The church was built in 1781 under the aegis of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Bengladesh!
The Armenian Church, built in the capital’s Armanitola for the Armenian Orthodox communities who lived there for centuries, has turned into a de facto one-man chapel after the rest of Armenians left the country down the generations.
The church was built in 1781 under the aegis of the Armenian Apostolic Church, widely believed to be the world’s oldest national church, and is now an archaeological site under the jurisdiction of the government’s department of architecture.
With only one left to take care of it, known by his anglicised name of Michael Joseph Martin, the church is rarely visited these days and closed most of the time. Religious services are few and far between.
Martin – who settled in the country in 1942 following in the footsteps of his father and is apparently the last in a long line of Armenian settlers – looks after the church and the adjoining graveyard where about 400 of his countrymen are buried, including his wife.
He lives alone in an enormous mansion in the church grounds and occasionally visits his daughters in Canada.
When this correspondent met him recently, Martin, now in his seventies, couldn’t confirm the name of his successor after his death, although in an interview with AFP in early 2009, he expected that one of his three daughters would come and “keep our presence here alive.”
“Or, perhaps other Armenians will come here from somewhere else,” AFP quoted him saying, as “God wouldn’t leave” such a place “unprotected” and “uncared for.”
Talking to the Dhaka Tribune, several local people also said either one of the said daughters of Martin or other Armenians might come and take charge of the historic prayer house.
Visiting the Armanitola Street in Old Dhaka where the church is located, this correspondent found a metal lock on the arched gate restricting entrance of outsiders, with no sign of any church activity or anyone living inside.
One needs to take special permission to enter the area, according to Abul Kalam, who resides in the neighbourhood. “The church holds only occasional services and prayers on important Christian dates, conducted by a priest from a nearby seminary.”
There are a five-storey shopping mall named Armenian Plaza and three grocery shops, as well as a two-storey residential building, supposedly located within the church area, although Martin denied they had anything to do with the church.
According to sources, the Armenian presence in Bangladesh dates back to sometime in the 17th century when they started moving to South Asian countries for business purposes.
They first started trading in Kolkata and Delhi of India and later expanded their business in Dhaka and other cities, mainly importing spices, stones, muslin clothes, silks and the likes.
Building churches was an important part of the Armenian settlement and they built one wherever they went. The church in Dhaka was built in Armanitola, then a popular commercial hub, during the rule of Mughal emperor Akbar.
One of the highlights of the church was a clock tower erected on its western side, which could be seen from as far afield as Narayanganj. However, it was damaged in the earthquake of 1897 and subsequently replaced by a smaller tower with no clock.