RANGOON — Catholicos Karekin II, the supreme patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church, attended a ceremony in Rangoon on Wednesday that saw the city’s historic Armenian Apostolic Church of St. John the Baptist fitted with a blue plaque to honor its status as a heritage site.
The church, Rangoon’s oldest Christian place of worship, is the third beneficiary of a larger project by the Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT) to highlight the city’s expansive colonial architecture.
Along with Karekin II, who made his first-ever visit to Burma this week, Rangoon Division Chief Minister Myint Swe, Rangoon Mayor Hla Myint and the British ambassador to Burma, Andrew Patrick, attended an event unveiling the plaque at the church, located on the corner of Merchant and Bo Aung Kyaw streets.
The plaques serve to commemorate landmarks, or well-known events or people, in the city, YHT said.
“It is a special day for us. Because today, at the entrance of the church, there is a plaque which has been established to indicate its heritage position,” Karekin II told attendees via a translator.
“We have come here to encourage Armenians and their children to preserve the tradition. We have come here not only to see the preservation of the church, but also to strengthen [Rangoon’s] Armenian heritage,” he said.
Burma’s dwindling population of Armenians arrived in the 17th century from Iran, where they had settled after fleeing the Ottoman Empire. In 1881, a census by the colonial administration revealed that there were 466 Armenians living in the country, and a decade later that number had grown to 1,295.
But today the church is struggling to fill the pews, with only a small number of worshippers attending service each week. Of these, few trace roots back to the community that founded the building more than 150 years ago.
Distinguished by its tropical architecture combined with Gothic features, the church is the oldest church surviving in Rangoon, according to a press release from YHT on Wednesday.
Canadian Sharman Minus, who said her great-great-grandparents helped build the church, told The Irrawaddy that the Armenian delegation had been incredibly welcoming to her, inviting her to Wednesday’s event and taking great interest in her personal family history.
“I feel like I am in dream,” she said of Wednesday’s ceremony.
“This event marks the third plaque to be installed in a historic building of Rangoon,” said Moe Moe Lwin, director of YHT, at the unveiling ceremony. “We hope that this blue plaque will highlight our city’s heritage, and serve as a gateway for Rangoon residents as well as visitors to celebrate its wonderful diversity and incredible history.”
Previously, plaques have been fitted on City Hall and the building that once housed the up-market department store Rowe & Co.
Moe Moe Lwin said YHT is working to extend the existing list of heritage buildings in Rangoon. The blue plaque designation means the Armenian Apostolic Church of St. John the Baptist will be included in the extended list, help to ensure its long-term preservation.