“Armenian people, believe in your past, in your history, in the God of your fathers, in their immortal and alive soul, and you will not die. Believe that you will live and act with that believe, work and hope... and you will not die.”
These words belong to Karekin Hovsepiants, one of the most remarkable figures of the Armenian Apostolic Church in the twentieth century. A Church leader, he was also a distinguished scholar of Armenian studies and a name of national proportions.
Karekin Hovsepiants (his birth name was also Karekin) was born in the village of Maghavuz (Karabagh) in 1867. He studied in the Kevorkian Seminary of Holy Ecthmiadzin from 1882-1890. He pursued higher studies in Germany (Leipzig, Halle and Berlin) from 1892-1897, and obtained his doctorate in Theology from Leipzig University with a dissertation on the origins of monothelitism, the Christological doctrine about how the divine and human relate in the person of Jesus that formally emerged in Armenia and Syria in the seventh century.
Karekin Hovsepiants returned to the Caucasus and had a flourishing activity. He was ordained a celibate priest in 1897. After three years of intense teaching at the Seminary of Holy Etchmiadzin (1897-1900), which he had to interrupt due to health problems, he was designated Vicar of the Armenian diocese of Tiflis and participated actively in the intellectual life of the Armenian community (1900-1902). He was later the principal of the diocesan school of Yerevan (1902-1905), dean of the Seminary (1905-1907), editor of Ararat, the journal of the Catholicosate (1906-1907), abbot of the monastery of Saint Hripsime (1907-1914), again dean of the Seminary (1914-1917). In the meantime, his research and publication had gained him the respect of the Armenian intelligentsia.
In 1917, Catholicos of All Armenians Kevork V consecrated him as bishop. In May 1918 Hovsepiants participated actively in the crucial battle of Sardarabad and was decorated for his bravery by the government of the newly-founded Republic of Armenia. In 1920, he established a chair of Armenian Art and Archaeology at the newly created Yerevan State University. After the establishment of the Soviet regime, the chair was closed, most probably because the religious content of art ran counter to Soviet ideology.
He continued his ecclesiastic and intellectual activities and in 1927 he was designated Primate of the diocese of Russia, Crimea, and Nor Nakhichevan. In 1932 he became a member of the Supreme Spiritual Council of Holy Etchmiadzin and in 1934 was designated nuncio for the Armenian Diaspora by Catholicos Khoren I. He traveled through different communities and from 1936-1938 he tried unsuccessfully to mend the split in the Armenian Church of America. From 1938-1943 he was Primate of the Armenian Diocese of America.
He was elected Catholicos of the Holy See of Cilicia in 1943 but due to the difficulties of World War II he was only able to take the position in 1945. The Catholicate had just come out from the very difficult years following its establishment in Antelias in 1929. During his seven-year tenure, Catholicos Karekin I gave a powerful momentum to administrative, ecclesiastic, educational, and publishing activities, and turned the Catholicate into a focus of Armenian life in the Diaspora. He also continued to publish very important works about Armenian history and art. After suffering two heart attacks in 1950, he was confined to bed until his passing on June 21, 1952.
Shortly after his death, a twenty-year-old seminarian, Neshan Sarkissian, was ordained a priest and took the name Karekin in remembrance of the late Catholicos. He would go on to become Catholicos Karekin II of Cilicia and later Karekin I of All Armenians.