Note: This is an encore post from 2005 and originally appeared on the 1947project.
And then he was gone as if he had never been here at all. The hundreds of people who threw themselves at his feet to kiss the hem of his robes or simply to occupy the chair where he had been sitting were nothing but a memory.
He was Avak Hagopian, a somber 20-year-old from Kharadag in Azerbaijan, and working in Tehran as a mechanic—or a goldsmith—the stories vary. He paused one day as he was about to bring down a mallet and was struck with a vision, a vision that returned twice more. With faith in God, he would cure the sick, the blind and the diseased. The young man with the dark, intense eyes grew a beard and let his hair flow to his shoulders. He became “Avak the Healer” or Avak the Great,” performer of miracles.
Word spread to the Armenian community in Southern California, where millionaire wine producer Krikor Arakelian’s son Vaughn had suffered seizures for more than a decade after being injured in a car accident. Vaughn had undergone dozens of skin grafts and operations in an effort to recover, but nothing was successful.
Avak’s journey to America was highly publicized, and his arrival at Palm Spring’s airport en route to Arakelian’s estate, 796 Via Miraleste, was covered by newsreel cameras and news photographers.
“Avak appeared at the door of the airliner. The faintest trace of a smile flickered across his delicate, olive-tinted face as he stopped and surveyed the mob,” The Times said. “He wore a black, hooded cape gathered at the neck by a hand-beaten silver chain and circular buckles. Beneath the cape he wore a brown cassock of coarse weave. Black trouser cuffs extending below the cassock fell on green suede shoes. He wore no jewelry. Beneath Avak’s hood, one could see a hairnet holding his shoulder-length black hair, faintly streaked with silver. His most striking features were his silky, curly beard and his darting eyes that fairly danced with excitement as he talked.”
In a brief press conference, translated from Armenian by attorney A.M. Astor, Avak told of his healings: “When we came to Jerusalem, they brought me a case. It was a man with a stomach cancer. After two treatments, he was cured.”
Avak did not begin immediately to try curing Vaughn Arakelian, but started by getting acquainted and resting after his long journey. But hundreds of ill people crowded around the Palm Springs estate. Some came in Cadillacs and others crowded into the backs of trucks, but they were from all over Southern California.
“There was one blind woman, a young epileptic, a hunchback man whose speech faltered and others whose hands trembled with palsy,” The Times’ Gene Sherman said.
Avak went into seclusion, eating cheese, bread, vegetables and dairy products, and he stunned reporters when he insisted he wasn’t interested in money or publicity, refusing to answer their typewritten questions. As the hundreds of ill people waited for a moment with him, they asked the Police Department for permission to set up a camp, a request that was refused. When Avak saw 45 of them, several told The Times they were cured. “From now on I am going to devote my entire life to God and hope that I will be able to inspire others with the faith in the Lord that Avak has given me,” one man said.
But the newspaper quickly turned skeptical and recalled Brother Isaiah, a 1920s faith healer who set up “Miracle Hill” in Lincoln Park until he was charged with killing a woman during a laying on of hands.
Avak’s appearance at the Armenian Apostolic Holy Cross Church, 420 E. 20th St., in Los Angeles was a spectacle that stunned church officials.
“The raven-haired healer strode rapidly toward the entrance as the crowd pressed in around him. Children cried as parents reached to rescue them from falling underfoot. Uniformed policemen held back the overflow at the door when every available space inside had been filled—the steps, the aisles, even the passageway behind the altar rail.”
“After the benediction ending the service, those inside the walls of the church pressed en masse toward the guest. Women wept. A grandmother held the picture of her daughter and grandchild toward Avak with a tearful and unheard petition. Intent middle-aged men and women disregarded comfort and courtesy in a frantic effort to reach the dais.
“Believers stood on the church benches to watch him pass, many of them wailing hysterically and pleading for his blessings. He covered his hair with his monk’s cowl when grasping hands tugged at his unshorn locks.
“Inside the church, while the archbishop stood aghast at the confusion, those with faith in Avak’s intercessions remained to sit in the seat he had occupied, to kneel at the altar rail behind the tall chair, to stroke the rug that his feet had trod upon.”
He soon needed a vacation and left for the Armenian community in Fresno. In September, Avak staged three free services at Shrine Auditorium and gave $2,952 raised in freewill offerings to the Community Chest.
By October, Avak and more than 100 followers took a chartered train across the coast, but by November he abandoned plans to build a temple in Los Angeles. His visa expired and the Immigration and Naturalization Service had refused to extend it.
A three-paragraph story in 1949 says Avak the Healer was living in Eastport, N.Y. After that, he vanished. Many years later, Lester Liebenson told of being taken to see Avak at the Shrine in an attempt to cure his cerebral palsy.
As Avak held his hand before the crowd of miracle seekers, Leibson recalled: “I wanted to laugh and say: ‘What are you going to do for me?’ ”
Vahan “Vaughn” Arakelian apparently died in 1987.