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18 July 2016

Lost In The Passage Of Time: The Origins Of One Of The Other St. John's Church of Rangoon

This story is brought to you with the support of the
AGBU UK Trust.

 *NOTE: The hyperlinks in square brackets [ ] do not work in this blog, please scroll to the bottom to read the links.

Generally speaking, when one thinks of St. John’s Church Rangoon one normally thinks of the Armenian Church. Currently enjoying a renaissance in popularity, the Yangon St. John the Baptist Armenian church is breathing easier these days, thanks to the recent intervention of the Armenian Holy See to reclaim and revive it from years of stifled possession of an unauthorised non Armenian incumbent.  Rescued in the nick of time, its beginnings, roots and history are once again proudly and rightly lauded by Armenians around the world. Its precious fabric now rests securely for future generations and visitors to worship in.

But what of the other St. John’s Church of Yangon? No, it is not Armenian, but it does have a significant Armenian association, and one that is sadly forgotten today.   Even the St. John's Catholic Church website cannot fully recite its own early years. 

Time has diluted the importance of the Armenian connection.  Let me try to revive it.

St. John’s Catholic Church Yangon. Built in extraordinarily quick time, within a 20 month period. It was made possible by the generosity of a Catholic Armenian of Rangoon, Gregory Avanis.
Image courtesy of

The basic foundations were dug after the end of the second Burmese-Anglo war in 1853.  Bishop Balma had decided to make the city his permanent place of residence, and it was at this time that he laid down in the military cantonments, the foundations of the church of St. John the Baptist.” This early development was “left in an unfinished state until the year 1857.[1] Questionable as to whether it would ever be built, it remained like this until a Catholic Armenian, Gregory Avanis came to the rescue.

In his Will[2] he donated the entire cost of the structure, bequeathing the sum of Companys Rupees 20,000 and ensuring its completion.
Gregory Avanis stated in his Will that he had a number of valuable Bengal Promissory notes, these totalled Companys Rupees 54,000. Declaring his bequests, he went on to say: “I further leave and bequeath one Bond for the sum of Company’s Rupees twenty thousand for the purpose of building a Chaple (sic) at Rangoon in the name of Saint John.”

Over the last few years, I have read hundreds, probably even a few thousand pages of old Armenian Wills and Inventories in an attempt to piece together many fragments of lost Armenian family history in India. The Will of Gregory Avanis is written in the same vein as scores of others in Asia. He could not have realised how his act of generosity would help build a church that continues to stand today. He died in Madras in April 1858, having declared his final wishes less than a month before in Madras. 

It seems his heart was in Rangoon.

Leaving a legacy such as this in a Will does not necessarily mean the wishes of the testator would be fulfilled. It is fortunate that in the book “An Outline of the History of the Catholic Burmese Mission” by Reverend Bigandet he gave crucial details of the re-commencement of the building process of the church. 

“In February 1858, the corner stone of the church of Rangoon was laid down amidst a great concourse of people. The ceremony was presided by the Bishop, assisted by the Rev. P. Barbe, C. Paruza, C. Pacchiotti and V. Gabutti. The band of the European Regiment enlivened the ceremony. M. Th. Chrestian laid down the corner stone. During the rainy season, the work was interrupted, to give time to the foundations to sit well in the ground.

The work resumed in the month of October, and carried on without interruption. The church was blessed and, for the first time, opened for divine service on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, of the year 1859. It was erected solely at the expense of Mr. Gregory Avanis an Armenian, native of Rangoon, who since the war of 1824 had migrated to Madras, where he died on the 2nd of April 1858 having just received the information that the work of laying the foundation of the church had been begun.

He bequeathed the sum of 20,000 Rupees, for building the church, and a similar sum in Company’s papers, with the injunction that the interest should be used for repairing the church, and praying for the repose of his soul.”

Rev. Bigandet’s recollections are the perfect independent proof and provenance that St. John’s Catholic Church, Rangoon was started by a Bishop, completed by an Armenian and enjoyed by all who worship there.

After Gregory’s death a tablet was placed in his memory at the St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, Madras by his brother Stephen whose own family continued to reside in Rangoon. The memorial inscription reads: “Sacred to the memory of Gregory Avanis, Esq., aged 75 years. This tablet was erected by his affectionate brother Stephen Avanis.[3]

With a little digging, some patience and a lot of time this is another small piece of forgotten Armenian family history brought back to life.

For my earlier story on another Armenian who built a Catholic  church you can find it here “Catholic Armenians: Let’s Build a Church”.


Image of St. John's Catholic Church, Yangon Architecture

[1] An Outline of the History of the Catholic Burmese Mission From The Year 1720 to 1887.  By Paul Ambroise Bigandet
[2] The Will of Gregory Avanis. British Library L/AG/34/29/258/7 1858.
[3] List of Tombs and Monuments of Europeans in the Madras District. P.55

04 July 2016

Archbishop Guregh Israelian, Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem:Early Days in India

This story is brought to you with the support of the
AGBU UK Trust.

Archbishop Guregh Israelian, Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia

 This year sees the wonderful achievement of the Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy in Kolkata reach its 195th anniversary.

To help mark the occasion I thought it would be appropriate to highlight some of the old ex students from this long established Armenian school in the heart of the busy city.

Throughout this year I will be showcasing a number of ex students in my blog and telling the story of how they ventured forward in their lives. I make no apology for using the invaluable publication from 1965, “Armenian College Old Boys’ Union Souvenir. Golden Jubilee 1909-1959”. This booklet was written and compiled by the then managers of the Armenian College in their capacity as leading members of the Armenian College Old Boys’ Union: Messrs. Haik Nadjarian, John Michael, Joseph Joe Arathoon and Mack Arathoon respectively.

I reprint in its entirety the brief but informative biography on the late Archbishop Guregh Israelian the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem. Many do not know of his early life in India, and the Old Boys’ Souvenir has invaluable biographical detail of Archbishop Guregh’s time in the country, in particular at the Armenian College,  and I believe it is most worthy of a complete re-print.

Image courtesy of Liz Chater’s private archive
 Extract from the Armenian college Souvenir book on Tigran Israelian, later Archbishop Guregh Israelian.

“Tigran Israelian was born in Julfa in Iran on the 18th January 1894 and was baptised as Tigran. He was the son of the late Revd. Father Mashtots Israelian, Arch Priest of the Indo-Iranian Diocese, who served the Armenian Churches at Julfa, Calcutta and Madras for 50 years during his lifetime.

Tigran Israelian received his primary education in Julfa in the Armenian schools of St. Katherine, Gevork Kbananian and Kendronakan (Central). At the age of 12 he accompanied his father, who was journeying to Madras as an officiating priest. There he was placed in St. Joseph's School of Madras and after a year, on his father being transferred to Calcutta, Tigran was brought to Calcutta and placed in the Armenian College on the 13th December, 1907 with the Roll No. 305. He appeared for the Matriculation Examination of the Calcutta University and was placed in the 1st Division. Later he took the Intermediate Arts Examination at St. Xavier's College, Calcutta . In 1911 and on completion of this course he contemplated taking a course in Divinity to qualify for holy orders but with the outbreak of the First World War his programme was changed. Meantime, he had been appointed a teacher in the Armenian College, and during the time Mr. lsraelian acted as a teacher he spared no effort for the improvement of his beloved school and concentrated all his efforts for the betterment of education. He taught Armenian, English, Mathematics, Science, History. Geography and Religious knowledge.

Born and brought up in the atmosphere of a religious home. Tigran Israelian had a desire to be ordained as a clergyman, but his duel professional and directorial position forced him to remain in the College until a suitable opportunity could arise. It was in these days that His Eminence Thorgom Ghooshakian, the delegate of His Holiness Khoren, Catholicos of all Armenians, arrived in Calcutta on a mission of mercy to collect funds for the orphaned and scattered Armenian victims of the massacres and deportations by Turkey during 1915. Here was the opportunity and Mr. Israelian, on coming to know His Eminence, conveyed to him his heart's desire. After obtaining approval of His Eminence, Mr. Israelian took leave of the College and his beloved pupils and joined His Eminence as his personal secretary, travelling with him to Singapore, Java, and back again to Singapore, Rangoon and Calcutta, all the while accomplishing his secretarial work conscientiously. He was now prepared to go to Jerusalem with His Eminence and travelled with him to Cairo, where he took up the post of a teacher in the National Galoostian School and also became the secretary of the Prelacy of Egypt in 1921. During the same year Mr. Israelian accompanied His Eminence Thorgom Ghooshakian to Jerusalem as his personal secretary.

In Jerusalem. Mr. Israelian won the attention of the Brotherhood of St. James and was especially noticed by the then Patriarch, Egishe Durian, who accepted. him as a member of the Brotherhood of St. James. Three months later be was ordained a deacon by His Grace Mgerditch Agavnounian and while still a deacon he became a teacher in tbe "Jarangaworats" Seminary and worked as the secretary of the Chancery of the Throne of St. James.

In 1923 he was ordained an Archimandrite by His Beatitude Patriarch Durian who gave him the Ecclesiastical name of Revd. Guregh (Cyril). Hereafter the Very Revd. Guregh was appointed as Vice-Principal and later the Principal of the Seminary and the head of Thargmanchats (Translators) Co-educational School. He also took up the responsibilities of the two libraries, Gulbenkian and Manuscript Libraries until 1939.

In the same year in recognition of his ardent and meritorious work he was elected as the head of the Sacristy, which is the most important and responsible office after the Patriarch's.

In 1945 Revd. Guregh proceeded to Armenia, where be participated in the election of the New Catholicos in Echmiatsin in the person of His Holiness George VI, who also consecrated the Revd. Guregh as a bishop.

After the death of the Patriarch of Jerusalem His Beatitude Archbishop Mesrovb Nshanian, the very Revd. Guregh assumed the position of Locum Tenens and later in the year was elected as the Armenian Patriarch to the Apostolic Throne of St. James in Jerusalem.

The Patriarchship of His Beatitude Archbishop Guregh Israelian coincided with the terrible days of 1948 in the history of Palestine. In May, 1948, Great Britain's mandate over Palestine ended by the decision of the United Nations. The departure of the British caused great alarm because of the imminent clash between the Jews and the Arabs. The Armenians in Palestine considered the safety of their lives only and thousands of Armenian families left everything behind them and, only with the clothes in which they stood, took refuge inside the courtyard of the Cathedral in St. James.

Like a "good shepherd that knoweth his sheep", the Patriarch gathered around him the members of the Brotherhood and shouldered the responsibility of the welfare of his flock, both spiritual and material by providing shelter, food and clothing for all who had left their towns on account of the bombardment of their homes. The years 1948-49 were extremely difficult days for the Patriarch and his health deteriorated considerably, owing to the incessant work he was engaged upon. He was overcome by illness, necessitating his going to the hot water springs of El Hamma in Syria and thence to the American Hospital in Beirut. The strain and stress of the two previous years had been too much for him and his illness took a serious turn. A few days after an operation he died on the 28th October. 1949.

For the work he accomplished, for the service he rendered, for the love for his people which he displayed, with complete disregard for himself, he "laid down his life for his friends" he will live for centuries in the pages of Jerusalem's Armenian History and will be considered a true successor of the earlier patriarchs. Paronter and Sheghtayakir.

His Eminence is the most precious jewel in the crown of our Alma Mater. May his soul rest in peace and his spirit permeate the members of our College.”
One of many impact stories from the Armenian community in India: Archbishop Guregh Israelian.