St. Leon Armenian Church
Սրբոց Ղեւոնդեանց Հայոց Եկեղեցի
Fair Lawn, New Jersey

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History of our Parish

One Generation Follows Upon the Achievements of Another

History of St. Leon Armenian Church

St. Leon Armenian Church was established in 1932 at 135 Bloomfield Avenue in Paterson, New Jersey.

Before the turn of the 20 th century, Armenian began to flee the persecution of the Ottoman Empire.  Some of those Armenians settled in Paterson, known as “Silk City”, for being the busy hub of the silk weaving industry.

They arrived in small numbers, with little money, but fortified by an ancient heritage. 

In those days, there were no parkways or turnpikes.  The long roads were long, one of which led from Paterson in Passaic County to Union City, a city in Hudson County.

Between 1906 & 1930, Armenians would journey by horse-car or trolley-car to Holy Cross Armenian Church in Union City, which was known as the “mother” church in the “New World” of New Jersey.  They would go there to worship, to wed, and to baptize their children.

Soon thereafter, the “mother” church had a healthy offspring, informally called the “Paterson Church”, which would later be consecrated as St. Leon Armenian Church.

The Armenians of Paterson would often rent halls and churches for occasions when clergy would visit to celebrate liturgy or administer sacraments.  During that time, Deacons would also do their best to serve their community with worship services.  But by the late 1920s, the Armenians of Paterson developed a desire to have their own church and their own parish priest. 

Under the spiritual direction of the late Very Reverend Father Mampre Calfayan, who would later become Primate, a decision was made to purchase land for future use as a church site.  Unfortunately for the Armenians of Paterson, the project, which was initiated in 1929, had to be abandoned because of the onset of the Great Depression.

Just a few years later, in 1932, the persistence of the community did not relent, and a special meeting was held, presided over by the late Primate, Archbishop Ghevont Tourian.  At that meeting, a committee was formed to raise funds for the purchase of a church for the Armenians of Paterson, whose number was already exceeding 500. 

As luck would have it, St. Luke Episcopal Church on Bloomfield Avenue in Paterson became available.  It was purchased in that same year for $6,000, and despite a severe worldwide depression, the church’s mortgage was completely paid off within two years.

For the next 33 years, the congregation called the modest church on Bloomfield Avenue “home”, where it maintained religious and cultural continuity.  The community’s annual bazaars, pageants, Armenian and Sunday School classes, and youth activities were all organized and conducted in the church’s basement hall.  It was during those years that the children of the community cultivated their values, and helped the church grow into an even larger family. 

The church fathers and lay leaders, seeing that growth, were faced with the task of building a larger church with an independent community center and educational facility.  And it was the second generation, who grew up during those 33 years, which would help the church leaders meet that challenge.

In 1958, through the efforts of the Parish Council, and the help of the late Haroutune Nakashian, three acres of land were purchased on Saddle River Road in Fair Lawn.  The original plan was to first build a much-needed community center, which would then be followed by the building of a new church.  In January of 1963, under the pastoral leadership of the newly ordained Reverend Father Carnig Hallajian, the original plan was reversed.  His advice was simple and straightforward:  “Build the church, and the people will come to wed, to baptize their children, and to bury their loved ones.  The community hall will eventually be built.” 

Following the creation of an executive building committee, and the authorization by the Parish Assembly to build a church with an adequate sized basement to serve as a community hall, construction of the new church began in March of 1965 under the General Chairmanship of E. George Dabagian.  Shortly thereafter, on September 19, 1965, the Primate of the Eastern Diocese, Archbishop Sion Manoogian, consecrated the newly erected St. Leon Armenian Church of Fair Lawn, NJ.

 

During the 1970s, the parish continued to thrive, welcoming many Armenians who were leaving the political unrest in the Middle East.  St. Leon offered newcomers a spiritual home that bridged the gap to life in the United States.  The newcomers, in turn, gave significant impetus to the Armenian cultural life of St. Leon’s parishioners. 

St. Leon was growing steadily in membership during the decade, and by 1980, once again a challenge presented itself to a modest people groomed in faith, hard work, and sacrifice.  On February 3, 1980, the Parish Assembly created yet another executive building committee to plan an expansion project.  On June 6, 1980, under the chairmanship of Zaven Dadekian, the building committee received authorization from a special Parish Assembly to proceed with construction of the long-awaited St. Leon Armenian Church Community Center, along with the conversion of the existing hall beneath the sanctuary into an educational wing of classrooms. 

On November 9, 1980, the late Archbishop Torkom Manoogian, then Primate of the Eastern Diocese, blessed the site of the proposed Community Center.  Following plans prepared by Thomas Ashbahian, project architect with the firm of Mario B. Cammarano in Ridgewood, NJ, contracts were signed the following month with Joseph A. Natoli Construction of Pinebrook, NJ, and construction began as scheduled.

With increasing attendance at Sunday worship, mushrooming enrollment in the church schools, and a full scale of parish activities burgeoning, there was a pressing need for even more space for educational and youth related activities.  The St. Leon family stepped up to again “rebuild and reconstruct” its beloved Church.  With dedication and witness to their faith, the 1988 Parish Assembly approved the new phase of construction that would expand the sanctuary and school facilities.  However, due to the devastating earthquake in Armenia in December of 1988, the building project was tabled in order to direct all the available parish funds towards aiding Armenians in the homeland.

By 1995, the Parish Assembly reviewed the previously approved expansion plans and assigned a committee to execute them.  The project was spearheaded by two leaders of the community; Sarkis Gabrellian and Sarkis Soultanian.  They, along with their enthusiastic committee, immediately began the task at hand.  Within one year – and with minimal disruption to parish life – the work was completed.  Divine Liturgy and all services were held within the sanctuary without interruption, and on November 17, 1996, according to the traditions of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Primate of the Eastern Diocese, consecrated the newly renovated and added sections of the St. Leon.


“Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: …” Psalm 127:1

The 1995 reconstruction of St. Leon Armenian Church was a milestone in the parish’s history.  With its modification from a modest building, the architectural form and the sanctuary’s character were transformed into a traditional Armenian Church.  Utilizing his expertise and knowledge of ancient Armenian Church architecture parishioner Thomas Ashbahian, a professional architect, once again drew up the plans and led the parish in the right direction.

Expansion of the sanctuary with apses to either side created a cruciform plan and added substantial volume to the interior space.  The apses and increased floor area at the entry to the sanctuary allowed for new pews accommodating up to 68 new seats.  The structure of the apses also raised the roof lines in the center of the sanctuary so the windows in each face of the dome flood the sanctuary with natural light never before seen in the center of the worship area.

The narthex addition accommodated a larger parish council room, a “cry” room (sound proof room with a one-way intercom system where parents may take their infants while still participating in liturgy), an elevator, and increased area for parishioners to prepare for entry into the sanctuary.

The narthex was also crowned with a small dome allowing for substantial natural light and large arched topped windows tastefully penetrated the three exterior walls of the narthex.  New 8-foot high mahogany exterior doors were mounted at the entrance below the original stained glass entry window and the chancel was completely reconstructed in new brick, precast stone, metal, and stucco materials.  New Armenian crosses were placed atop each dome, and the color combinations, materials, shapes, and proportions all evoked the appearance and aura of churches in Armenia constructed over 1200 years ago.


“…let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith…” Hebrews 12: 1-2

In November 2002, the property adjacent to St. Leon, better known as the “Kirshner” property, became available for purchase.  With expeditious leadership, and the support of the entire community, St. Leon not only purchased the property, but paid off the entire mortgage in under 2 years!  Spearheaded by the new Building Committee Chairman James Leitner, a laudable fund-raising campaign was launched to build a large structure and expand the church’s parking facilities.  Again turning to parishioner and well-recognized architect Thomas Ashbahian, plans were drawn for a youth center including 6 large classrooms, a Sunday school office, a music room, and a gymnasium complete with bleachers and locker rooms.  A kitchen, lounge, and meeting rooms were also added to the first floor.

On November 2, 2008, the Primate of the Eastern Diocese, Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, presided over the dedication and blessing of the Charles and Grace Pinajian Youth Center, the George and Shakae Shahinian Gymnasium, and the Sarkis and Siran Gabrellian Educational Building.

By the grace of God, the seed of the modest St. Leon Armenian Church that was sowed on Bloomfield Avenue in Paterson during the Great Depression blossomed into a thriving parish with an impressive campus.  One generation has traveled upon the achievements of another, and that will continue for many generations to come. 

The parish offers humble prayers that our loving Lord continues to inspire and energize the entire community in its mission to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ, keeping everybody mindful to the spirit of traditions, so we may continually glorify His Holy Name.


“Heavenly king, preserve your Church unshaken and keep in peace those who worship your name.”


(From the Hymn of Vesting as the Celebrant enters the sanctuary at the beginning of the Armenian Apostolic Church Liturgy)


St. Leon Armenian Church
12-61 Saddle River Road ♦ Fair Lawn, NJ 07410
Phone: 201-791-2862 Fax: 201-791-1329 Email: stleon@stleon.org

 


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