Armenians and St. Sahag & St. Mesrob Armenian Church have been part of the Lower Merion Township community since 1963 when the former three-story mansion, built in the 19th century and owned by merchant Isaac H. Clothier, became an Armenian Church.
When Armenians began to escape the Turkish massacres of the Ottoman Empire before the turn of the 20th century, they came to the United States and many settled in Philadelphia. The community grew over the next decade or two as more Armenians came from their ancient homeland in present-day Turkey, following the Armenian Genocide of 1915, in which over 1.5 million of our people were massacred in the first Genocide of the 20th century.
Religious services began in a Protestant church until 1913, when the community purchased a small church at Pike and Broad Streets. In 1917, a new church was bought, located on Pine and Broad Streets. It was named St. Sahag & St. Mesrob Armenian Apostolic Church, in honor of two of our most revered saints, St. Sahag Bartev, a Catholicos of the Armenian Church who is credited with translating the Bible into Armenian, and St. Mesrob Mashdotz, the creator of the Armenian alphabet.
The Charter establishing this new parish of St. Sahag & St. Mesrob was signed by seven dedicated members of the church. They were Mr. Frank Nahikian, Mr. H.M. Temoian, Dr. Mugur Hagopian, Dr. Vram Nedurian, Mr. Arshag Arslanian, Mr. Paroonag Gurunlian, and Mr. Aram Jerrehian.
By 1923, with the influx of Armenians arriving and settling in the Philadelphia area, it was decided to have two parishes, one in West Philadelphia and one in North Philadelphia. On July 22, 1925, the West Philadelphia Armenian Church community approved the purchase of a large house at 6006 Walnut Street, with an adjacent lot. Then came the lean years of the depression and may parishioners, like others, experienced difficulties. The community was unable to pay either the tax on the lot or the interest on the mortgage. At this critical juncture, Messrs. Aram Jerrehian and Haig Pakradouni came to the rescue by jointly guaranteeing the mortgage. Under the circumstances, the original plan of converting the house into a church was held in abeyance. Instead, the second floor of the house was converted into a chapel capable of accommodating 175 persons. The first floor was used as a hall. The chapel was consecrated in 1932 by the Rt. Rev. Bishop Tirayr Hovhanessiants with Mesrrs. Garabed Jerrehian and Dickran Ispecherian as Godfathers. At this time, the church’s membership reached 200 and the first Armenian Sunday School in America was organized by Mrs. Azniv Nedurian. A Men’s Brotherhood of the Armenian Church and the Daughters of the Armenian Church were also organized in order to attract the younger elements to the church. These two groups worked together in organizing the Sunday evening lecture series to which many guest speakers were invited. Along with the Ladies Aid Society (organized in 1902), the two groups raised money for the church and supplied it with much-needed furnishings.
After the war in 1945, came several years of prosperity and the community felt that the Walnut Street location was inadequate to meet their needs. During a Parish Assembly, held on November 11, 1945, with the Rev. Tiran Nersoyan presiding, a new Building Committee was elected with Aram Jerrehian serving as Chairman. Upon Mr. Jerrehian’s resignation, Mr. Dickran Vishabazoun became the Building Committee Chairman. The Building Committee purchased a large parcel of land located at the corner of 63rd and Locust Streets for the building of a new church. The architectural plans for the new church were donated by Mr. Harry Kuljian of the Kuljian Corporation and were approved by the membership. Upon Mr. Vishabazoum’s resignation from the Building Committee, Mr. Avedis Boornazian succeeded him as Chairman. On September 15, 1950, the Walnut Street Church was sold.
A preliminary examination of the cost of the proposed new church building in the Armenian Church style had a high cost and numerous limitations on certain building materials at that time. Therefore, it became necessary to change the original plans. As an interim measure, the building of a large hall was planned in which services would be performed and which would later serve as a community hall. On October 24, 1951, groundbreaking took place with the participation of then-Primate, Bishop Tiran Nersoyan, the V. Rev. Torkom Manoogian, and Rev. Fr. Levon Arakelian. Mr. Harry Kuljian drove the spade into the ground amidst thunderous applause from parishioners and guests who were present. During the period between the sale of the 6006 Walnut Street location and the completion of the Church at 63rd and Locust Streets, church services and Sunday School classes were held at an Episcopal Church at 56th and Market Streets.
On December 9, 1951, the Church Hall was nearly complete and Bishop Nersoyan blessed the cornerstone which had been gifted by Mr. & Mrs. Avedis Boornazian. Dr. Vram Nedurian was the Godfather. The Armenian-style altar was the gift of Mrs. Nevart Pakradouni and her sons, in memory of Haig Pakradouni. The altar was consecrated by Bishop Tiran Nersoyan and Archbishop Tirayr Hovhannesiants, aided by the V. Rev. Fr. Torkom Manoogian, Pastor, the Rev. Fr. Levon Arakelian, and several other clergy. The combined choirs of both the North and West Philadelphia churches sang the Divine Liturgy and more than 600 attended the consecration services.
During the ten years that services were held at 63rd and Locust Streets, the church significantly expanded its activities. Several new groups were formed including the ACYOA, the Junior Trustees, and the Young Ladies Guild. The annual church bazaars also began and the Building Committee gradually accumulated funds. As conditions changed and increasing numbers of parishioners moved to the western suburbs, it was decided to abandon the original plan of building the permanent church at 63rd and Locust Streets and to instead, look for a new property in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Mr. Avedis Boornazian stepped down as Chairman of the Building Committee and was succeeded by Mr. Chris Zakian.
Our present location, located in one of the finest sections in Montgomery County was formerly the Agnes Irwin School for Girls. It is situated on eight and one-half acres of beautifully landscaped grounds, and was considered an ideal location for the building of a permanent church edifice. The purchase of the land was approved at a Parish Assembly on February 19, 1961 and settlement was completed on August 1, 1961. With the untimely death of Chris Zakian, the Building Committee’s self-sacrificing Chairman, on the very day of the ratification for which he had so untiringly worked, Mr. Avedis Alabilikian assumed the Chairmanship of the Building Committee. It was under his leadership that the present church was brought to its completion. The architectural plans for the new church were donated by Mr. Harry Kuljian of the Kuljian Corporation and Mr. John Samelian, a member of this parish, was the architect in charge of the project. The challenge of converting an old three-story mansion to an Armenian Church was a difficult feat. Nevertheless, many of our parishioners worked with vision and enthusiasm to see it through. The Church was consecrated in November of 1963, by the late Archbishop Sion Manoogian, then Primate of the Diocese of the Armenian Church.
Throughout the past 56 years, our church has undergone many extensive renovations and the Parish has several hundred members with numerous auxiliary organizations. In 1991, the main hall was dedicated and named Memorial Hall in memory of the many individuals who, through their dedication and perseverance, preserved and enriched the life of our Church. Now, in the 21st century, we celebrate the memory of those individuals who struggled for the many conveniences and gifts we all enjoy today.