SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.—The Council of Armenian American Organizations of Northern California (CAAONC) celebrated the 20th Anniversary of their inception and acquisition of the Mount Davidson Cross in San Francisco with a banquet which took place at the Green Hills Country Club in Millbrae, California, on Saturday February 18.
Mount Davidson Cross, a San Francisco Historical Landmark sits on the highest point in San Francisco, surrounded by the Mount Davidson Park. In 1923, the first cross was erected in commemoration of California pioneers, and in 1933 became a 103-foot permanent concrete steel monument. President Franklin D. Roosevelt inaugurated the lighting of the cross via telegraph from the White House on March 24, 1934. Sunrise services were held at the cross every Easter, and were broadcast nationwide from the 1940’s through the 1970’s. In the 90’s the Cross, which was on public property, became the subject of debate among the residents of San Francisco as they tried to weigh its religious role against its status as a historic landmark. That is when the San Francisco Armenian community stepped in. In 1997, after a long legal battle the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals approved its sale and the City auctioned 0.38 acres (0.15 ha) of land, including the cross to a private entity. San Francisco voters cast their ballots and gave public support of the sale to CAAONC on November 4, 1997. The cross is lit up twice a year, on Easter and on April 24th. Easter Sunrise services continue to take place at the cross for 94 years now. Annual Genocide Commemoration activities are also held at the cross.
Mount Davidson Cross serves as a symbol of unity for different faiths, and as of 1997 became a memorial to the victims of the 1915-1923 Armenian Genocide and all crimes against humanity. The Council of Armenian American Organizations of Northern California owns, preserves and maintains the site for use of residents of San Francisco and its visitors. In addition to being the steward of the Cross, CAAONC also serves as the umbrella organization for the coalition of over 35 Armenian churches and organizations of the greater San Francisco Bay Area in Northern California.
The 20th Anniversary Banquet was a highly successful event, with a beautiful program organized by Banquet Chair Judy Jingirian. The Mistress of Ceremonies was Kimberly Bardakian who connected with the audience, was gracious in acknowledging the guests, inviting speakers and encouraging support of the Mount Davidson Cross and the Council.
The evening started with the invocation by Clergy of all of the Bay Area Armenian Churches: Very Rev. Fr. Barouyr Shernezian of St Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church of San Francisco, Northern Region Vicar, Rev. Fr. Datev Harutyunian of St Andrew Armenian Church of Cupertino, Rev. Fr. Hovel Ohanyan of St Vartan Armenian Church of Oakland, and Rev. Nerses Balabanian of Calvary Armenian Congregational Church of San Francisco. Following the invocation, the Chairman of CAAONC Sevag Kevranian welcomed the guests and thanked the council board members and other volunteers for their dedication and efforts.
The guest of honor, Archbishop Aris Shrivanian of Jerusalem, who spearheaded the acquisition of the Mount Davidson Cross 20 years ago, was scheduled to attend the event, but due to last minute circumstances beyond his control unable to travel to San Francisco for the event. Instead he sent his message via video presentation, where he spoke of the importance of the cross as a symbol, and as to its importance to the Armenian Community as a Memorial of the Genocide of 1915.
The audience was treated to a moving rendition of Groong, Dzirani Dzar and Horovel by Karo and Nadima Avakian to everyone’s delight. The talented Naiyry Sarkiss played piano selections throughout the evening.
The Keynote Speaker was Dr. Mary Papazian, President of San Jose State University. Dr. Papazian spoke passionately and presented an eloquent speech, which touched every member in the audience and received a standing ovation. She made the connections between the Cross, our history, the Genocide, the efforts of rebirth in America, the disastrous earthquake in Armenia and the Armenian independence, progress in Armenia, the uneven relationship between Armenia and diaspora, and, pilgrimage to Western historic Armenia. She made the point that “A patriotic Armenian-American, is a patriotic American!” Her concluding remarks were: …”as the Mt. Davidson Cross stands 103 feet tall on the highest point in San Francisco, lit up on Easter and on April 24th, it reminds all who see it of the beacon of light and hope, not only for Armenians, but for our common humanity and all who cross its path.” Full text of her speech is provided below.
The program included special recognition of the following:
Initial steering committee: Archbishop Aris Shirvanian, Goruon Hayrapetian, and Jirair Sarkissian.
Founding Board Members: Archbishop Aris Shirvanian, Archie Azizian, Kevork Garabedian, Edward Misserlian, Rev. Steve Muncharian, Goruon Hayrapetian, the late Ruby Keefer, accepting on behalf of the late Dr. Krikor Soghikian was his wife Caline Soghikian, and, on behalf of the late Edward Aslanian was his wife Elo Aslanian.
CAAONC pro bono legal counsel for 20 years: Paul Tour Sarkissian
Former CAAONC Chairman Chuck Paskerian who served in that position for 10 years.
Members that have served on the Council for 10 years or more: Brian Agbabian, Levon Ishag, Zaven Kanneian, Ani Yeni-Komshian.
Special appreciation to Sevag Kevranian for his years of volunteer work throughout the community.
The program concluded with benediction by Bay Area clergy.
On the 20th Anniversary of the Mt. Davidson Cross
by Dr. Mary A. Papazian, President
San José State University (CA)
February 18, 2017
“If evil of this magnitude can be ignored, if our own children forget, then we deserve oblivion and earn the world’s scorn.”
Words of Avedis Aharonian (writer and educator,1866-1948) whose warning was inscribed on a plaque affixed to the Mt. Davidson Cross in San Francisco, California, on Armenian Genocide Commemoration Day April 24, 1998.
Twenty years ago, a dedicated group of Armenians, representing the whole spectrum of the Armenian-American community, affirmed that the evil perpetrated upon our people a century ago was not to be ignored, that our children would learn and remember their history, and rather than earning the world’s scorn, we have earned the world’s respect and admiration through our collective accomplishments, dedication, and talents.
The great seal of the United States pictures a collection of bound rods with the inscription e pluribus unum, namely out of many, one. This quintessential American attitude signifies the strength in numbers and the power of cooperation so well demonstrated by the distinguished group of 38 cooperating Armenian organizations led by Archbishop Aris Shervanian and a dedicated committee, who wisely, and with vision and determination, decided in 1997 to purchase the landmark 103 foot cross on top of Mount Davidson in San Francisco, California. San Francisco, the destination of hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the interior of America as well as from throughout the world, was the perfect location for such a symbolic representation.
This cross was built by the Christian community of San Francisco and dedicated to the city as a symbol of the faith which taught harmony and peace among the nations and represents what is finest in the American tradition. Unfortunately, in one sense, the concept of the division between “church and state” that has defined the United States since its founding, required that the city divest itself of this noble monument and offer it for sale in order to save it. Wisely, and with great foresight, the 38 Armenian-American organizations came together as one and purchased the plot and monument, thereby preserving for all members of our broader community its original intention of signifying peace and harmony among all peoples on the earth, as well as the healing power of the cross.
Significantly, the cross has always played an important role in Christian and, in particular, in Armenian iconography, and many Armenian men bear the name of Cross, Khachig, or other variances of the symbol such as Nishan (sign of the cross). Furthermore, the cross in typical Armenian iconography lacks the presence of an image of a crucified Christ, representing through that absence the powerful Armenian tradition that the cross represents the resurrection, the success of Christ, his divine power; and not the crucifixion of Christ when the physical Jesus paid the penalty for mankind’s sins.
You are to be commended and congratulated for your decision to light up the cross on Easter and on April 24th, the day on which each year we commemorate the Armenian Genocide. Lighting the cross on Easter symbolizes the truth of Jesus’s resurrection. There is no crucifix on top of Mount Davidson. The resurrection has taken place, and the cross is unadorned for all to see.
In like manner, the lights are turned on once more on April 24th, and the symbolism is again effective. There is nobody on the cross, for the victims of the Armenian genocide, our Martyrs, have not been lost. They were welcomed by Our Lord into their heavenly home. Our Church, on the centennial of the Armenian Genocide, bore witness to their sanctification granted by God himself. The church cannot make a Saint, it can only recognize one. It is God who sanctifies.
Perhaps the purchase of the Mount Davidson Cross, which is an important moment in a century of efforts of survival, hope, and recognition by Armenians here in America and throughout the world, was inspired by another significant Armenian community-wide effort, the building of the Armenian Genocide Martyrs Monument in Montebello, California, in 1968. Both of my parents were on the original Monument Council that developed and completed the Montebello Armenian Monument, and I was honored as a young seven-year-old girl to participate in carrying the candle along with a genocide survivor at the groundbreaking for that historic event.
The 50th anniversary of the Armenian genocide was the first significant moment of a coming-out for the Armenians in America as they regrouped following the Genocide. This was the time when a new generation of Armenians matured in America. Slowly a transition had begun. The emotionally scarred victims of the Genocide gradually were being replaced by a new generation born in America, without the emotional baggage of their traumatized parents and relatives.
The effort of rebirth and regeneration here in America continued through the establishment of monuments and memorials, churches, Armenian studies programs, educational and cultural institutions, and marked by tangible and symbolic events such as the purchase of the Mt. Davidson Cross twenty years ago. As the Armenian community gained strength, nurtured by annual pilgrimages to the Cross and other monuments around the country, it was ready at the hundredth Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide in 2015, to come together again as an entire Armenian-American community with one voice organized to demand not only recognition, but now compensation for the incalculable loss of lives and the restitution of properties. And organize we did, across the country, from Washington, D.C. to Times Square, New York, to here in California where 160,000 Armenians and their supporters marched in Los Angeles, and countless more in Fresno and here in San Francisco.
Of course, it was the disastrous earthquake in Armenia in 1988 that brought Armenia to the world’s attention, no doubt in part because of Gorbachev’s presence in New York, and his exposure to the American news media which expected and demanded action as a natural reaction to a world-sized calamity. I am sure many of you can remember where you were when you heard the news. I had just left California to take up my first academic position at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. I remember hearing the news that cold December morning and walking into our English department office saying, this many Armenians have not perished on one day since the Armenian Genocide. That so many children in schools were victims, made the tragedy that much more poignant and somber.
Once Gorbachev announced that aid would be accepted, the doors were flung wide open and many almost-assimilated Armenians—many the friends and relatives with whom I grew up as a fourth-generation Armenian-American from California—came out of the woodwork to aid their suffering homeland. It was still a homeland shrouded behind the mysterious iron curtain, but the curtain was beginning to open, and our collective response to the tragedy of that day nearly thirty years ago allowed us to pull aside that curtain with an urgency we perhaps didn’t realize we had. Although, in truth, many Armenian-Americans had no ties to Eastern Armenia, which had resided for many years within the Persian and Russian Empires, but were the progeny of Genocide survivors from Western Armenia in the Ottoman Empire, nevertheless, the Armenians realized that they were one people who would rise or fall together.
With the opening of Armenia, whatever the mechanism, the outpouring was genuine and significant and continues to this day, as we work together to ensure that our fledgling Republic of Armenia, now twenty-five years old, continues to grow and develop, and that a true and lasting peace is found for Artsakh. It is the only future we have!
My husband, Dennis, and I were active in this movement. We were in Armenia during the dark days in the early 1990s resulting from the earthquake and the revving up of the Armenian battle for Nagorno-Karabakh. Little food, little fuel, little light, and every day hardships. But their determination, and ours, to survive and the will to do so demands the respect and gratitude of us all.
Now, after some 25 years of touted independence, Armenian diaspora leaders are beginning to question the uneven relationship between the nearly 3 million Armenians left in Armenia—the continuing population drain remains a tremendous challenge—and the nearly 6 million Armenians living around the world who make up the Armenian diaspora. The diaspora has been expected to support Armenia financially and politically, but, in truth, has no real say in policies or practices in the country.
Despite this uneven relationship, Armenians in the diaspora are committed to the future of Armenia, for they know that no diaspora can live for long without a homeland. And the challenges of today are real. Time is not on our side. So, whatever the circumstances and the challenges, the preservation of the homeland has become not just a perceived—but indeed a real—responsibility of the diaspora!
In August 2014, just ahead of the centennial of the Armenian Genocide and just as the civil war in Syria was beginning to spill over into Turkey, my family and I, along with two of my brothers, close family friends, and a French-Armenian family of five, took a pilgrimage to historic Western Armenia, the land of our forefathers. My grandparents on my father’s side are from Sis (now called Kozan), the capital of Cilician Armenia, and on my mother’s side they are from Marsovan and Malatya.
The journey we took began in Istanbul, the home town of Dennis’s parents, and took us to Kayseri, then on through the Cilician Gates to Adana, Tarsus, and Sis. We saw Tarsus College, from which my grandfather graduated in 1918, the disappearing ruins of the Armenian Catholicosate in Sis, climbed to the castle on which my grandfather had played as a boy, and visited the few remaining Armenian homes that lined the streets. Our journey took us east to Aintab, Urfa, Diarbekir, Bitlis, Van, and north to Ani and Kars. In every church still standing we sang Hayr Mehr and Sourp Sourp, our small attempt to reclaim the Armenian soul in its historic lands. So much of the evidence of our history has been destroyed.
The pilgrimage was extraordinary, connecting us in a way we never could have imagined to our emotional past. But it truly was bittersweet. Our past on those lands is vanishing, right before our eyes. The fields are tended by Kurds. There is very little physically to remind a visitor of our presence or history, and what little remains is mislabeled. And so, while the poets lament our tragedy, the historians attempt to reclaim the truth of our experience, and the politicians advocate for our rights, our past in our historic lands is being eradicated.
And so we must not waver in our commitment to our new Armenian homeland and to a peaceful solution to the Karabakh conflict, even if they aren’t the lands on which our forefathers wandered or the dialect is somewhat unfamiliar. We must claim our independent Republic and do all we can to ensure its survival and resurrection. We can only wait and see the result of this new demand of the diaspora and those who live in the territory called Armenia.
For many years, my husband was chairman of the Alex Manoogian Cultural Fund which gave millions of dollars to support Armenians in the diaspora and in Armenia, itself. My husband, a Russian and Soviet specialist, and Mr. Manoogian made several trips both to Soviet Armenia and Armenian centers in the Middle East to work for the preservation of the Armenian ethos. With the growth of Arab nationalism in the Middle East, these were hard times for the Armenians and the traditional Armenian communities began to break down. Tragically, we are seeing this again, of course, in the destruction of our Armenian communities in Syria.
Unfortunately, the Armenian Soviet Republic also had its problems. Russian language was the road to success, and most leaders in Armenia preferred speaking Russian rather than Armenian. Of course, the most patriotic institution was the church, but it had suffered under the anti-religious attitudes of the Soviet regime. One of Mr. Manoogian’s aims was the revitalization of the church, which he began to regenerate through wise and effective policies. The people of the independent Armenian state recognized his contributions with various monuments and memorials. Much less of his work, to ensure the health and survival of the Armenian church as the key to the survival of the Armenian nation, is known here in the United States, as is the work of so many other patriots.
Fortunately for the Armenians, the division of the traditional church has almost been healed. The Catholicos of all Armenians, Karekin II, now enjoys a close fraternal relationship with Catholicos Aram I, of the Great House of Cilicia, as we witnessed when they celebrated mass together with Pope Francis in the Vatican in April 2015, and again in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. in May 2015. We are all one people, descended from Haig on the slopes of Mt. Ararat.
What does all of this mean for us, the Armenians of California? Well, for one thing the Armenians are well-established here and have the wealth and the knowledge to perpetuate the Armenian spirit and to share the contributions of the Armenians to world civilization. We also have developed a small degree of political clout, which is so important in a democracy such as ours. As president of Southern Connecticut State University, which I led for nearly five years before returning to California to take the helm of San José State University this past July, I was able to introduce several cooperative programs in education and health sciences at the University and in Armenia. Now, as president of the much larger and more prestigious university in San José—the only public university in the Silicon Valley—I hope to work with all Armenian-Americans not only to aid Armenia but to preserve the Armenian spirit here in America. It is not a question of competition with anyone or any group. Rather, it is our sign of strength, e pluribus unum, a chance for us to work together to build on our ever strengthening foundations to accomplish greater things, or perhaps more important things, for our people in America and in Armenia.
We live in complex times. Witness the confusion all around us. But as the Chinese say, chaos produces opportunity. And so at this time of chaos, we must look for opportunity to make ourselves even stronger. A patriotic Armenian-American, is a patriotic American! What makes America great, and will make it even greater, is the contribution of all of its people, no matter what their ethnic background, to the common good. Armenian-Americans have contributed in important ways, and we are on the threshold of even greater contributions. Your trailblazing example must be emulated by all Armenians of goodwill. And, as the Mt. Davidson Cross stands 103 feet tall on the highest point in San Francisco, lit up on Easter and on April 24th, it reminds all who see it of the beacon of light and hope, not only for Armenians, but for our common humanity and all who cross its path.
And so our journey continues. Twenty years on, indeed one hundred years on, and we are more united as a community than ever. Congratulations to all you have accomplished and the legacy you will leave to the next generation.