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Unlike in the larger towns, parishioners of Father Antonian have not been inundated with missionaries from other denominations, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists. And while they have some Georgian Orthodox neighbors, as well as fellow Armenians from the Armenian Apostolic and Evangelical churches, there has not been any conflict among the churches.

“We are here alone, no one bothers us,” Father Antonian says.

A community of Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception has also helped keep the faith strong. After 70 years of atheism imposed during the Soviet regime, people have maintained their faith, but little else. Lacking access to priests, the sacraments and regular catechesis, villagers had forgotten some of the staples of their faith.

Sisters have stepped in to fill the void. They teach the villages’ children and take youngsters up to the age of 14 to a summer camp in neighboring Armenia. Last year, they even opened a medical clinic in Eshtia, and now they are waiting for permission from the government to turn it into a hospital.

Older generations, while they maintained their Catholic identity, are still struggling to come to terms with their faith after decades of pressure to abandon it. Built in 1886, when the first Armenian immigrants started to trickle out of Turkey and into Georgia, the church in Eshtia was turned later into a warehouse when the Soviet Union’s Josef Stalin went to war against religion in the 1930’s.

Armenian Catholics, however, went to great lengths to maintain their identity and faith. Villagers tell tales about elders baptizing the communities’ babies in secret, and Dr. Ovsepian remembered celebrating Christmas.

“During the time of the Communists, people were also religious,” Father Antonian recalls. “I remember well the holidays like Christmas — which were celebrated.”

But for men like Vano Gasparian, a local born in 1955, being an Armenian Catholic was part of his identity, even if he grew up knowing little about the faith.

“Catholics remained Catholics,” he says, adding, however, that for the older generations it can be a difficult transition from a culture that promoted atheism to a life of faith.

“For the young, they believe with their whole soul,” he says. For the older generations, “for us, it is harder.”

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Photojournalist Molly Corso lives and works in Tbilisi, Georgia.



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