BELMONT, Mass.—Like a utility player for his church, Very Rev. Father Raphael Andonian covered every base as pastor for two decades at Holy Cross Armenian Catholic Church in Belmont.
It was the church and parish center he helped construct, the one he manifested and nurtured. His death April 6 sent a pall of grief throughout his parish.
Next year would have been the 50th anniversary of his ordination in Rome.
Whether you attended his church or didn’t, you were part of his religious family, popping into places like the VFW and the Armenian newspaper offices to lend a cheerful hello. Quite often, he would be that ray of sunshine on a dark, somber day.
What was it that someone once said about death and dying? It’s not the length of time that one lives but how that life was spent. With Father Raphael, it was a life worth living and sharing. He was 73 years young.
Our paths first crossed shortly upon his arrival here from Venice, a Mekhitarist Father entrusted to the care of a parish that was refined 30-plus years by the inimitable Father Luke Arakelian. We were an Armenian Catholic family living in Somerville and deep proponents of the faith.
It was Father Luke who sent me to Vienna to study with the priests—not to become a priest per se, only to be a better Armenian Catholic. His shoes would be filled by a young aspirant and Father Raphael withstood the challenge.
“We must invite him to dinner, get to know him,” my mother suggested.
As a correspondent for the Armenian press, it was a story waiting to hatch. He appreciated the sudden exposure and a relationship grew from it.
Over the years, he shed his grace upon my family, always there in time of need. He was there at my mother’s deathbed, holding on with the last gasp until he arrived to the nursing home from 40 miles away with the Sacrament of Extreme Unction or the last rites.
Somewhere in between those two decades were periodic stops at the house for dinner, a cup of coffee, or a simple poke through the door. Father Raphael catered to the elderly, much the same way he did with children, and everyone else. He was the master of his throne with no pretentions of grandeur.
Browsing through some copies of “Hye Undanik,” his church publication, you’d find that proverbial smile in the photos. The very last issue contains a piece he wrote called “The Hidden Doubt.”
It hit home!
“Often, I ask myself this question,” he wrote. “Why do people not live in harmony with each other? Why do they not see their future and imagine what is coming?”
He ends it with what appears to be a prophecy of death, given the cancer that ravaged his body during his final days on earth. “It is precisely in this afterlife that all the aspects and stages of human life achieve their full significance.”
Maybe it’s ironic that his funeral was planned for April 11, almost immediately following the Statehouse commemoration.
Had he been there Friday, he would have taken his righteous place among the clergy, offering prayers for our genocide victims and survivors alike. And then, like he always did, Father Raphael would have played the crowd, hand extended, a kind word ventured, a beloved hug.
He would have marveled at the presence of youth, whether they were from the Sisters’ Academy or another school. The Hye Undaniks had him embracing every youngster in sight, particularly during their First Communion when they officially became members of his church.
During a recent ARS trip to the Mediterranean, one of the stops was to the Island of San Lazzaro, a sanctuary for Mekhitarists promoting our language and culture for nearly 300 years. On this visit, I was surprised to find less than a dozen priests inhabiting the monastery.
“Do you know Father Raphael?” I asked one of the priestly tour guides. “We’re from the Boston area.”
The cleric stopped in his tracks. Had I mentioned Pope Benedict, the impact would not have been any greater.
Father Raphael made annual calls here, leaving his Belmont parish behind in the best interests of spirituality, keeping the books and preserving the faith that so nurtured the man. Suffice it to say, he lived the best of both worlds, here and Italy—but under one God.
And now, he’s returning home to Venice where his body will be interred, following services here. It was his final wish.
May he always rest in eternal peace.