News > Syrian Armenians > The active shepard ... Der Housig Setragian
Interview by Sylvia Bourdjian-Matta
Der Housig Setragian is one of those priests you would like to sit and converse with. You will feel that you are talking to a friend not a priest. Recently I had the opportunity to discuss with him about his first volume "Vark Kahanayatz Perio Temi 1850-2005" (Biographies of Aleppo Diocese's Priests 1850-2005). He has invested plenty of time and energy to make this book a reality.
The material of the book is collected from 1991 until 2005. The book is published under the patronage of Aleppo's Primate Bishop Shahan Sarkissian with the support of Vrej Kaprielian. This is the first of a two volume project. It has about 430 pages and describes the lives, accomplishments and activities (religious, social and sometimes political) of deceased priests dating from the second half of the 19th century till present time, covering the following geographical areas:
1- Aleppo (Main See), Homs, Kilis, Azaz.
2- Eastern Syria (Jazeerah) and the surroundings areas including Kamishli, Hasake, Raqqa, Jarablus, Tel Abiad, Der Ezzor, Ra'as El Ein and Derik.
3- Western and Coastal Syria and the surroundings areas including Lattakia, Kessab, Ghenemieh, Aramo, Yakubieh, Antioch, Iskandarun and Musa Ler.
The book is an important input in the history of the Armenian Church in Aleppo and the surroundings and is considered as a rich and valuable source for scholars interested in this respect. The language is clear, comprehensible and easy to read. Activities and achievements of each priest are mentioned following a short biography. The reader is introduced to backgound information related to the era in which each personality has lived.
It is worth mentioning here that the revenue from both volumes (the printed first volume and the second volume, scheduled to be printed later) would be dedicated to the Priests' Retirement Fund. Der Housig is working on the second volume with the same diligence.
Der Housig, please tell us how the idea of the book came into your mind?
As a priest, through reading different religious books and as a teacher for 27 years I came upon rich information about religious men and priests. As you may know, our church has 2 types of priests; those who are unmarried and live in the monasteries and those who marry and are in contact with people. Looking back at the achievements of many of our deceased and valuable priests I humbley decided to do something to honour them and their noble deeds. Before starting my project I took advice of my tutor Bishop Zareh Arzoumanian, God rest his soul. He was a man of knowledge and well educated. He told me our archives are poor in this respect and this project needs work, but it would be a great asset for the church once it is done. His words encouraged me to start digging information. While gathering fact I found out that we have 50-55 priests, a big number. I needed to have a timeframe for my book, so I decided to start from 1850 to 2005; the 1st volume's period.
The church's archives were of help but I needed also to check other sources. There was no information about the deceased priests in our archives; nothing about their activities, no record about many of the important things they have achieved in their lives. Through my contacts in the community, friends and family members I succeeded in gathering information about each and every one of them. My aim was to shed a light on the neglected members of our society: the priests.
Did you encounter difficulties?
Yes, my main problem was collecting information as I said above. I started searching people, relatives of the priests; calling people, asking for information and they in their turn guided me to other persons and so on. I started recording interviews and later took notes. I wrote letters to priests' relatives who lived in Lebanon, the US and Canada to get answers for some of my unanswered questions. I have used many different sources to get information. I did all the work by myself, no one helped me. Only Mr. Khatchig Shahinian
, editor of Kantsasar weekly, helped me to decide the title of my book. Did your book meet popularity among people?
Yes, and for two reasons; First, because it was the first attempt in its domain and the second because through the lives of those priests the new generation was introduced to the Aleppo Armenian Church's history. The book was originally published chapter by chapter in Kantsasar
(Diocese's weekly), before taking its final form. People knew about it and this paved the way for the book to be popular as soon as it became available for sale. Did you achieve considerable sales?
We printed 1.000 copies and I can proudly say most of these copies were sold. The book was sent to France, Canada, US and elsewhere. I voluntarily dedicated the sales revenue to the Priests’ Retirement Fund
. I sold the books by myself. Nobody gave me a hand; I had to climb building stairs and by doing so people were impressed and were moved to buy my book. I have now problems with my knees, they hurt me because I carried the books with me for long hours, but I am pleased with the outcome. I have received donations from people; US$ 1.000 from one of my students, another one sent US$ 500 because he read his father's biography in the book and many others. I sent my book to Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation
and they in return did a financial donation. All these funds were channelled to the Priests’ Retirement Fund. So far more than 630.000 Syrian Pounds (about US$12.500) is collected for the Fund. And did the diocese have this Fund previously?
Yes, it was established in 1984. Where in Aleppo are your books sold?
The book can be bought from “Oshagan Bookstore
” next to 40 Martyrs’ Church
in Salibeh area. Are you satisfied with the 1st volume's outcome?
Yes, I am very satisfied. People eventually had the chance through the book to appreciate the work of all those humble servants (the priests) who worked behind the scenes for the glory of the church. Some purchased it out of curiosity, others were interested, others because they were related to the mentioned priests. Each one had a reason to buy the book and I am happy for that. What areas will your second volume cover and when do you expect it to be released?
It will cover the same areas of Aleppo Diocese and its surrounding but in more recent times. The book is 80% done, but I lack time to finish it due to my other obligations. Also I have to update some information with the newly deceased priests as when I started with the second book they were still alive. After having the second volume published will you be able to consider the work accomplished?
Yes, my project covers 2 volumes and only Aleppo Diocese. I hope there would be somebody to carry on the work I started on different level. Do you have other projects in mind?
Yes, God willing I intend to write about the Bishops of Aleppo Diocese and I already have done some primary research about it. I thanked Der Housig and left him in his thoughts. I hope someone will carry on the work he has started and may be one day, I don't know in which volume, Der Housig's life and achievement will be recorded and remembered as the active shepherd who started this project and made a difference in Aleppo's
ecclesiastical history. May God give Der Housig the strength and health to serve his people loyally.