Throughout its history, the Armenian Church has paralleled so closely the history of the Armenian nation that it is difficult to explain one without touching upon the other. The two, nation and church, are so closely meshed that it appears that the phrase “national church” was specifically coined for the Armenians. Christianity came to Armenia in the first century. St. Gregory, known as Gregory the Illuminator, was the first Catholicos of the Armenian Church, and he ruled for twenty-five years.
In the seventh century, the Muslim conquest brought yet another conqueror to the land of Armenia. In the mid-ninth century, Armenia recovered its independence briefly, lost it in the tenth century, and in the eleventh century the Seljuk Turks conquered Armenia, thus beginning a long tenure of subjugation, including some of the darkest days faced by the Armenian people.
Throughout this period the Catholicosal See – the center of authority – frequently moved from place to place due to the constant state of political disorder and unrest. The See was initially established in Etchmiadzin, Armenia, after which it was moved to various locations for shorter periods.n the year 1293, the Catholicosate established its permanent seat in Sis, the capital of the Cilician Armenian Kingdom. During the beginning of the fifteenth century, there was a growing movement within lay and religious circles to return the Catholicosate to its original location, Etchmiadzin, which it had left almost one thousand years earlier. In 1441, an electoral assembly in Armenia Major elected Kirakos Virapetsi as Catholicos of the Holy See of Etchmiadzin.
Therefore, from 1441 until the present time there have existed two Catholicosates, each without interruption, each withits own jurisdiction, each independent.With the outbreak of World War I, Turkey unleashed a program of systematic extermination of the entire Armenian population. In 1915 there was scarcely any Armenians in Turkey who had not been affected. The Armenian population in Cilicia had been largely evacuated after France abandoned the region. The majority found refuge in countries in the Middle-East, primarily Syria and Lebanon, which were under a French mandate. The Cilician Catholicos (Sahak II) followed the exodus.
On February 28, 1928, Catholicos Sahak issued a letter of appeal asking the people for guidance about the future of the Cilician See. Response from both lay and religious leaders was overwhelmingly in support of the See. One year later, Catholicos Sahak expressed the desire to establish the Great House of Cilicia in Antelias at the site of an orphanage. Therefore, on March 4, 1929, the Great House of Cilicia was established in Antelias, Lebanon, where it continues today.
On June 16, 1935, the Cilician Seminary in Antelias proudly graduated its first class of sixteen young scholars. Many yearslater one of the sixteen, Simon Payaslian, became Catholicos Zareh I. In a courageous and bold step, His Holinessresponded to a petition and assumed religious leadership of a group of Armenian churches in the United States whose members had been without spiritual guidance since 1933.