Armenian martyrs find home at Morton Grove shrine

By Michelle Martin
Sunday, August 21, 2016

Armenian martyrs find home at Morton Grove shrine

Deacon Larry Farsakian, Father Hovhan Khoja-Eynatyan and Deacon Thomas Ohanian lead a brief liturgy on Aug. 10 at the Shrine of All Saints at St. Martha Parish in Morton Grove. Parishioners from St. James Armenian Apostolic Church in Evanston donated relics of martyrs from the Armenian genocide to the shrine. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
Father Hovhan Khoja-Eynatyan presents Father Dennis O'Neill expresses his gratitude for relics given to their church from the people at St. Martha's. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
People lit candles in front of the Armenian relics on display. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
Relics of martyrs from the Armenian genocide are on display in reliquaries. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
Deacon Thomas Ohanian, Father Hovhan Khoja-Eynatyan and Deacon Larry Farsakian lead prayers before the area of the shrine where the relics are on display. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
Father Dennis O'Neill , pastor at St. Martha, incenses the relics. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
Barbara and Stefan Steyer and Carol Anzelone, parishioners at St. Marthas, view the relics following a brief liturgy on Aug. 10. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
Deacon Thomas Ohanian venerates the relics of the Armenian Martyrs. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)

For Father Hovhan Khoja-Eynatyan and his parishioners at the St. James Armenian Apostolic Church in Evanston, the Armenian genocide of the early 20th century is not a distant historical event.

It’s something that happened to their families, Khoja-Eynatyan said after a brief liturgy on Aug. 10 to welcome the relics of martyrs of that genocide to the Shrine of All Saints at St. Martha Parish in Morton Grove.

“For me, it was my great-great uncle,” he said. “April 24 is the day when Armenians remember the victims of the genocide, and on that day, my family did not go to any of the memorials. We went to his house.”

During the genocide, which started in 1915 when ethnic Turks forcibly deported Armenians in the Ottoman Empire to the Syrian desert, where many died of starvation and dehydration and others were massacred. An estimated 1.5 million Armenians were killed between 1915 and 1923, when the Republic of Turkey was declared.

Khoja-Eynatyan’s great-great uncle did not die, but was made to watch as his wife and children were slaughtered and was left alive to suffer, Khoja-Eynatyan said. He later made his way to Armenia, married again and had another family, a modern resurrection story. But still, he never spoke about it.

“He was our relic,” Khoja-Eynatyan said.

In April 2015, 100 years after the genocide began, the Armenian Apostolic church declared that those who died were martyrs. “That meant that every picture hanging in homes of family members of people who died became a genuine icon,” he said.

During the same spring when the martyrs were canonized by the Armenian Apostolic Church — an early eastern Christian church similar in tradition and practice to the Armenian Catholic Church – members of St. James made a pilgrimage to St. Martha, which houses the relics of more than 1,600 saints, from the apostles and martyrs of the Roman Empire to St. John Paul II, John XXIII and Blessed Mother Teresa of Kolkata.

“We have a long tradition of venerating relics, just like all the Christian churches,” Khoja-Eynatyan said.

When they visited, Father Dennis O’Neill gave him relics of St. Thaddeus and St. Bartholomew, the apostles believed to have brought Christianity to Armenia, to be kept in St. James.

“I was not expecting that,” Khoja- Eynatyan said. “I was overwhelmed.”

After that, members of St. James decided to bring relics of the Armenian martyrs to St. Martha, which was designated as the Shrine of All Saints on Nov. 1, 2015, so that they could rest and be venerated among the relics of other martyrs.

“We just wanted our martyrs to have a home with other saints, and for people to learn about them and venerate them,” Khoja-Eynatyan said.

The relics came from the memorial chapel to the genocide in Der Zor, Syria. The memorial was destroyed by the Islamic State in 2014.

O’Neill, the pastor at St. Martha, made the church into a shrine to house mostly relics that he has been able to obtain from European churches that have been closed and demolished.

Over the past several years, it has welcomed many pilgrims, both Catholic and those of other faiths, who wish to venerate the relics. Praying among them, O’Neill said, is like worshipping with the “clouds of witnesses” described in the Letter to the Hebrews.

Now the unnamed Armenian martyrs whose remains are there will join those witnesses.

“You bring great blessings when you come,” O’Neill said, welcoming the group from St. James. “I know many of you were so deeply touched by the events of 1915. … To being relics of your martyrs — it’s an unspeakable gift.”

In return, he gave St. James another gift: a relic of St. Stephen, the first martyr, and a relic of Blessed Ignatius Maloyan, the Armenian Catholic archbishop of Mardin, who also died in 1915.


  • relic
  • relics
  • st. martha
  • shrine of all saints
  • dennis o’neill
  • armenian heritage
  • armenian genocide
  • st. james armenian apostalic

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