His Eminence Archbishop Oshagan Choloyan, Prelate

Archbishop Oshagan Choloyan was born in Aleppo, Syria. In 1960 he was accepted into the Cilician See’s Seminary in Antelias, Lebanon and was ordained a priest on June 4, 1967. As a newly ordained celibate priest, Archbishop Oshagan served as an assistant at the Seminary and he taught at the Mardigian School, serving two years as principal of the school. From 1968 to 1970 he attended the American University of Beirut, where he majored in history. From 1974 to 1978 he attended Princeton Theological Seminary where he majored in education and psychology, earning a Master’s Degree. Continuing his studies at Princeton, he earned a second Masters in the history of the church. In April 1980, he was appointed pontifical legate to Kuwait and the Arab Emirates. He was elevated to the rank of bishop in 1994. Since 1998, he serves as the Prelate of the Eastern Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America.

When elected Prelate of the Eastern Prelacy in May of 1998, Archbishop Oshagan Choloyan’s first priority was to visit each parish. This involved extensive traveling along the East Coast, the Midwest, and Canada, since in 1998 the Canadian churches were still under the jurisdiction of the Eastern Prelacy.

Certainly, he was no stranger to North America and the parishes therein. Having attended Princeton Theological Seminary for a number of years, and having served the Prelacy in various capacities during those years, he was familiar with the community. Yet, as he recalls now, it was a totally different feeling. “I felt responsible for each of the parishes I visited, and felt a duty toward each and every one of our faithful members.”

The primary impression he received was the vital need to strengthen our parishes, and he immediately decided this would be a priority during his tenure as Prelate. Since 1998 he has spent considerable time on programs and events to help strengthen local parishes.

Parish development became a popular and frequent topic during the National Representative Assemblies. The Executive Council went on the road, so to speak, taking their monthly meetings out of New York and into different regions. Seminars for boards of trustees were organized at regional locations. Most of all, Archbishop Oshagan listened to and examined the challenges and problems that were facing our parishes.

The necessity for strong leadership became crystal clear in Oshagan Srpazan’s mind as he noted that those parishes with dynamic, educated clergymen at the helm, were the parishes that were thriving. When he came into office, a number of clergymen were approaching retirement, and some parishes were without a full time priest. He immediately plunged himself into the task of clergy recruitment, clergy training, and advanced education for clergy currently serving within the Eastern Prelacy. Largely due to his efforts, a number of funds were established specifically to fund programs for clergy recruitment and education. Today, nine years later, many of the parishes have a new generation of clergy serving, and only one parish and four outreach communities do not have a permanent clergyman.

“A religious community is only as strong as the clerical leaders ministering to it,” says Archbishop Oshagan. “A strong pastor makes a strong parish. In our ever-challenging society, community cohesiveness begins in the home and is extended to the church. We have embarked on a concerted effort to recruit qualified, young men for the clergy—dedicated men who are trained to lead and inspire, who understand the complex needs of our youth and are qualified to give them spiritual guidance. Once ordained, continuing education and development are vital for the growth of our parishes.”

Thanks in large part to the efforts of Archbishop Oshagan, a group of far-sighted individuals have come forth with their financial support that provides scholarship aid to both seminarians on the road to fulfilling their calling, and ordained priests who are continuing their higher education.

“We have made progress,” Archbishop Oshagan notes, “but we still have a long way to go. And in truth this must be an ongoing effort, because we must continually attract young qualified candidates.”

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Archbishop Oshagan was born in Aleppo, Syria, in 1947, and was baptized with the name Manoog. He is the third of six children of Antranig and Marie (nee Kasbarian) Choloyan. His siblings are Sarkis, Simon, Vartan, Armen, and Ani. His two older brothers, Sarkis and Simon, died in 1998 and 1999 respectively, making Oshagan Srpazan the eldest of the surviving children. He received his primary education in Aleppo’s Haikazian School. His childhood in Aleppo in the midst of that community made up of survivors and their young families made a lasting impression on young Manoog and it could be said that many of his values and lessons of life were formed there in Aleppo.

He credits his family for the strong ethical foundation and love of the Armenian Church, beginning with his grandmother, his parents, and extended family members, like his godfather, Mardiros Mardirosian. “He was godfather to all of us, and he watched over us, bringing us gifts and making sure we had religion in our lives from the very beginning. He was my first spiritual father and a major influence. Every part of our lives at home, school, or extra curricular activities, like the HMEM, centered on love of family, church, and nation. I was an acolyte in church at age five. After Badarak each Sunday I attended Sunday school where I learned church music and prayers. The music, especially, became an important part of my life.”

Another early influence was his uncle—his mother’s brother—Mardiros Kasparian. “He was a person with high principles. Early on he recognized the strong bond I had for church and nation. He was instrumental in keeping our extended family together.”

Entering the Seminary

By 1959, young Manoog knew that he wanted to enter the Seminary and devote his life to the Armenian Church. “The church was such a constant and strong part of our early life in our home,” he says. He recalls how he and his brothers would “play church.” “My brothers would be Tbirs (sub-deacon), one would do the incensing (pourvar), the other the readings, and I would take the offering,” he recalls as he leans back in his chair and laughs.

“I think my parents were aware of my desire even before I was. My brothers would always work during the summers, but my parents would not send me to work. I realize now that they must have seen something in me and they wanted me to spend my summers studying rather than working.”

In 1960 he was accepted into the Cilician See’s Seminary in Antelias, Lebanon. He had been singing in the local church in Aleppo since he was five years old and the church hierarchy was aware of his talent. When Hayr Smpad Lapajian (later Archbishop and Prelate of the Western Prelacy) came to test his musical abilities, which is part of the entrance exam, he said, “I don’t have to hear him. I know his voice. He sings better than I do.”

Manoog Choloyan was ordained a deacon in 1964, and a celibate priest on June 4, 1967, and given the new name Oshagan, by Bishop Karekin Sarkissian, who in 1994 as Catholicos Karekin II of Cilicia, ordained him to the Episcopal rank. In 1998, His Holiness Aram I elevated him to the rank of Archbishop.

“It is interesting that all of my ordinations were officiated by Catholicos Karekin II, at various stations of his life. He was the dean when I entered the Seminary. He presided over my ordination to the diaconate, to the priesthood, and my ordination as a Bishop. He was definitely a great influence on me during my seminary days and beyond. He was very inspiring and, of course, his speaking and writing abilities are legendary. His death was a great loss for the Armenian Church and nation.”

At the time of his entrance into the Seminary, Zareh I was the Catholicos of the Holy See of Cilicia. “We were in awe of this gentle Christian. His sudden death at a young age plunged all of us at the Seminary in deep mourning. I will never forget those tragic days.”

At the Seminary, Deacon Hrair Ashjian was assigned to advise his class. “He was an extremely kind person and always kept us busy with all sorts of activities. We were always working on one project or another, especially plays and dramatic presentations. Of course, Deacon Hrair, went on to take his vows and was given the name Mesrob. We remained good friends thereafter. His death in 2003 was a great personal loss for me, and even more so for the entire Armenian nation.”

Surprisingly, young Manoog immediately felt at home in the Seminary. “My family was still in Aleppo, but I felt that I had another family in Antelias. Looking back I do not recall ever feeling homesick. I was home.”

The teachers at the Seminary who made a lasting impression included Deacon Hrair Ashjian, Hayr Karekin Sarkissian, Kevork Kandaharian, Yetvart Dasnabedian, Yervant Pamboukian, Puzant Yeghiayan, and Moushegh Ishkhan. All of them were devoted Armenians and talented teachers.

Bible Translation

His classmates at the seminary included Minas Aznavorian (later Archbishop Zareh), who became and remained Archbishop Oshagan’s closest friend until his death in 2004. “We shared the same interests and always enjoyed working on projects together.” One of those projects became the ambitious task of a new translation of the Bible into western Armenian.

“We started in the early 1980s and our intention in the beginning was to translate only the Sunday readings in our churches, which we did. While we were doing this, gradually the idea of translating the whole Bible came to us, so we contacted the Bible Society about the possibility and asked for guidance on the practical ways of beginning such a project.”

The Bible Society was very enthusiastic and they sent a professional translation guide to train the two churchmen in the method and style of translating. “For us,” Archbishop Oshagan recalls, “the important thing was to have a translation which would be acceptable to scholars and understandable for the average reader. That was our approach from the beginning and that is why we embraced the ‘dynamic equivalent’ style of translation, which means that we are not translating the Bible literally. Rather we are giving the whole meaning in the simplest way without entering into interpretation.”

Early on they decided they would translate from the original text. That is, from the original language of the New Testament which is Greek, and the original language of the Old Testament which is Hebrew. “However,” Oshagan Srpazan said, “the Septuagint and our Krapar version were always with us as an aid. They were especially helpful in places where the Hebrew was not clear.”

The two had already decided that they would eventually translate the Septuagint Canon, which includes the New Testament in Greek and the Old Testament in Hebrew including the 13 books not included in the Hebrew canon. “Once we set these goals and after some sessions with the professional guide from the Bible Society, we began translating the New Testament, which took us almost ten years because of our other responsibilities and obligations.”

The resulting translation is regarded by the Bible Society to be one of the best translations done in Armenian, as well as any other language. With the New Testament completed, they started the translation of the Old Testament, which was well underway when Archbishop Zareh became ill. “Our original goal was to finish the Old Testament by the end of 2005, but we could not meet that self-imposed deadline because of Zareh Srpazan’s illness and death.”

Archbishop Oshagan found it difficult to even think of completing the project without the guidance of his friend. “Sometimes we would argue vehemently about a passage as we translated. People hearing us would think that our friendship would come to an end right then and there, but we enjoyed those debates—it was wonderful mental and spiritual exercise—and our friendship was never threatened.”

A few months after Zareh Srpazan’s death, Archbishop Oshagan knew that the project must continue because completing the project would be the best memorial to Zareh Srpazan. He recalls that Zareh’s final words to him were, “The Old Testament remains half-finished.”

After conferring with His Holiness Aram I, it was agreed that with the help of the Bible Society a new group of translators would be formed with Archbishop Oshagan leading. Rev. Dr. Manuel Jinbashian, who was the Bible Society’s consultant working with them, will continue to help the new team.

The parts of the Old Testament that had been completed at the time of Zareh Srpazan’s passing are Genesis, Exodus, I and II Samuels, Psalms, Proverbs, Jonah, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and many passages from the major prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah.

Their New Testament translation in western Armenian has been published in several printings in Lebanon, Armenia, the United States, and Korea. The Book of Psalms is also in print. The New Testament and Psalms were rendered into Eastern Armenian by Professor Dikran Gyourjinian and published in Armenia several times. Many scholars in Armenia have said that it is the best translation for comprehension.

Generally the team would meet two sessions per year, bringing together their own independent translations, which they would compare and correct. Each session would be two or three weeks. “When I was in Kuwait we would often meet three times per year, but it became more difficult when I became Prelate in the United States.”

Archbishop Oshagan emphasizes that their aim was not a literary translation, but rather presenting the meaning in the simplest way. “The final work must be acceptable by scholars and understood by laypersons. I hope that with a new team we will be able to complete this task that meant so much to Zareh Srpazan.”

Continuing Education and Service

As a newly ordained celibate priest, Archbishop Oshagan served as an assistant at the Seminary and he taught at the Mardigian School, serving two years as principal of the school. From 1968 to 1970 he attended the American University of Beirut, where he majored in history. From 1970 to 1974 he taught literature and religion at the Karen Jeppe Jemaran in Aleppo, and also served as a teacher and later principal at the Sahagian NationalSchool. It was during these years that he and Archbishop Datev Sarkissian began their collaboration preparing religious textbooks for grades one through eleven. He also prepared literature textbooks for grades nine and ten. “When I think of it now, I wonder how I managed to do all that. There was hardly time left for eating and sleeping. The answer, of course,” he says, “is that I was young. Nothing takes the place of youth!”

In 1971 he received the rank of vartabed (doctor of theology) with the successful completion of his thesis, “Byzantine and Armenian Church Relations during the Cilician Kingdom,” by Bishop Karekin, who in 1983 as Karekin II of Cilicia elevated him to the rank of Dzayrakouyn Vartabed (Archimandrite).

From 1974 to 1978 he attended Princeton Theological Seminary where he majored in education and psychology, earning a Masters Degree. Continuing his studies at Princeton, he earned a second Masters in the history of the church.

During his student days at Princeton, he served the Prelacy in a variety of capacities, with the then Prelate Archbishop Karekin Sarkissian sending him from one place to another as needed, up and down the East Coast, the Midwest and Canada. Summers were spent at CampHaiastan as counselor and teacher. Today many of “his campers,” now grown with children of their own, remember the young, tall and slender Hayr Oshagan as a vibrant and dynamic presence at the Camp. During this period he used his excellent artistic abilities to design book covers, maps, and brochures for Prelacy publications.

In May 1977, he was called upon to serve as locum tenens of the Eastern Prelacy for eight months prior to the election of a new prelate. The incumbent prelate, Archbishop Karekin Sarkissian, had been elected Catholicos of Cilicia in May and a new prelate was not elected until December. He shepherded the Prelacy until the arrival of Archbishop Mesrob Ashjian in January 1978.

He continued to serve the new Prelate and the Prelacy until 1979 when he returned to Lebanon where he taught New Testament, Church history, and mathematics at the Seminary.

In April 1980, His Holiness Karekin II appointed him pontifical legate to Kuwait and the Arab Emirates, where a growing number of Armenians had relocated. Facing this great challenge, Archbishop Choloyan organized the community, formed a diocesan structure, and in 1992 he was elected as the region’s first prelate. He served this community for more than 17 years, earning the love and respect of the faithful, until his election in May 1998 as Prelate of the Eastern Prelacy. His great pioneering efforts for that middle eastern community culminated with the consecration of the first Armenian Church in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, in November 1998, which he attended at the invitation of His Holiness Aram I who consecrated the church—St. Gregory the Illuminator—amidst great joy and enthusiasm.

“This church—the first Armenian Church in the United Arab Emirates—was consecrated on land donated by Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, member of the Supreme Council and the ruler of Sharjah,” said Srpazan.

When the Gulf war broke out in 1990, he was visiting the United States and was unable to find transportation to return. Although many of his friends in the States urged him not to return until the end of the war, he made every effort to find a way of returning and finally with great difficulty he was able to enter Kuwait and be with his community. After the war he spent a considerable amount of his time and energy reorganizing the community.

Co-Chair of 1700th Anniversary

Archbishop Oshagan was assigned as co-chairman of the central committee for the 1700th anniversary of Christian Armenia. For several years, he traveled to Armenia on a regular basis to co-chair the meetings of the committee responsible for the worldwide events which included exhibits, pilgrimages, publications, and symposiums.

“The 1700th anniversary should not be looked upon as a singular event that came and went, but rather an on-going process. It was a time of rejuvenation for our Church. Furthermore it was an opportune time to educate the world about the Armenian Church. It was the beginning of a worldwide awareness that should continue."

His regular visits to Armenia have continued, to attend various meetings and to oversee the many Prelacy programs in Armenia. He meets with the staff in the Prelacy’s new office which last year was dedicated to the memory of Archbishop Mesrob Ashjian.

Preserving Armenian Hymns

We have already mentioned the text books he helped prepare, and the Bible translation project, but, perhaps, his greatest contribution was the preparation of five volumes of Armenian hymns (sharagans) in collaboration with Archbishop Zareh. The significance and importance of this project cannot be over-emphasized. Most of these hymns were not available on paper. They were being passed on through oral tradition from generation to generation.. “When I returned to Lebanon from the United States I realized that the singing of our hymns was not consistent from country to country, or even from church to church. I realized the imperative need to put down on paper the notes and the words so that they could be sung according to our tradition and would not become corrupted and eventually lost. The Cilician and Etchmiadzin traditions are not the same. The Cilician and Jerusalem traditions are much closer together. All three—Etchmiadzin, Cilician, Jerusalem—are part of our church’s tradition and must be preserved.”

During the 1980s Hayr Oshagan spent every summer—supposedly his vacation—in the United States working on this project. This was before the wide-spread use of computers. For him, each page of the hymn book meant hours of tedious work: preparing each page by hand, ruling lines, drawing notes, and pasting the words, syllable by syllable, in the proper position under the notes. Each page easily required a minimum of seven hours of intense handwork. The resulting five volumes is testament to his accomplishments as a musician and artist and, most of all, his devotion to the Armenian Church. He is continuing this project, with the use of modern technology, in memory of Zareh Srpazan.

Ecumenical Service

Archbishop Oshagan has been involved with the worldwide ecumenical movement since the earliest days of his service. He has been a member of the Middle East Council of Churches since 1979, serving for several years on the executive committee. He has served as a delegate to the World Council of Churches Assembly, and he has participated in many ecumenical meetings throughout the world representing the Holy See of Cilicia. Most recently he was elected chairman of the newly formed organization of the churches of the Middle East in the United States. Throughout his service to the Armenian Church he has been guided by his intense faith in the mission of the church and his dedication to the Armenian nation, always guided by the words of St. Paul, “Therefore, be steadfast, immoveable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

Looking Toward the Future

Archbishop Oshagan is now in his third term as Prelate of the Eastern Prelacy, having been re-elected in 2002 and 2006. He is always looking forward toward the future. “Our past, of course, is important,” he says. “We must know it, study it, learn from it. But, the past is not our capital. We must always focus on the future, with emphasis on the education of our children, encouraging them to reach their greatest potential, but never forgetting their roots.

“When I assumed office in 1998, I remembered the Prelacy of the 1970s, and I saw the enormous progress that had been made. For this I credit the former Prelate, Archbishop Mesrob Ashjian, who served as Prelate for 20 years. Administratively the Prelacy was better organized and the programs offered were better implemented. On the one hand, I visited parishes where I was happy to see that children of active parishioners in the 1970s were now in leadership positions. On the other hand, I became concerned about the absence of many people who were quite active and who had disappeared from the scene. I kept wondering: Where are they? I do not want to lose a single person; everyone is important.

“Since the 1970s there has been a great influx of newcomers. Coming from other countries, diverse backgrounds, they have different ways of doing things. In many ways we benefited from this influx, but we also lost. And because our parishes are generally filled with the faithful we do not realize that we have lost many people—especially the first and second Armenian American generations. This was something I wanted to work on right away: to be more understanding and tolerant of each other. Each of our diasporan communities must adapt to local conditions, and we have to acknowledge that we can learn from each other. This was the message I tried to give to my parishes during those early years of my service in the United States.”

Clergy recruitment and training and parish development became a top priority for Archbishop Oshagan, as described earlier. He pledges to continue this effort. “Our clergy must be well-educated, not just in the Sacraments, but in all areas so that they will be prepared for the challenges of the ministry. They must be able to provide answers to modern social problems.”

Christian education is also foremost on his mind and agenda. “We need to build a strong foundation of Christian education. We have to use technology to reach the homes of our faithful. That is why we are continually increasing our email list, so that we can keep in touch on a weekly basis through our e-newsletter, Crossroads. Also, we can reach people quickly with important news and updates. Modern technology is an important tool in communicating with our faithful, especially our younger generations.”

Archbishop Oshagan acknowledges that some reforms must come to the Armenian Church. “We need to embark on a study of self-evaluation and begin a process of renewal. We need to explore issues like the language of the liturgy, the length of the liturgy, and ethical and moral issues that are so much a part of modern life. I am pleased that His Holiness Aram I is beginning this process,” he says.

Noting that next year—2008—is the 50th anniversary of the Prelacy, His Eminence says, “The creation of the Prelacy in 1958 was one of necessity. I shudder to think of the great losses we would have experienced without the leadership of the Prelacy. For the 50th anniversary we will be celebrating what this Prelacy has accomplished in 50 years—and it is an impressive story of keeping and transmitting our faith, safeguarding our traditions, keeping the youth attached to the church, and keeping our community strong and active. Unity is a noble and lofty goal. I can even say it is imperative. I know very well the difficulties faced by both the Diocese and the Prelacy. However, unity is a process and we must follow that process if unity is to become reality. Imposing unity will not work. We have to prepare the groundwork. We must learn to love, understand, and respect one another. If we can do this, then unity will surely follow.”

For the present, His Eminence’s message to every Armenian is this: “Do not just stand on the sidelines, come into the arena, be active, be a participant, always with the goal of building the Church and making it stronger for the glory of God."