Whenever Hasmik Takoushian walked into a church in her native Armenia, the scent of incense and burning candles inspired her soul.
"It’s like really you are walking into a spiritual place," she said. "I feel a connection with my ancestors."
Soon, the Scottsdale resident and hundreds of other Armenians in the Valley will have a much closer place to worship their brand of Christianity, one of the oldest denominations in the world.
By early 2006, construction is expected to start in Scottsdale on the first Armenian church in Arizona. The state is home to some 2,500 Armenians, most of whom live in the Valley.
The Armenian pope, Karekin II, will visit the congregation today to bless the ground where the church will stand. The congregation has raised two-thirds of the $1.5 million needed for the church, which still requires city approval.
Church member and architect Arvin Knadjian designed the building in the spirit of an ancient Armenian church, with a cross shape and a large dome centered above the cross.
"Preserving the religion the way it was, and striving to build a church in the same way of our ancestors in a foreign country — it’s incredible," said Takoushian, who moved to the United States eight years ago.
The church will be built adjacent to the Armenian Church Cultural Center near 90th and Cholla streets, where members have been holding services since 1992.
"The church is very central to Armenian identity. In the United States, a church really shows that the community has a presence," said Barlow Der Mugrdechian, a professor in the Armenian Studies Program at California State University, Fresno.
Armenia, located between Turkey and Azerbaijan, is an ancient country with religious customs dating back to 301, when it became the first country to formally adopt Christianity.
Victoria Manoogian, an active church member, said it sometimes is hard to explain her religion — Christian, but neither Roman Catholic nor Protestant — to Americans unfamiliar with Eastern branches of Christianity.
The Armenian Church belongs to the Orthodox churches, Der Mugrdechian said. Though it has closer religious ties to the Roman Catholic Church, it was created separate from Rome and has its own pontiff, known as the Supreme Catholicos of All Armenians.
Today will be the second time Karekin II has visited the Valley, and members of the church have been preparing for weeks for his arrival.
The backbone of the church, the members said, is the Ladies Society, whose members were scrambling on Wednesday to prepare food for the 800 people they expected to attend today’s ceremony.
Several women ladled sauce into tubs of meatballs and cut pieces of boureg, or meat and cheese turnovers.
Annie Avadisian was preparing strawberries, but when a FedEx truck delivered an entire box of baklava melting in the Arizona heat, she shifted into high gear to save the desserts.
The women hail from countries all over the world, including Armenia, Iran and Iraq. There are roughly 7 million members of the Armenian diaspora around the globe, while Armenia itself has a population of about 3 million.
Between 800,000 and 1 million Armenians live in the United States, with many calling Southern California home, said Der Mugrdechian.
The Valley Armenian community is vibrant, Takoushian said, offering a play group for small children, a youth organization and Armenian language classes.
When Armenia was under Soviet control from 1920 to 1991, religion was discouraged within its borders.
"But here, it was preserved so well. It blows my mind," Takoushian said.
She said the strong community also serves to remember victims of the Armenian genocide, a period when the Turkish-led Ottoman Empire killed roughly 1 million Armenians during World War I.
The U.S. government has never officially recognized the genocide, though Arizona is one of 37 states that have chosen to do so on their own.
For deeply religious people like Manoogian, a church ties together heritage and history, both good and bad.
"It’s like your soul and your history comes out. It starts living and breathing in front of you when you walk into a church," she said.
For Takoushian, it’s a symbol of survival.
"Wherever we go we bring our culture and religion. We’re going to survive," she said. "We just try to keep the Armenian heart beating."