Vartabedian: Cape Cod Armenian Church Flexes Its Wings

MASHPEE, Mass.—What comes first, the Armenian Church or the community?

Parish Council members at the Armenian Church of Cape Cod include (front, L-R) Ellen Ishkanian, Alice Hagopian, chair, and Linda Topalian-Pegnato; (back) Ara Ishkanian, Mark Hagopian, and Fred Pegnato.
Parish Council members at the Armenian Church of Cape Cod include (front, L-R) Ellen Ishkanian, Alice Hagopian, chair, and Linda Topalian-Pegnato; (back) Ara Ishkanian, Mark Hagopian, and Fred Pegnato.

That’s the dilemma facing a small coterie of dedicated Armenians on Cape Cod who’ve been trying desperately to establish their own church since the 1980’s, but to little or no avail.

As for the community, it appears to be fully entrenched with some 450 names in a database, including 150 full-time residents. Phone books get a workout. Word-of-mouth is another source.

A website (www.ArmenianChurchCapeCod.com) contains a schedule of events, photographs, recipes, prayers, and sharagans. A list of other Diocese churches with pictures of their choirs is also available. There’s a move now to go totally online.

They have potluck suppers, dances, genocide commemorations, and monthly prayer services from a visiting priest at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Osterville.

They’ve got a sizeable bank account, leadership, direction, and a lot of panache. And they’ve got the land—some 3.5 acres within steps of Mashpee High School and Mashpee Commons, on a major road very close to Falmouth and Sandwich.

A marker with an Armenian cross designates the spot: “Future site of the Armenian Church and Cultural Center.”

Much as they’ve tried, the sanctuary remains a perpetual vision for these folks with no specific timetable. But it’s become a vision that’s etched in stone.

“It took five years for the people in Framingham to start their church,” said Alice Hagopian, chair of the Parish Council. “Unfortunately, it’s taking us a lot longer. We’ve come too far to give up now and some day, our dream will become a reality.”

Alice and her husband Mark reside in Eastham and are catalysts in the project, joined by 11 other Parish Council members. Not long ago, they welcomed Archbishop Khajag Barsamian to their community. The primate was more than generous in his praise. He encouraged them to persevere.

Services take place the first Saturday of each month. Celebrating the Badarak is Rev. Khachatur Kasablyan, pastor of the Sts. Vartanantz Church in North Chelmsford, who is often joined by his wife and child. A coffee hour follows.

Their mission statement is all-encompassing: to provide the community with spiritual and social opportunities, and to celebrate the rich heritage and culture of the Armenian people. Coordinating the Mission Parish Program is Der Tateos Abdalian from the Diocese.

There is no organized choir. The congregation chants the sharagans. Since the average age of its constituents is 72, the possibility of a Sunday School is even more remote.

“We don’t just attend Badarak, we create it,” emphasizes Hagopian, who spent 33 years as a social studies teacher in Westfield before retiring. “We form our own choir from the pews.”

Of unusual consequence is the fact that many of the faithful are non-Armenians who have learned the Badarak rituals. One, in particular, is Ellen Ishkanian, who taught herself to sing the Badarak with a pristine soprano voice.

She and husband Ara are originally from White Plains, N.Y., and have settled in Wellfleet. Ellen remains bullish about the endeavor.

“It’s been a work in progress,” she said. “Those of us who are committed to this project have deemed it a labor of love. We’ll continue to venture forth until this goal is realized.”

Hagopian is quick to admit that without a viable community, there could be no church. It would be the cart before the horse in her opinion.

“There’s the business element to consider,” she maintains. “Building a church requires expenses, maintenance, insurance costs, and all the other necessary expenditures it would take to keep it active, including a Der Hayr’s salary. Right now, we don’t have a steady income or endowment for that.”

The community side of this Armenia villa is as active as ever. They hold up signs and organize a silent vigil every April 24th at the Mashpee rotary. People drive by and render a “thumbs-up” at the demonstration, including other Armenians waiting to be introduced.

The group then proceeds to a garden area in Mashpee with a list of names containing all people who were genocide victims. Flowers are placed around gravesites and a service follows as people hold hands singing the “Hayr Mer” (Lord’s Prayer).

“It’s an emotional surge,” says Hagopian. “Because we’re so very few, we’re very tight with one another. The people who are seeing this project through are not concerned with profit, rather community building.”

Dr. Shakeh Setian teaches a class on the Armenian Genocide at Cape Cod Community College.

They’ve donated Armenian books to libraries, made house calls, visited with the sick and infirmed at nursing homes and hospitals.

Like a veritable “welcome wagon,” whenever they hear of an Armenian newcomer on the Cape, off they go on a recruiting mission.

Two years ago, the group sponsored a dance and received coverage from a local newspaper. The editors were so impressed, they sent a reporter and photographer to Hagopian’s house for a layout on Armenian cooking.

For years, Hagopian, nee Aghababian, penned a cooking column for an Armenian weekly that evolved into a publication. Good as she is, Alice lost out to a younger relative (Sandy Topalian) during a recent choreg-bakeoff to determine the best choreg baker on Cape Cod for 2009.

It’s that kind of conviviality that keeps the group intact.

Had you been at the potluck supper, tables were sagging with food as people wined and dined in hearty fashion. A guest speaker encouraged them to remain committed toward their dream. On this night, hand-crafted tavlou boards were up for auction.

“The people who are involved with this are dedicated Armenians,” added Hagopian. “It’s part of our heritage. You can’t take that away from us. Somehow it’s respect toward my parents and grandparents. My father [Vahe] was a genocide survivor. When we keep this community alive, it’s for people like themselves whose history remains entrenched. I cannot let that drop.”

Like any organized parish, they look to outside support. The Cape Codders have struck up a warm relationship with the Greek community. Both sides patronize each other’s functions, help prepare meals, and join in each other’s festivals.

A typical gathering finds Greeks and Armenians skewering meat together, wrapping pastries, and doing whatever else it takes to ensure the other’s success. Whether it’s an Armenian dance or a Greek festival, rest assured there’s a decent crowd from both sides.

The outside community has been more than generous donating gifts for raffles, resulting in a huge profit margin. When merchants see the Armenians coming, they prepare to extend a giving hand.

“My telephone rang one night from someone looking for an Armenian church service,” said Hagopian. “He was from Los Angeles and wanted to reconnect with his roots. That same week, another woman called to let us know she had her mother in a nursing home. The woman wanted a visitation from someone in our church. Right away, we sent a delegation. The elderly resident was thrilled to be speaking Armenian with others. We’re making a difference in people’s lives.”

Other calls are routine business. If someone is looking for an Armenian on Cape Cod, they’ll contact a Parish Council member and the need gets addressed.

“If that occurs, then we’ve succeeded, whether it’s spiritual or social,” said Hagopian. “We’re here for all Armenians. Because we’re unique as the only Armenian presence on Cape Cod, it erases all other political lines.”

In the planning stages is a series of writing workshops on the Armenian Genocide. Members are working to put together a booklet and make it available to schools. Efforts to create a genocide curriculum on Cape Cod are slowly gaining momentum.

With this much energy and devotion, why has it taken so long to build a church? The number of tourists and transients are seasonal worshippers. Most belong to other churches back home. And there’s always the apathy factor. Like any community, there are the no-shows and those who lead cloistered ethnic lives.

“Many of them identify with another parish where they lived previously,” Hagopian points out. “Much of our Armenian population is seasonal. They might attend a dance but find it impractical to become a member. There are others who simply won’t bother. It’s our job as conscientious Armenians to get them involved and create a church. What we have here is grassroots Christianity.”

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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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