Saints Sahag and Mesrob Armenian Apostolic Church
by James Kabala
The history of Saints Sahag and Mesrob Armenian Apostolic Church began with the founding of a different church in a different building. This was the Eighth Baptist Church of Providence, founded in 1847 and originally located at the corner of Davis and Common Streets. (This street corner is one of many in Smith Hill that no longer exist due to the construction of Route 95 in the 1960s.) The church was one of many Baptist churches in Providence to be founded by former members of the First Baptist Church (founded by two centuries earlier by Roger Williams himself). They were residents of the Smith Hill area who wanted a church closer to their homes. The church building measured 35 by 50 feet.
In 1857 the original building was relocated to Jefferson Street because there was more room there to expand the structure. The church renamed itself the Jefferson Street Baptist Church. Although the name Jefferson Street predated the location of the church there, it was an appropriate name since Thomas Jefferson had been a strong advocate for freedom of religion and had been supported by Baptists throughout the nation for his defense of the rights of Baptists in his home state of Virginia.
Even the expanded building soon proved too small for the congregation. A new edifice was built on the same spot between 1868 and 1869. The construction of the church cost $40,000. A Norwegian immigrant named Niles Bierregaard Schubarth was the architect. The style has been described as “simplified Venetian Gothic.” This is the church that today is Sts. Sahag and Mesrob Church.
The church was originally topped with a rare brick spire. Most churches made of brick nonetheless have their spires made of a more stable material such as wood or stone. (Some sources claim that in 2017 there are only two extant brick spires in the United States and seven in the world – the present author was unable to verify this, but even if it is an exaggerated claim, it is still evidence of how rare brick spires are considered to be.) The spire became considered a potential danger to pedestrians and c. 1900 was torn down and replaced with a more stable non-pointed brick tower that cost $20,000.
In 1868, the same year that construction began on this church, another Baptist church moved from North Main Street to a location just a few hundred yards from the Jefferson Street Church at the corner of Park and Jewett Streets (another now-defunct street corner). It named itself the Park Street Free Baptist Church. This move angered the Jefferson Street congregation because they saw no need for another Baptist church so close by (although technically the Park Street Church belonged to a different denomination, the Free or Freewill Baptists who rejected Calvinist belief in predestination).
Over the next few decades, Smith Hill changed greatly in its ethnic and religious character. It became a home for immigrants from Ireland and from other countries such as Sweden and (most importantly for this story) Armenia. This reflected general trends in the city of Providence, which by the early twentieth century had a population that was 70% immigrants or the children of immigrants. These trends led many Protestant churches to close. Often the buildings were torn down or converted to highly secular purposes such as a theater, a brewery, or a bowling alley – but the Jefferson Street Church would avoid such a fate.
The two Baptist congregations on Smith Hill now seemed more redundant than ever. By 1912 their different denominational affiliations had also become obsolete as the Baptists and Free Baptists planned a merger into a single denomination. The Jefferson Street and Park Street churches decided to merge into a single church in that same year. Although the Jefferson Street Church was the older congregation and was considered by the Providence Journal to have the more impressive building (“one of the most substantially constructed edifices of the kind in the city”), the decision was made that the new United Baptist Church would sell the Jefferson Street building and keep the Park Street building. (The merged congregation would close as well many years later in 1986.) The Journal expected that the Jefferson Street building might be turned over to “manufacturing purposes.”
Meanwhile, the Armenian community in Providence had continued to grow. It had begun an outgrowth of the Armenian community in Worcester, Massachusetts. (Worcester was one of the major centers of Armenian settlement in the United States.) In 1888 Providence was recorded as having a small Armenian community of thirty-five persons. By 1897 this had grown to five hundred. In that year the Very Reverend Vaghinag Sisagian became the first pastor of the Armenian community in Providence. The community rented a location at 50 Exchange Place (present-day Kennedy Plaza) for their Divine Liturgy and other services. In 1905 the congregation attempted to purchase the building of a former Protestant church but was unable to raise the necessary funds in time. A plan to buy vacant land for the construction of a new church was also considered but never implemented. The Armenian community in Providence was primarily concentrated in Smith Hill and in particular on Douglas Avenue.
These two stories came together in 1913 when the Armenian congregation purchased the now-vacant Jefferson Street Church building for their use. The new church was incorporated in that year under the simple name of Armenian Apostolic Church of Providence, but it was consecrated by Bishop Moushegh Seropian the following year under the name of St. Sahag and St. Mesrob Armenian Apostolic Church.
The new name of the church honored two important saints of fifth-century Armenia. St. Sahag the Great (sometimes translated into English as St. Isaac) was the Catholicos (chief bishop) of the Armenian Apostolic Church. His contemporary and friend St. Mesrob (also spelled Mesrop) was the creator of the Armenian alphabet. Both men supervised the translation of the Bible into Armenian and are therefore also known as The Holy Translators. Their actions preserved the Armenian language and culture at a time when Armenia was politically divided between Byzantine and Persian control. Their unique alphabet and their strong religious faith would both sustain the Armenians during their centuries of control by other foreign powers, notably the Turks (whose genocide against the Armenians began two years after Sts. Sahag and Mesrob was founded) and the Russians/Soviets.
The church received numerous physical improvements over the years. In 1935 the second tower was also torn down and was replaced with a large steel cross with a neon blue light. In 1958 the church achieved a longstanding goal with the construction of the Egavian Auditorium (now called the Egavian Cultural Center) for parish activities. Three brothers named Egavian had contributed the money for this project. Larry Egavian appears to have been the most important of the brothers. In 1960 the church was honored by a visit from Vazgen I, the Catholicos of the worldwide Armenian Apostolic Church. This was the first time he or any of his predecessors had visited Providence. He blessed the new auditorium and presented Larry Egavian with the medal of the Order of St. Gregory the Illuminator, the highest honor of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
In 1969 the church extensively renovated its interior at a cost of $75,000. The changes reflected both the most ancient traditions of the Church (a new baptismal font) and the technologies of the twentieth century (a new sound system). The 1960s was an era of increased interest in ecumenism and cooperation among different Christian churches. This was reflected in the gift of a chandelier from the Greek Orthodox Church and the even more impressive gift of a new set of pews from Sacred Heart Catholic Church (a predominantly Italian parish) in West Warwick. The new pews were arranged so as to allow the creation of a center aisle (which was relatively rare in the Baptist tradition that had set up the original pews).
The creation of Interstate Route 95 in the 1960s greatly altered the landscape of Smith Hill. Jefferson Street, which was once a longer street that connected with Smith Street just behind the State House, became a small lane on which Sts. Sahag and Mesrob is the only major building. It became much more difficult to find a place to park on the shortened street on Sunday morning – church leaders claimed that over 200 parking spots had been destroyed. The church eventually purchased a parking lot to alleviate the problem but remained dissatisfied with the situation. The decline in accessibility eventually led the church to file a lawsuit against the state to seek damages for the harm done to their community. Between 1961 and 1971 church membership had declined from 831 to 337. The church leadership considered the creation of Route 95 to be the principal cause of this decline. A lower court awarded Sts. Sahag and Mesrob $50,000, but in 1976 this was overturned by the Rhode Island Supreme Court.
But these drastic changes also affected Sts. Sahag and Mesrob in another, more positive way. Although the church had not moved physically, it was now located not on a lesser-known side street but in one of the most prominent locations in the city – just above where Route 95 intersects with Route 146. The distinctive blue cross has become a noted landmark not only to those on the highway but also to pilots approaching T.F. Green Airport in Warwick. By 1979 the original cross had become corroded and, like its distant predecessor the brick spire, was considered a serious risk to fall into the street and injure or kill passers-by. It was replaced by a larger (but lighter) cross that is 14 feet high and 15 feet wide. Since 1994 the church has stood out even further from its surroundings by flying both the American and Armenian flags. This was originally done to commemorate the Armenian Youth Federation Olympics that were held in Providence that year, but the flags remained even after the games were over.
The area was further beautified in 2013 when author, illustrator, and former RISD professor David Macaulay painted a mural by the side of Route 95 directly below the church. (Macaulay is perhaps best-known for his series of architectural history books for children, such as Cathedral, Castle, and the Rhode-Island-set Mill.) The mural is a trompe l’oeil designed to create the illusion of three-dimensional statues and depicts famous Rhode Islanders such as Moses Brown and Ambrose Burnside as well as fictional individuals meant to symbolize the ordinary people of the state and city.
Saints Sahag and Mesrob remains an important center for the Armenian community in Providence. Although Roger Williams and Thomas Jefferson likely never foresaw a time when there would be Armenian Apostolic Christians in America (nor for that matter the invention of neon lights), the neon blue cross of Sts. Sahag and Mesrob stands as a monument to their vision of religious freedom for all.