Address:     66 Bo Aung Kyaw Street
Year built:   1863
Architect:    Unknown

This is the oldest church in Yangon today. It was built in 1862 and consecrated as the Church of St John the Baptist a year later. The Armenian community first came to Burma from Persia in the 17th century, long before the onset of British colonisation. Sharman Minus, an Armenian genealogy enthusiast, has records of a previous Armenian church “with local bricks and a wooden spire” that stood on the grounds of today’s High Court in 1766.

This wooden church has a lower profile compared to its brick-built brethren

Today’s church is certainly an improvement on its predecessor, but still modest. It has arched windows and a bell, which is rung by hand. The building features a covered entrance and cane-seated pews to relieve worshippers during months of searing heat. Besides the altar, with its typically Orthodox depictions of Biblical scenes, the church is sparsely decorated. The makeshift corrugated iron roof, a common feature in this weather-battered city, looks like a temporary solution until repairs can occur. The roof had previously suffered from Japanese shelling in the Second World War.

Sparse lighting casts shadows of the wooden roof construction onto the walls

As noted in our description of Balthazar’s Building, the country’s last Armenian, Basil Martin (a descendent of AC Martin, who built several of the edifices in this book) passed away in May 2013. His death prompted a surge of interest in the otherwise quiet church. It led the to first-ever trip to Yangon by the head of the Armenian Church in October 2014. For Supreme Patriarch Karekin II’s visit, the Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT) unveiled a blue plaque at the entrance, noting the church’s historical significance. Inside the church, the YHT also installed storyboards explaining the history and role of Armenians in Myanmar. Karekin II’s visit, however, had a more urgent motive than simply to remember Myanmar’s Armenians. In an extraordinary tale, he visited effectively to evict the Anglican “priest” in charge, John Felix. As the BBC reported at the time, Felix came across “as a very pleasant, humble man, but unfortunately the Anglican Church says he has never been a priest”. When Karekin II delivered his sermon in St John’s, Sharman Minus, who was in the congregation, sensed something was afoot. Then Karekin announced: “Mr Felix is not a priest, neither Armenian nor Anglican. Therefore, according to the canons of the Armenian Church and the Traditional Churches, any sacrament officiated by him is not valid. We call on Mr Felix exhorting him to stop violating Church Canons and Holy Traditions and insulting the Armenian Church and nation.”

After this episode, John Felix refused to vacate the house he occupied on the grounds. He was eventually evicted, and private security guards patrol the church grounds today. There were further allegations that Felix was using his ill-gotten position for financial gain. The Armenian Church now fly in an Orthodox priest from India for the weekly service.

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