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A Brief History of St. Vartan Armenian Apostolic Church, Oakland, CA

In the late 1920’s a group of Oakland families felt the need to establish an Armenian church in the vicinity.  On Sunday, June 1, 1924, their first church service was held at the Greek Church in West Oakland with Rev. Fr. Vartan Kasparian officiating.

The election of the first Board of Trustees was in 1926 with the founding of the Parish.  The Ladies Aid was formed in 1929.  We still hold their documents, minutes, books, and records in the archives today.  A bequest of $500 from Mr. Dikran Sahakian was specified to be set aside for a church, whereupon Armenag Panosian hosted a dinner in Eagles Hall and the entire proceeds were added to the church fund.

It took courage and faith for a few Armenians during the worst depression in history to buy a church for $5,000 on the corner of 23rd Avenue and East 17th Street in Oakland.  The sanctuary was renovated to conform to a traditional Armenian design and St. Vartan Armenian Apostolic Church was consecrated in September 1932 by the Locum Tenens of the Western Diocese, Vartan Vartabed Kasparian, assisted by Der Bedros Hagopian, the first Parish priest.  The choir was led by Fresno’s K. Prof-Kalfaian.  The modest congregation grew in membership during the 30’s and 40’s.  The annual budget was about $2,000 and a church dinner was 60 cents!

By the early 50’s the need for a larger campus led to a building fund campaign.  The first Annual Bazaar in February 1952 started the Fund.  It was increased considerably when the treasury realized an initial sum of $9,900 from the estate of Charles Stone (Garabed Tashjian).

On March 30, 1955 a deposit of $1,000 was placed for a lot at Spruce Street and McKinley Avenue and it was purchased on May 25, 1955 for approximately $35,000.  The Parish priest, Rev. Fr. Bedros Kassardjian and the church officials conducted the groundbreaking on March 4, 1956.  The buildings on the lot were a large home and carriage house from the estate of F. Borax Smith.  The house was razed to allow Phase I construction of the church building but the carriage house remained and was put to good use.

On April 22, 1956 Bishop Shnork Kaloustian and 16 godfathers stood on the sub-flooring of the new building.  The blessing of the 16 cornerstones took place as each godfather/sponsor placed a designated vial into a specific cornerstone, each in the name of one of the 12 Apostles and 4 Holy figures.  Archival data in the cornerstones remains permanently.

The ensuing year was busy with multiple meetings, shopping trips, fund-raising and building woes.  Nevertheless, April 7, 1957 was the glorious day the Door Opening/Consecration was celebrated with pomp and ceremony.  A long procession filed up and around two blocks and back, led by the Primate, His Grace Bishop Vartan Kasparian.  Yes, our very first priest of 1929 was destined to officiate at our first Divine Liturgy once again!

The awe-struck congregation witnessed the Holy solemn Rites of Consecration which included each and every item of furnishing up to the crosses on the doors and walls.  Prayers of thanks and Holy Liturgical chants filled the sanctuary.  To conclude the celebration, a grand banquet was held at the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley.

In September 1959 a new priest, Rev. Fr. Shahe Altounian assumed his duties.  Impetus was given to Phase II of the construction at a banquet on April 5, 1959.   Several thousands of dollars were raised and the mortgage was burned.  Construction began on October 15, 1959.  The trusty carriage house met its doom.  When the Hall/Sunday School building and parking lot were completed, a banquet “kitchen shower” was held to commemorate the event.  Enough money was raised to completely cover the wish-list of furnishings and equipment throughout.

In 1985 Rev. Fr. Mesrob Sarafian became St. Vartan’s Parish Priest. He led the Parish with selfless devotion, faithful commitment and good-humored patience until he was called home to the Lord in 2009. Rev. Fr. Hovel Ohanyan, our current priest, was installed as St. Vartan’s pastor on July 11, 2009.