A Community Regroups after Its Pastor’s Death

Weeks after his death, a community continues to mourn the loss of its beloved pastor.

The passing of Der Vartan Kassabian on March 12 has sent the Merrimack Valley reeling with aftershock and has cast parishioners from St. Gregory Church into a bereaved state.

It’s not something anyone can forget overnight, much less an eternity. But like he would have wished, grief must be replaced by healing and the congregation must persevere.

If anything, this pastor always preached vitality and encouraged his flock to settle for nothing less.

As Sunday School students come to grips with reality, several are looking to the church for strength. The priest who once humored them with a casual Sunday sermon is no longer there.

He taught them well. Hopefully, the lessons will guide them toward greater maturity.

Local genocide committees will miss his sturdy presence at commemorations where prayers will mourn his loss. If anything, they will remember the man for his oratorical brilliance and the knack for always finding the right words in a dire situation.

Two years ago, when vandals destroyed some genocide billboards around Greater Boston, Armenians everywhere were aghast.

Could this be another vile Turkish prank? Such vandalism made the Boston papers with pity.

As the Armenian public criticized the act, Der Vartan found a positive side. In an invocation he delivered, he told the audience that such acts were “a blessing in disguise.”

“The publicity we received from this caught the eye of every sympathetic reader and underscored nine decades of intolerance by our people toward Turkey,” he pointed out. “You can’t buy this kind of press. They did us a favor.”

With his pearls of wisdom, Der Vartan was like a firefly on a moonless night, casting certain radiance where there was none.

The elderly continue to wallow with grief. Each Sunday, he would regale them with words of inspiration, whether it was from the altar or during a coffee hour. Shortly after his father’s death, Mgo walked into an Armenian School class and sat with the younger students.

His place, he felt, was with them as words of encouragement flowed from his mouth. A year ago this time, his essay on genocide recognition took first prize. As another contest took effect, he urged the students to enter, get involved, and make a difference in their church, much the same way his father had intended.

As another phase of a renovation project takes place inside the church, there seems to be greater initiative than ever to get the work accomplished in his memory. A better tribute couldn’t be possible.

The Easter season took on greater significance this year as in the past with the death of Christ resurrecting an entire Christian nation. In some ways, the same could be said for Der Vartan’s demise.

Life after death.

Visiting clergy continue to do their part until a replacement is named. Every promise has been made by the hierarchy to find a suitable pastor. To walk in his shoes would be a daunting task for any cleric.

Meanwhile, a congregation has been enamored to carry on the work he so delegated to others.

Jesus Christ died two thousand years ago. Presidents like Abe Lincoln and John F. Kennedy are gone. Our rich, classical composers, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart set their own standard.

Are they really dead? Are not their words and music still heard?

Der Vartan had no illusions of grandeur, yet he was grand in his own humble, charismatic way. The man some predicted would never make a good priest was fit to be a prince of his church.

It isn’t the quantity of life—the number of years—that matters, but rather the quality, how that life was lived. Der Vartan lived his 51 years exceptionally well.

In an age of takers, he was a giver. Like the coin of life, his life was dedicated to two sides, his family and his work. For that, he leaves behind a rich legacy we have all grown to appreciate.

He took the time to love and laugh—to serve and enjoy countless friendships. He took the time to dream, play, and reflect a little more than we ordinarily would.

Der Vartan didn’t need a clock in his timeless journey, or a schedule to maintain. He killed time by working it to death.

What you do for yourself unfortunately dies with you. But what you do for others lives on after you. A man such as Der Vartan will never die in the eyes of a grateful community.

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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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