NORTH ANDOVER, Mass.—It’s been two years since Rev. Vartan Kassabian succumbed at his Methuen home, ending a storied career as beloved pastor, family patriarch, and community activist.
His death in March 2009 at such a premature age (51) drew the curtain on a 17-year tenure inside two churches and marked the first time in the 50-year history of the Armenian Prelacy that one of its own had so young died in the line of duty.
On March 13, during Sunday Badarak, six priests from around the country wore the vestments Der Vartan had left behind as a memorial tribute to the beloved cleric. Each of them was delivered personally by his Yeretsgin Pauline.
“My husband established a very close brotherhood with members of the clergy across the land,” Yeretsgin Pauline brought out. “His life was full of love and friendship for his family as well as his peers and has been sadly missed. By wearing these vestments on the second anniversary of his death, a part of him remains on God’s altar to be used by his brothers in Christ.”
Each vestment was carefully boxed by Yeretsgin and off she went, visiting each church and making her special delivery like a widow on a mission.
Participating pastors included Rev. Archpriest Antranig Baljian, St. Stephen’s Church, Watertown; Rev. Stephan Baljian, St. Gregory the Illuminator Church, Granite City, Ill.; Rev. Krikor Sabounjian, Metro West Church, Framingham; Rev. Archpriest Gomidas Baghsarian, pastor, St. Vartanantz Church, Providence, R.I.; Rev. Douglas Papulis, St. Nicholos Church, St. Louis, Ill.; and Rev. Leonard Faris, Antiochian Orthodox Church, Lowell.
On that day, Rev. Kassabian’s son Mgo, a college student, also wore the vestment in which his dad was ordained as a deacon. The younger Kassabian is presently a stole bearer in the church and seldom misses a Sunday on the altar.
“It’s a privilege and an honor to wear my father’s robe,” he said. “There’s a lot of history behind this and I felt his presence with me every time I’ve worn it. It’s what he would have wanted.”
With each of the six priests, their friendships proved immeasurable, from performing religious services in each other’s churches to enjoying a lunch together, even an occasional cigar.
Der Vartan’s first parish was in Granite City, which oversaw a $1.3 million renovation before being transferred to North Andover where he spent the last six years. He was ordained on July 26, 1992. A memorial shrine was consecrated in his behalf last year in the patio area adjoining the church.
“While I was going through the steps toward ordination, Der Vartan helped me along,” said Rev. Stephan Baljian. “He helped train me for my upcoming parish—the one he also served in his inaugural year. Succeeding him in Granite City was very special for me.”
His own father—Der Antranig Baljian—was like an older “brother” to his late colleague. The two would often be seen socializing, if not attending each other’s Lenten services. To say their relationship was on a personal level is putting it mildly.
“He left behind a rich legacy in the church,” said Rev. Antranig Baljian. “He may be gone but his memory will always persevere. Wearing his vestment kept the pieces of my heart and soul together during a very emotional moment for me.”
Der Krikor mirrored his sentiments, calling to mind the weekly calls they made to one another and the examples they shared toward church unity, despite hailing from different religious seats.
“My prayer is that one day before I die, every altar of every Armenian Church will be open to every Armenian clergyman to celebrate the union of God’s love in Jesus Christ,” he said. “Der Vartan shared the same ideals. Our best moments were celebrating Badarak together. We had a friendship that transcended any division in the Armenian Church.”
The same could be said for Der Gomidas in Providence, a parish he inherited after leaving North Andover.
“Der Vartan and I looked up and complemented one another,” he noted. “He was raised in Providence and attended the same church that I’m pastoring now. His roots are ingrained here.”
A cigar night last year in Der Vartan’s memory netted $8,000 for the North Andover church. It will be repeated this June. In Granite City, they planted a tree. Because he left behind a vast supply of books, thoughts of establishing a memorial library are also being weighed.
“When I arrived in North Andover a year ago as Der Vartan’s replacement, I saw the pain and grief in people’s eyes,” said Rev. Karekin Bedourian. “There was a close relationship between the shepherd and his flock. Although I never met the man, it’s as if I knew him all my life. His spirit of love and piety remain constant in our church community.”
The late pastor’s death occurred four days after Der Karekin’s ordination and it’s ironic that he was assigned to the parish Der Vartan left behind.
A headline in a church bulletin seemed to say it all: “Love for all and loved by all.”
I had the pleasure and the honor to know Der Vartan starting when we were AYF kids… he from Providence and I from Indian Orchard. It was apparent from his early years that he had received a gift from God in his communication skills. he simply knew how to connect with an audience… one on one, small groups or large, he was incredible. Add to that his passion for our faith and heritage… and you have an remarkable talent that served our Lord and our people. When he was ordained a priest, it was a joyous day for the Christian Armenian nation. Although I did not attend his parish, I did have the opportunity to hear him preach on a few occasions. Even though I had known him for years, I was stunned by the power of his communication. His ministry was a blessing for all who he ministered to. His love of our Lord and all things Armenian was inspiring. May our Almighty Lord rest his soul and continue to comfort his family.
Another beautiful job done by Tom Vartabedian on Der Vartan’s vestments being worn around the country. How symbolic and touching that was for all to love and enjoy — to help us with the tearful memories and heartbreak of his untimely death. It is also wonderful that a man of such joy and fun, as well as unbending commitment to the Armenian Church and its flock, should be remembered so dearly by his clergy brethen and church members. May we all live on in love and brotherhood in memory of our dearest Der Vartan. Thank you again, Tom, for capturing his everlasting spirit for all of us to hold and remember.