Portrait of Catholicos Vazken I, painted by Martiros Saryan
He was born in Bucharest (Romania) on October 3, 1908. His father was a shoemaker and his mother a schoolteacher. His family moved to Odessa during World War I, where young Levon Baljian received his elementary education. After returning to Romania, he studied in the Misakian-Kesimian Armenian school of Bucharest and, from 1924-1926, in the higher school of trade in Bucharest. He taught in the Armenian schools of Bucharest from 1929-1943. He graduated from the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters of the University of Bucharest in 1936 and from the section of applied pedagogy in 1937. He also published a monthly in Armenian, Herg, in 1937-1938.
His shift from philosophy to theology led him to study theology and divinity of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Athens. The Diocesan Council of the Armenian diocese of Romania decided to send him to Athens, where he was ordained a celibate priest (vartabed) in September 1943. Elected locum tenens of the diocese in November, he later became primate (1947-1955). He was ordained bishop in 1951 and became simultaneously primate of the Armenian diocese of Bulgaria in 1954.
After the death of Catholicos Kevork VI in 1954, he was elected Catholicos of All Armenians in 1955. He managed to assert some degree of independence for the Armenian Church, especially after the 1960s, and developed a wide activity of construction. Many churches were rebuilt during his tenure, such as the Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin, the surrounding churches of St. Hripsime, St. Gayane, St. Shoghagat, the monasteries of Khor Virap and Geghard, etcetera. He also built several important buildings in the monastery of Holy Etchmiadzin: the monument to the victims of the Armenian Genocide, the fountain-memorial dedicated to Khrimian Hayrig, the Alex and Marie Manoogian Museum, and others.
He published several works, such as “The Armenian of Musa Dagh in the Work of Franz Werfel” and “Khrimian Hayrig as an Educator.” Thanks to his efforts, various important Armenian manuscripts were saved and offered to the Matenadaran, the library of Armenian manuscripts of Yerevan. Among them were the Vehamayr Gospel (on behalf of his mother), which was used after the independence of Armenia by the presidents of the country to give their oath.
During 1988, Vazken I voiced his concerns and his support for the cause of the Armenians of Karabagh. He restored the diocese of Artsakh (Karabagh) of the Armenian Church in 1989 and started the renovation and reopening of various churches and monasteries of the region.
He was elected an honorary member of the National Academy of Sciences of Armenia in 1991 and was the first to receive the title of National Hero in Armenia (1994). The Catholicos passed away on August 18, 1994.
The seminary of Sevan bears his name, the same as a school in Vanadzor. Two statues remember him in the Vazkenian seminary of Sevan (2008) and in Holy Etchmiadzin (2010).