NORTH ANDOVER, Mass.—One year after his death, the indomitable spirit of Rev. Vartan Kassabian continues to hover over St. Gregory Church like an old, rugged cross.
Dozens turned out March 7 for his Hokehankist, during which a courtyard was consecrated in his honor. Presiding over the memorial tribute was His Grace Archbishop Oshagan Choloyan.
“Der Vartan was the man of his people,” said the Prelate. “We knew him because he served his congregation with love and affection. His trace was very obvious to our lives and his memory will long endure.”
The beloved cleric died suddenly on March 12, 2009 at the tender age of 52, after serving the North Andover community for six of his 17 years. Previous to this, he had served St. Gregory the Illuminator Church in Granite City, Ill. for 11 years, where he had spearheaded plans for a new $1.3 million structure.
He was in the midst of another building campaign in North Andover when he succumbed. No service was ever complete without a vote of gratitude for any of life’s many gifts. Aside from his role as pastor, he was serving as commander of the Arakadz Lodge, Merrimack Valley Knights of Vartan, prior to his death—the first time a clergyman held that role locally.
A memorial service was followed by a ceremony in the courtyard where a khatchkar was placed in Der Vartan’s memory, complemented by a photograph of him fully vested. More than 150 turned out for the event, including a large contingent from Providence, R.I., where he was raised.
Assisting Archbishop Choloyan were Rev. Vazken Bekeirian, a visiting priest from Worcester, and Rev. Karekin Bedourian, a newly ordained priest from Watertown waiting for assignment.
Also paying their respects were the late pastor’s wife Pauline and son Megerdich “Mgo” Kassabian, a stole-bearer who assisted in the service.
“My husband had a vision to see this church refinished,” said his wife. “The courtyard would have been very special to him. We cannot stop now. It’s up to us to honor the legacy he left behind by remaining true to his church and being good Christians. Open your hearts, be there for your family and friends, and spend as much time as you can with them. They may not be there the next time you need them.”
John Kulungian, the Board of Trustees chairman, pointed to the past year as one of strength, love, hope, and compassion while the church has gone with visiting clergy each Sunday.
“This memorial provides an opportunity to forge ahead,” he said. “The fact we’re here today is a testament to Der Vartan’s life. He’s up there smiling upon us with a ray of sunshine.”
Richard Shahtanian, the Building Committee chairman, called the church renovation a symbol of everything Der Vartan stood for and represented.
“He truly believed that a newly renovated church would provide a platform for us to continue our Christian faith and help those less fortunate,” said Shahtanian. “We stand fully committed to completing his hard work.”
One of Der Vartan’s outside projects was the House of Hope, a shelter in Lowell. During his brief tenure here, he spurred the drive for food over the holidays. This past year proved the most successful ever with an outpouring of support from his community.
“He celebrated every day with love and hope,” added Archbishop Choloyan. “Der Vartan always had a way with words.”
The Prelate recalled the levity his late friend often bestowed upon his congregation.
“Whenever he saw a crowd gather in the church for a social, he called it a miracle. A second miracle was to see all those people attend a Sunday worship service.”