Thousands Mourn Passing of Beloved Pastor Vartan Kassabian

PROVIDENCE, R.I.—Only the good die young.

It is this tenet to which Der Vartan Kassabian will be remembered in a world he refined and consecrated over the past 51 years.

Condolences poured into New England from across the country and abroad for the beloved pastor who served his church for 17 years before climbing a stairway to paradise.

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Der Vartan Kassabian

Der Vartan succumbed on March 12 after being stricken at his home in Methuen, Mass., from complications due to a blood clot, marking the first time in the 50-year history of the Prelacy one so young died in the line of duty.

Only a week before, he had undergone surgery for a broken ankle suffered in a fall that required two pins. Despite the ordeal, his spirits remained unbroken. He showed up days later in a wheelchair to deliver a sermon at St. Gregory Church in North Andover, Mass., his parish the last six years.

Despite the anguish, he also traveled to another community 20 miles away to preside over a funeral and deliver the eulogy.

The last photo taken showed Der Vartan in his element, giving a homily straight from the gut with his hand gesticulating in the air. A second photo showed him surrounded by schoolchildren holding a “Get Well” sign and other messages of love.

More than anything, he enjoyed preaching to the younger generation the last Sunday of every month. If a student impressed him with an answer, he would quip, “Son, you’re Der Hayr material.”

No Badarak was complete without a rash of thanks to all those who served on the altar—from the deacons to the choir members and organist. And always words of this nature.

“Folks, every day you wake up and your feet hit the floor, consider it a blessing.”

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A scene from the funeral

One of the very last sermons that flowed throughout the sanctuary was “a spiritual housecleaning” in which he spoke of inner peace amid outward strife in a society bereft of turmoil.

His death was premature, given the breadth and scope of his constant mission. Der Vartan was preparing for Easter, a rash of April 24 commemorations, and a summer of brisk activity in his native city of Providence, which will host the Homenetmen (HMEM) Games as well as the AYF Olympics, in which 19-year-old son Mgo will be competing.

“Everyone thought my husband would become an embalmer or a dentist but deep down inside, he knew he wanted to be a priest,” said his wife Pauline. “You’re talking about a good Catholic girl. My life gradually changed. He’s right there in Heaven working to make the Diocese and Prelacy one church.”

Memories of Markar Kassabian as a priest wanna-be continue to resonate, from the time he played church before his grandmother and walked the streets of Providence with a Walkman to his ear, listening to a Badarak tape. He never hesitated to emulate a priest whenever the occasion arose at a public gathering.

“For the 25 years I have known my husband, never in my life did I imagine a family life like this,” she added. “We’ve had more aunts and uncles than anyone else.”

The church of St. Gregory in North Andover was standing room only as mourners filed in from throughout New England. Standing in the rear, dressed in regalia, were members of the Arakadz Lodge of Merrimack Valley.

Der Vartan was serving as asbed or commander of the Knights of Vartan, an untypical role for any cleric, and would have attended the national convention in Boston this July. Also on his docket was a return trip to Armenia in June.

A host of clergy from both sides of the church joined in the memorial service which brought a stirring message from His Grace Archbishop Oshagan Choloyan, Prelate and personal friend of the deceased.

“He used to call and say how he used to pray for me,” Serpazan brought out. “Today, I am praying for him. He was a good shepherd who devoted his mind and body to his flock. You not only lost a priest but a father who baptized your children, married your sons and daughters, and eulogized your departed ones.”

Looking into the casket as if conversing with the deceased, the Prelate held back his tears and described “an immaculate life” while speaking in Armenian.

“You made us a better population through your service to God and country,” he said. “Rest assured, we will continue to preserve the church in a way you have manifested.”

An hour later, the casket was on its way to Providence for yet another committal service, making a second wake the same day that much more burdensome for the family.

The next day, mourners began filling the pews of Sts. Vartanantz Church an hour before the funeral. Once again, Archbishop Choloyan focused on the impact Der Vartan had upon the entire Prelacy family. In each of the three eulogies, a different text was offered.

“Providence was the boyhood of his life—from the heroes to the martyrs to the virtues of our families,” the Prelate again noted. “He’s come back home, to the altar he once served—17 years after his ordination.”

The funeral liturgy was celebrated by Bishop Anoushavan Tanielian, vicar general, who was surrounded by Der Vartan’s clergy brothers.

From there, the entourage of 100-plus cars made its way to nearby North Burial Grounds where police closed off the interstate and three entrances to Route 95.

A memorial luncheon filled to capacity took place at West Valley Inn, West Warwick, where more tributes were rendered by clergy, family, and friends.

“It was a year ago when I broke the news to Der Vartan that I was to become his successor in Granite City,” said Der Stepan Baljian. “He broke out in a wide smile and offered his ultimate support. It was a wonderful way to begin my ministry. The new edifice he helped build there is now his memorial. I was a young boy when I watched him become ordained in 1992. It was then that I decided to walk in his footsteps.”

Der Vartan was born in Providence on Dec. 17, 1957, son of the late Rose (Postoian) and Vahan Kassabian.

He graduated from Hope High School and attended Rhode Island College and Providence College where he studied theology and religion.

He completed his studies in Armenian Church history and liturgies at the Armenian Theological Seminary in Antelias, Lebanon, after which he was ordained into the priesthood on July 26, 1992 by His Eminence Archbishop Mesrob Ashjian, a relative.

Der Vartan spent the first 11 years at St. Gregory the Illuminator Church in Granite City, where he spearheaded plans for a new $1.3 million church over eight acres before coming to North Andover in 2003.

Prior to his ordination, he served as a deacon at St. Asdvadzadzin Church in Whitinsville, Mass., and was employed at Rhode Island Hospital.

Another highlight was the baptism of 500 children in Armenia in 2001 during the 1700th anniversary of the adoption of Christianity in the homeland.

Upon his arrival in both communities, no time was wasted getting acquainted with the Greek and Russian churches in the area as well as the local clergy association. One of his favorite haunts was the local donut shop where he would regale friends with wild and wooly stories.

On the lighter side, you’d often catch him watching a “Three Stooges” comedy as a rabid fan of Larry, Mo, and Curley, claiming there was nothing better than a good old-fashioned belly laugh.

His philosophy never changed.

“If you love what you do, you never work a day in your life. When you do something with love and devotion to help and nurture others, it’s not considered work. All that you do in your life for others is part of the mortgage or rent you pay for the time you occupy in this world.”

His door never carried a lock.

Besides his wife, the former Pauline Bergreen, he leaves three children, Scott Gauvin and his wife Joanna, Susan and her husband Adam DeWilde, all of Springfield, Ill., and Megerdich Kassabian, of Methuen, an ordained stole-bearer and former North Andover AYF president, now attending Middlesex Community College.

Other survivors include two granddaughters, Grace and Gabriella; a sister, Roxanne Kassabian, of Providence; and several Rhode Island cousins.

Der Vartan was a member of the Providence “Varantian” AYF and the Kristapor Gomideh. He held various executive positions in these organizations.

“He made me feel special and everyone else besides,” said Der Gomidas Baghsarian, pastor of Sts. Vartanantz Church. “I went into church after everyone left and sat beside the coffin—just me and him—and felt the presence of God by my side.”

Others offering condolences were Der Aram Stepanian, Der Antranig Baljian, and Der Vasken Bekiarian, who will serve as a temporary replacement with Bishop Anoushavan.

May he rest in peace with God above.


A moment frozen in time

It was a cold winter’s day as the snow whipped across the Hannah Duston Nursing Home in Haverhill, Mass., where my mother occupies a room.

In walked a man wearing a cervical collar, dressed more appropriately for spring. He approached the desk, signed a guest book, and gave the receptionist a warm greeting.

“Nice day, isn’t it?” he smiled.

Every day was a nice day in the life of this priest, even in the throes of a nor’easter.

He slowly made his way up an incline to a dormitory of rooms, bent on bringing some cheer and spirituality to the infirmed. Not that this wasn’t part of his job, mind you. But quite often, the mission goes above call when you’re a cleric.

There are four Armenians inside this nursing home and prior to his ministry at St. Gregory Church in North Andover, they were all strangers waiting to become his friends.

The first was a prominent attorney who practiced law in this city for 50 years. The Alzheimer’s he contacted permeated a gifted mind. Each visit with the man became a new-found experience.

Communion was administered with a prayer, along with a warm embrace. The fact he belonged to a different church made no difference.

Next came a visit to a woman who was relatively bed bound, notable for being a one-time organist inside an Armenian Protestant Church for many decades. They chatted briefly, smiled at an anecdote, then out came another Communion host.

The third Armenian happened to be a remote churchgoer, somewhat outspoken about spiritual life, but of good mind and spirit. The fact she was being visited by a Der Hayr from any church brought little sanctity until his departure.

She couldn’t wait for the next call. It is often that way when you are widowed and alone with no known relatives and few, if any, friends on call.

“When all seems lost, he truly made me feel like life was worth living,” the woman often told others.

Last on the list was a visitation with the only remaining genocide survivor in Haverhill, my mother—a true-blooded 97-year-old Armenian Catholic who looked no other way for spiritual fulfillment.

“Good morning, Jenny,” chirped the priest. “I hope you’re having a good day because if you’re not, how could my day be any better?”

“I’m having a better day now that you’re here,” she told the Der Hayr. “I hope you brought God with you.”

“He’s right beside both of us,” said the priest. “Time for a prayer.”

Another sacred host was removed and the two held hands, reciting the “Hayr Mer” as others curiously looked their way. The television showed some devastating murder scene in the Mid-West. A nurse was preparing for an inoculation. Someone had tripped an alarm while attempting to leave a wheelchair.

But the power of prayer was a powerful message to overcome as the words resonated throughout the room. And then came the usual smile as Der Hayr saved the best for last—the kicker as he would put it. Some levity in a dire situation.

“Growing old is an art,” he told my mother one day. “And you handle it very well.”

They got to be good “old” friends over these past three years with the periodical visits—until the end. I would have preferred a death sentence to the news I was about to deliver.

“Mom, you know that priest who used to come and give you Communion? He won’t be coming to see you anymore. Well…he died. He’s with God.”

A tear filled her eye and trickled down her somber face.

“Why didn’t He take me instead?” she said. “He was a good man.

“Der Vartan was a good man.”

To the churches he pastored and the people he served, to his beloved Prelacy and the nation he so gallantly worshipped, the family he leaves behind, Der Vartan didn’t die. Far from it.

He just got a promotion.


Personal reflections paid to Der Vartan

“Der Vartan was our modern-day Khrimian Hairig. His standards were high and those around him rose to those standards, touched by his example. Despite his chronological age (51), he was part of an antecedent generation that was truly out of this world. During the week at Camp Haiastan, he regaled us with exciting and absurd tales from the revolution, Hunchagian family episodes included, only to return on Sundays to preside over Badarak in the Chapel of Nature.”
Lucine (Kasbarian) Boyajian, Teaneck, N.J.

“As a young man, he used to visit my father at the Armenian Cultural and Education Center (ACEC) and chat for hours. Back then, he was working behind the counter of the agoump on Bigelow Avenue making the best kheyma and entertaining younger AYFers. That same person would then join me and my friends and together, we would all laugh and carry on as the young bucks that we were. I can’t think of another person who could hold court with Enoch Lachinian, then hang out with Enoch’s son and feel comfortable in both worlds. That’s a testament to the breadth of his innate people skills.”
Garo Lachinian, Watertown, Mass.

“Many years ago, Mal Varadian spotted Markar Kassabian outside a cemetery and offered him a ride. He asked about his future and the young man said he had this crazy idea of becoming a priest. Mal proceeded to give him some added motivation and thus began a career as Der Vartan, one of the most charismatic and uplifting clergymen that ever existed. We all watched this native son of Providence become ordained. The man followed his dreams and became an iconic gem of the human race.”
Steve Elmasian, Providence, R.I.

“We’re all poorer because of his death and richer for having felt his love and friendship.”
Marty Shoushanian, Detroit, Mich.

“I grew up in Rhode Island and cannot remember a time when I didn’t know Der Vartan. His uncle’s store was directly behind my grandparents’ house and I recall him always joking with my grandfather. I knew him in the AYF, though I was seven years younger, and remember him offering prayers at camp and Junior Seminar when no priest was there.”
George Aghjayan, Worcester, Mass.

“Der Vartan filled all roles with capability, credibility, and caring worthy of the highest praise. He was always in contact with his flock, whether in Rhode Island, Granite City, North Andover, and anywhere else he visited. He paved the way for countless others to enter the Holy Kingdom with honor, spirituality, and a sense of peace which only a very few could provide. I’ll never forget the beautiful words he rendered during my own mother’s funeral (Zabel) a month before his.”
Michael Varadian, Norwood, Mass.

“I am really sad for losing my Der Hayr. God made the world. God made the people. I hope God does not take anyone else away that I love. He was the greatest priest of all.”
Drtad Hazarvartian, 7 ½, North Andover, Mass.

“Der Vartan encouraged me to read the Bible. He gave me strength, enlightenment, hope, and love, like a second father. I shall always remember him for his sense of humor, passion, and friendship. I am also considering a life of the church in his memory and that of my grandmother Isabelle Varadian.”
Melkon Megerdichian, Providence, R.I.

“When my wife Susan was undergoing surgery this month, Der Vartan was beside her in prayer, always optimistic toward a successful outcome. It was his faith, love, and genuine caring during the final phase of his life that pulled us through our ordeal successfully.”
John Kulunjian, Board chairman, St. Gregory Church, North Andover, Mass.

“The legacy of one so prominent as Der Vartan’s is to carry on all those qualities he brought to his daily life and the mission he valued so dearly.”
Jack Mardoian, chairman, Prelacy’s Executive Council

“Growing up, I remembered how Der Vartan would walk along listening to the Badarak on his Walkman. The man had a vision and he fulfilled it. When he came into a room, he brought the sunshine with him.”
Kenny Topalian, Providence, R.I.

“He brought our community in Portland, Maine, together during his many visits. We don’t have a church. Der Vartan kept us connected to our spiritual traditions and made our Armenian Christmas celebrations that much more meaningful.”
Jirair Kiladjian, president, Armenian Cultural Association of Maine

“During a Ghevontiantz celebration in Springfield a decade ago, he told our priests how you can kill the body, but not the spirit. Even in death, it is that spirit that will continue to guide us all to future prosperity.”
Deacon Avedis Garavanian, North Andover, Mass.

“Der Vartan’s sense of humor was unprecedented. I’m waiting for him to jump out of his casket and tell us all that this was a big joke.”
Steve Mesrobian, Framingham, Mass.

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Tom Vartabedian

Tom Vartabedian is a retired journalist with the Haverhill Gazette, where he spent 40 years as an award-winning writer and photographer. He has volunteered his services for the past 46 years as a columnist and correspondent with the Armenian Weekly, where his pet project was the publication of a special issue of the AYF Olympics each September.
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5 Comments

  1. What a wonderful article. Fr. Vartan was a great person, as he was my brother-in-law, a great family man and a wonderful husband to my sister Pauline. He also alway said to me that I raised such wonderful girls and that someday He would preside over their weddings. Well we know that will not happen now that he is gone. I loved him like a brother and he will always be a part of our family. “Everyday you wake up and your feet hit the floor, consider it a blessing” and yes everyday I wake up I will say a pray for you Mark. Miss you dearly.

  2. I have met Der. Varda only once, briefly and have been very much impressed. This was about 10 years ago. Just opened the Weekly and read the news. So sorry for him. May God bless him and his family. Give them patience.

  3. I can only say that not only did we lose a wonderful priest, I personaly lost another brother, He will be sadly missed by his family, his parish, and by all the countless friends that he embraced

  4. I lost my best friend of some 41 years and I’m having quite the problem of getting over it. His wife Pauline has giving me help in dealing with this. He was, without a doubt, the most humerous, faithful and compassionate man that I’ve even known. And even though we were only friends, he always told me that he loved me like a brother.

  5. My father Levon knew Vartan for many years,my father helped Vartan get a job at Rhode Island Hospital. I always enjoyed seeing Vartan at the Rhodes on the Pawtuxet every year. May God Bless his family.

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