The convent of Our Lady of Armenia also houses an orphanage and a day centre for the elderly
Sister Arousiag proudly points out the dormitory of the convent of Our Lady of Armenia in Gyumrí, where Pope Francis will rest for a few hours on the second day of his journey to this country of the Caucasus. “It is the best room we have”, she assures us as she stoops to straighten out the carpet in this simple room. “When the bishop told me that the Pope – for whom I pray every day – would be coming to our convent, I thought he was pulling my leg; I simply couldn’t believe it”, she adds. In the background we hear a group of children singing in Armenian; they are rehearsing for when the Pope arrives. “They also know something in Italian”, Sister Arousiag tells us with a broad smile and a wink. The children in question are some of the 37 little ones living in the orphanage run by the sisters, whose singing the Pope has in fact already heard, in April 2015, during the Mass celebrated in the Basilica of St Peter’s for the hundredth anniversary of the Armenian genocide.
Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has helped for a number of different projects from the sisters of the Immaculate Conception in Armenia, ever since 1997. For in addition to running the orphanage, they also run a daycare centre for the elderly and also organise a summer camp every year for orphaned and deprived children, in the town of Tsaghkatzor, in the so-called “Valley of Flowers”. Last year no fewer than 890 young people took part in this summer camp, among them 40 Syrian refugee children.
We climb a staircase decorated with artwork from the convent in Gyumrí and reach the teenagers’ rooms, where we meet Anahir, a young girl of 16 who is initially unwilling to show her face because she is not “suitably dressed”, as she tells us. Her father died many years ago and her mother could not look after her because she was working all day. Glancing timidly at us, and with a child of around three years in her arms, she tells us that they are “very happy about the Pope’s visit and that they spend a lot of time waiting for this moment”. Sister Arousiag translates her words from Armenian into Italian and insists that we cannot leave without tasting the vegetable soup that the children have prepared for us.
The congregation of the Immaculate Conception in Armenia consists of 7 sisters working in various different centres throughout the country. In Gyumrí there are just three of them, who, in addition to running the orphanage, also run a day centre for the elderly in the same convent. Pope Francis will come here after celebrating Holy Mass in the central square of the city, which is the second largest in Armenia and in which one can still see the marks of the terrible devastation caused by the earthquake of 1988, in which over 25,000 people died.
“A visit to the first ever Christian country”, is the theme of the journey to Armenia by Pope Francis, which will take place from 24 to 26 June. To say ‘Armenian’ is to say ‘Christian’ – and this is their greatest source of pride. It was in the year 301 that King Tiridate III first proclaimed Christianity as the religion of the Armenian state, thus making it the first nation in the world to formally adopt Christianity, 12 years before the Emperor Constantine made it legal in the Roman Empire.
Today the majority of the population belongs to the (Orthodox) Armenian Apostolic Church, while the remainder is Armenian Catholics. But for the sisters in the convent, they are not concerned about who is Armenian Orthodox or Armenian Catholic. “It is something we never ask, because it does not concern us; we want to help all people equally”, Sister Arousiag assures us.
A big thank you
“We are very grateful to ACN, because you have helped us for many years. We depend on the support of various different organisations, and ACN is one of the best benefactors we have”, she explains, as we stand in the convent kitchen. A few yards from her, watching attentively, is Rosa, a woman of 72, who ceaselessly touches the cross that hangs around her neck. “I’m very grateful for everything the sisters do for us”, she says. “None of my three sons can take care of me because they live a long way away, and so the sisters are all I have.” In the daycare centre for the old people, the sisters provide three meals daily and also offer them the chance of a hot bath, something they don’t usually get, because most houses in the area do not have hot water.
Thanks to the generosity of ACN’s benefactors, the sisters of the Immaculate Conception have also been able to offer catechism classes to the orphaned children on their summer camps and been able to improve the daycare centre – in addition to being able to purchase part of the land on which they currently live.