spiritual work in Beaumont began in 1926 through the efforts of Sister Anna Jizmedjian. In 1929, Prof. Krikor Khayigian settled there and immediately organized a prayer meeting, a Sunday school and an Armenian language class. When he left for Valence in 1933, Rev. Ghazarossian and Brother Gulchan Badakian replaced him. On March 5, 1939, a new chapel was opened in Beaumont.
Under very modest circumstances, the spiritual work began in Saint-Antoine ̶ a small prayer meeting in a kitchen in 1927. After settling in St. Louis, Rev. Bakalian also expanded his activity to Saint-Antoine. When he left for the Middle East in 1938, Rev. Margos Vekilian organized the church of Saint-Antoine, and a chapel was erected there in 1939. The inauguration took place in 1941 because of World War II.
The spiritual work began in Lyon in 1924, when Rev. Barsumian settled in this city. Meetings began at the Methodist Church and continued at the Young Christians Union Assembly Hall until a hall was rented on Royer Street. The spiritual work was soon organized and expanded – a biblical study for the young and a Sunday school for the little ones. In 1925, the Armenian Evangelical Church of France was convened in Lyon for the first consultative assembly of the Churches, and in 1927, the first General Assembly (“Synod”) of the Union. Here, too, a spiritual awakening took place among the youth, and the Church of Lyon produced three clergymen: Revs. Karekin Sislian, Margos Vekilian and Calvin Barsumian.
Many Armenian orphans settled in this city, finding work in the region’s textile factories. Rev. Ghazarossian sent a young Christian teacher, Arakel Papazian, there and his pastoral work had a profound effect. In those days the Church of Pont d’Aubenas could be considered one of the most important and vibrant churches in France.
Not long after, a community was formed in Montelimar with Rev. Armen Guessarents.
In 1924, an evangelical community was slowly formed by Brother Kevork Kieusseian in Valence. A Spiritual Brotherhood church was also founded. It is after 1930 that the Armenian Evangelical Church of Valence developed due to the faithful work of the pastors.
An exploratory and evangelistic work had already been carried out in the French capital, by Miss Haïganouche Hagopian and the Theological Seminary student Vahan Sahagian, when in 1928 Rev. J. Ghazarossian took over the spiritual work, dividing time between Marseilles and Paris. But Rev. Z. Boudakian was the organizer of this Parisian church during his studies in Nogent Bible School. When he was incorporated into the army in 1939 and was forced to leave Paris, he left behind a well-formed, vibrant and large church. He was able to give a big boost to the youth activities. After his departure, Rev. Armenak Missirian continued his work, being alone in Paris during the crisis years of World War II.
In 1944, a place of worship was established in Issy-les-Moulineaux a suburb of Paris. The community gradually inflated and became the most important in France. A magnificent temple was built, and the shipwreck took place in 1978.
There is also a small community in Alforville, located in another suburb of Paris.
Another is formed in the 17th district of Paris with Rev. K. Sislian’s efforts. These two communities also had their own temples.
Some communities were more numerous than others such as Gardanne-Bivers, Saint-Etienne, Décines, and to a lesser extent Vienne and Pont de Chery. As the years went by and the population shifted, these communities lost their importance and became annex churches.
CHURCH ORGANIZATION OF UAECF
The churches were initially governed by an Executive Committee, half of which consisted of French or Swiss members of the Action Chrétienne en Orient and the other half were members of the Armenian Evangelical Church. The Armenian members were elected during the Annual Meeting of the Union of Churches. In the early years, the financial support of Action Chrétienne en Orient was very important. The current Executive Committee took over by the Commission Synodale (Board), consisting only of Armenian members. And the UAECF has reached full financial self-sufficiency.
The Union’s Annual Meeting brings together pastors and secular delegates from each Church. They are the ones who decide the main direction of the Union and elect the President of the Union and the Board.
From the beginning, the Armenian Evangelical Church of France has given importance to the press, considering it as an exceptional means of evangelism. Consequently, the Union’s Official newspaper in Armenian-language PANPERE, has been published without interruption since 1925. Today it is sent to 2,000 addresses, more than half of which are abroad. Various other publications were published including books and spiritual wall calendars every year.
The special newspaper “Verelk” for young people began publication in 1946. It was followed by “Le Luminion,” which was sent to about 1,000 addresses.
SPIRITUAL WORK FOR CHILDREN AND YOUNG PEOPLE
From the beginning, special attention has been paid to this activity. Armenian special schools for children on Thursdays (then Wednesdays), as well as Sunday schools had many students until World War II and beyond. There were more than a hundred of them in the Sunday schools of many churches. The number of students currently attending Sunday school varies from 10 to 40, depending on the church.
However, there has been a new form of activity developed in recent years ̶ the service provided in the camps. The Union has two camps: La Fontanelle and La Source. Hundreds of children, young people and adults come every year to strengthen themselves physically and spiritually.
As for the spiritual work being done among the youth, we must remember the first period of prosperity, which was the result of the beginning of awakening. After World War II, there was a new beginning with the formation of the Armenian Christian Youth Union (UCJA) within each church, as well as special youth camps. These unions consisted of many young people. However, this movement soon lost its force, and over the years many young people left the church.
There is also some renewal in this region, the tangible sign of which is the participation of young people in worship. In addition to the usual activities of young people in their Unions (gathering, scripture study, choir, etc.), they hold an annual “National Assembly Meeting” in early November. About a hundred people are attending this important and unique conference.
The main issues of the youth are the assimilation and the loss of the mother tongue. Only French is spoken in Sunday schools and youth gatherings. Worships are bilingual, except in a number of small branches.
PROGRESS AND SUCCESS
In recent years, the most remarkable progress has taken place in the field of construction. Churches everywhere have become the owners of their own buildings. At present, there are between 20 and 120 worshippers in some twelve communities with several small branches. Most Churches have sanctuaries that meet the requirements. At present, six pastors, all born in France, serve in these Churches. This, however, is a small number with two more pastors needed.
Clear progress has been made financially as well. The Union has become independent and the financial situation of Church members greatly improved, especially after World War II.
The balance cannot be unambiguous. Significant progress has been made in the areas of organization, construction, finance and camp activities. The activities of the Churches are incomparably excellent, with their small number, especially in serving children and young people. The French Union is the smallest among all the Armenian Evangelical Union worldwide.
A new spiritual awakening is needed. In the beginning, material poverty coincided with a great spiritual thirst, which opened the door to awakening. Today’s financial success can become the biggest trap, reducing the awareness of real needs. The future of the churches is connected with the awakening. The case is the same for all the Armenian Evangelicals in the world.
We would like to recognize the late Rev. Jean Daniel Sahagian’s important role in the life of the Union of France. He was a link between the old and the new generation of pastors from the 70s. He was a model for many, a man of God dedicated to his service and to the service of the churches.
Rev. Sahagian was born in Marseille in 1933. After his theological training at the faculty of Strasbourg, he spent two years in Beirut, Lebanon to perfect his Armenian training. He was Pastor in Valence (1962-1972), in Issy-les-Moulineaux (1972-1983), and in Marseille-Beaumont (1983-1989). Rev. Sahagian was President of the Union France from 1976 to 1989. He was also President of the Armenian Evangelical World Council. His tragic and accidental death in 1989 at the age of 50 was a great loss for the whole Union of France.
During the same period in the life of the France Union, the ministry of the late Rev. Jean Agopian was also appreciated by all.
Currently, the Armenian Evangelical Church of France continues its mission in France, Europe, Armenia and the Middle East.
In France, our churches continue to operate in cities with large Armenian communities. We have three churches in Marseille located in the Armenian-populated districts of Saint-Loup, Beaumont and Saint-Antoine. There are two churches in the Drome region, in the cities of Montelimar and Valence. Also, in the center of France, there are churches in Lyon and Decines. In the Paris region there are three churches in the suburbs of Paris: Alfortville, Arnouville and Issy-les-Moulineaux. We also have a building church in the center of Paris, which is now rented to a French church.
UAECF owns two camp sites, La Fontanelle and La Source. Hundreds of children, young people and families hear the Word of God each year and are engaged in a variety of activities. The Union has also established a Youth Organization, the Union Chrétienne de Jeunes Armeniens (Armenian Christian Youth Union), led by young people, to serve the teens and youth.
We also have a Missions Committee that helps our churches in the Middle East, in particular (Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon), and those in Europe (Belgium, Bulgaria and Germany).
Our official bi-monthly publication, “Panpere” is published in Armenian and French and is sent to many countries. It will soon celebrate the centenary of its founding.
Immediately after the 1988 earthquake in Armenia, our Union established a humanitarian organization, Hope for Armenia (Espoir pour l’Arménie), to help the victims. For 30 years, this organization has been involved in various activities in the Homeland and Artsakh, in partnership with the Armenian Missionary Association of America.
UAECF is the co-founder of the Armenian Evangelical World Council. This important Council connects all-Armenian Evangelical Churches around the world with each other. It is governed by a Board and consists of four ordained pastors and four lay people who are delegates from four regions (Marseille, Drome, Lyon and Paris). The Union has nine active pastors and one student in the Theological Seminary.
Recently, the Union applied for an audit to have a balance of the past years and future prospects. Many inspections have been carried out, and are currently working to improve the functioning, clarify the vision, and find ways to use their reflections in the future. Today UAECF churches face major challenges, such as preserving the Armenian identity in the Diaspora, passing it on to the new generations, replacing pastors, accepting and consolidating compatriots from Armenia and other countries, evangelism, witnessing in the Armenian communities, and establishing new churches. The challenges are many, and the Union is counting on God’s help and support to meet them.
On the occasion of the 175th Anniversary of the Evangelical Church, may God bless all our Churches and strengthen our fraternal ties for the sake of His glory and kingdom in our people.
Current active pastors of UAECF are Rev. Jacques Tchoghandjian (Marseille-Beaumont), Rev. Samuel Albarian (Marseille-Saint-Antoine), Pierre Lachat (Montelimar), Rev. Rene Leonian (Valence), Rev. Paul Siwajian (Lyon and Decines), Rev. Gilbert Leonian (Alforville), Past. Emmanuel Virabyan (Arnouville), Rev. Joel Mikaelian (Paris- Issy-les-Moulineaux).
Meline Kinossian (Theological Student, Youth pastor and communication), Hagop Koujikian (Theological Student), Seyran Assulyan (Assistant Pastor in Arnouville).
(History according to the book: “The Armenian Evangelical Movement” by
Rev. Daniel Sahagian).
* Rev. Rev. Joël Mikaélian is the President of UAECF