A Friendship that Will Never Vanish in Smoke

If Greg Minasian is remembered for anything in his afterlife, it is the profitable and eclectic cigar nights he organized for St. Gregory Church in his Merrimack Valley community of North Andover.

The late Der Vartan Kassabian in his pastoral days with good friend Greg Minasian.
The late Der Vartan Kassabian in his pastoral days with good friend Greg Minasian.

He did this in the name of his good friend, Rev. Vartan Kassabian, who pastored this church for six years before joining the Lord in 2009.

No doubt when the two of them are reunited in the hereafter, they’ll catch up on old news over a good cigar and a glass of brandy. Except for God and family, nothing relaxed the cleric more than a Cuban corona if he could get his hands on one. He wasn’t fussy.

You could always count on Der Vartan for a timely sermon. He mesmerized the youth of his community and endeared himself to the elderly. After 15 years of service, he was just getting started in his vocation.

In his spirit, some 140 guests gathered at his former church for the annual cigar extravaganza. Included in the crowd were his Yeretskin Pauline and son Mgo, a chip off his dad’s block.

Some years ago, with the renovation of Jaffarian Hall, the church authorities decided to dispense with Bingo. It wasn’t for the money or lack of it. After 35 years, they decided it was time to call one last game and so, the fundraiser had run its course.

So what would the church do for an alternative plan?

“Why not a cigar night?” proposed Minasian.

“A what?” came the chorus of surprised trustees. “You want to turn this brand new church hall into a cloud of smoke? Perhaps we better bring back Bingo or look into a Las Vegas night. Maybe a golf tourney would be nice. Who smokes tobacco these days?”

In these days of exorbitant church finances, people are looking for innovative ways to secure revenue. Dues alone will not hack it, nor the weekly collection plate. Somehow, the annual budget needed some substitute measures to account for a sudden $30,000 deficit.

Minasian’s idea received as much attention as a puff until they heard his plan. He would carry it on in the best memory of his friend, Der Vartan, and bring people together for one night in an arena of fun and frolic.

Let them smoke their cigars in the outside courtyard, which is named in the priest’s honor. Give them a gourmet meal, open up the bar, and offer gifts for both a live and silent auction. Build your stadium and they will come.

Eat, drink, and be merry. That’s the set formula here.

Get people to donate. Contact the Boston sports teams and ask for memorabilia. Who wouldn’t pay top dollar for an autographed Ted Williams photograph swinging a bat? Or Larry Bird going high above the net for a score?

A coveted Michael Jackson disc with his photo would surely attract some fan. There may even be a tender spot for a framed Disney caricature of Mickey & friends. Even Al Pacino could fetch a good bid.

While second-guessing myself initially, I hopped aboard the bandwagon. After seeing a capacity crowd show up year after year for these soirees, it didn’t take much else to convince me. If it works once, don’t kill it.

What became most obvious was the camaraderie that surfaced with each encore. Even more conspicuous were the memories being shared of the affable priest who left his community all too prematurely.

With Minasian cultivating the seed of fertility here, others joined along. A dynamic committee was formed that left no stone unturned. Women began to show, not the smoking sort. Those who didn’t take their cigars outdoors were giving them to the relatively few smokers.

I’m one of those who can no longer indulge. For 40 years, I smoked a pipe until my cardiologist read me the riot act. When I mumbled something about “an occasional cigar,” he was relentless.

“You’re a heart patient,” he told me. “Nothing. Go to one of those old confectionary stores and maybe you can find a cigar made from bubble gum. Have a good time pretending.”

Like the others, you don’t need a cigar to join this club. Only a little esprit de corps.

Minasian was in his element this evening. He got a little sentimental over an introduction he made about his priestly sidekick. No doubt, the inimitable Der Vartan was smiling down upon his flock. A little fortification helped matters.

Greg Minasian’s tribute to his late friend will always burn slowly and evenly, like a good cigar.

Tom Vartabedian

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.
Tom Vartabedian

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  2. I was saddened to hear of Der Vartan’s passing a few years ago. We knew him at Saint Gregory’s in Granite City, Illinois. It’s true, his sermons did mesmerize and his message was always poignant.

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