‘Oh Mother, Sweet and Tender, Where Art Thou?’

Special for the Armenian Weekly

While I spent much of my youth serving on the altar at church, over the years, my attendance record has been dismal, to say the least—reduced to short appearances only during the major holidays, mainly Easter and Christmas.

A group of Georgetown Boys in 1925 (Photo: Immigration Branch/Library and Archives Canada)

One particular service that I have attended for as long as I can remember, however, has been the nighttime Holy Thursday Mass (Avak Hinkshapti). In what has become an unspoken tradition during the past five years, a close group of my friends and I find ourselves at church on the Thursday before Easter. We even seem to convene in the same spot year after year. None of us are avid church-goers by any means, so I can’t really explain why this has become our custom.

Holy Thursday is an all-day affair at the Armenian Apostolic Church. I usually make it in time for the last portion of the service—the nighttime vigil kept in memory of Jesus’ last sleepless night, called Khavaroom (Darkness). According to the Bible, before being arrested, Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane and endured in solitude the agony of his impending death. To remember this, during Khavaroom, six sets of laments are chanted, each followed by a Gospel reading depicting Christ’s betrayal, imprisonment, torture, trial, sentence, and crucifixion. Twelve lit candles—11 white and 1 black, representing Judas—are extinguished in pairs.

And then the church goes dark.

The hymn that follows is one of the few songs in the Armenian Church that is performed unaccompanied—a soloist, no organ. In it, Jesus calls out to his mother as he bears the torments of crucifixion.

“Oh mother, sweet and tender, where art thou?
Your motherly love burns within me,
My eyes are full of tears
And no one is here to wipe them…” 

“Oor es mayr eem” (“Oh mother, where art thou”) is only performed once a year, always on that Thursday night, always in the pitch dark.

Our group assembled in our usual spot this year. We had made it just in time for the hymn.

As we sat in the darkness and heard the song resonate throughout the church, I couldn’t keep my mind from wandering back to a century ago.

I thought about all the children who cried for their mothers as they were separated from their families and faced the most unthinkable of horrors.

I thought about all those who were left orphaned and lived their lives yearning for their mothers.

I thought of the Georgetown Boys…

Following the singing of the hymn, the priest delivered his sermon, during which he said that none of us would be here now if Jesus hadn’t been at Gethsemane; if he hadn’t been arrested, crucified, and eventually resurrected.

Similarly, I thought about how none of us would be here if it weren’t for those who survived, who lived a life without their mothers “sweet and tender.”

***

On April 23, the eve of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Armenian Genocide, the Armenian Apostolic Church will canonize the 1.5 million victims of the crime. For the first time in more than 500 years, the church will designate new saints.

Those children who survived and lived a life knowing that they would never see their mothers again, they became my saints that night.

In the darkness of Khavaroom, which represented our collective mourning of Jesus’ crucifixion, the orphans of the genocide became my light.

 

This article is dedicated to the memory of Kourken Magarian. Magarian was one of the 110 Georgetown Boys—orphans of the Armenian Genocide who were brought to Georgetown in Ontario, Canada, between 1923-27, in what became known as Canada’s Noble Experiment, the country’s first humanitarian act on an international scale.

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Rupen Janbazian

Rupen Janbazian is the former editor of The Armenian Weekly. He is currently based in Yerevan, where he serves as the director of public relations of the Tufenkian Foundation.
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9 Comments

  1. Sireli Roupen,

    I went when I read that you have dedicated this writing to Kourken Magarian. Just reading his name overwhelmed me with long buried memories. Kourken was my father Misak Seferian’s closest friend. He knew that after my father escaped from the caravan at Palou, he was a front line resistance fighter for over six years. I grew up seeing Kourken and my father sitting together in the front parlour, their chairs placed close together, lost in quiet conversation that we knew we should not interrupt except to refill sourj cups or to place more choerag on the plates. Their conversations were always in Armenian, so he somehow had not forgotten his own language. Kourken and Margery lived above the Careful Hand Laundry in Toronto. He was the manager there. The very first job my sister Zabel and I had, at ages 13 and 14 was in the laundry, putting wet, steaming hot sheets through the ironing mangle all day long. After work, we would go up the stairs to his apartment above the laundry and wait for Kourken, who always had a small treat for us. It was a long hot summer of hard work for two young girls, and Kourken tried to ease it for us. I remember him at my father’s funeral, tears streaming down his face, singing an old fedayi song in a broken voice as he tried to hold up my grieving grandfather. After my father died, Kourken stood in place for him at our weddings. About a year before he died, Kourken spoke to me about the terrible hardship he had endured at the farm he was assigned to. He said he often fell asleep in the barn, too tired to even eat. In spite of the horrors he witnessed, the monumental losses he suffered, the hardships he endured, I remember Kourken as a kind, gentle, soft spoken man, who gently stroked the heads of little children. It was a very long time before I understood the sadness that was always in his eyes.
    Thank you, Rupen, for remembering this very good man, and in remembering him,remembered all our orphans.

  2. Maundy Thursday services are some of my favourites. And this hymn, Oh mother, where art thou, gives me chills even just thinking about it….and my thoughts always lead to my family. Those that I was blessed to know and are now gone and those who still celebrate life daily.

    I think of my Grandmother Mary and Great Grandmother Satenig at Christmas Masses, but for some reason I think more of my Grandfather Aris more at Easter. Perhaps that he survived being shot in the head by the Turks and rose as if from the dead, since he had indeed been left for dead, unconscious after being shot. I was quite young when he passed, but I still have vivid memories of him.

    And I have lots of great memories attending the Georgetown Boys Reunions with the “whole Georgetown Boys and Girls family” – since many of the boys and girls thought of my Grandfather Aris as a big brother, as well as the Assistant Superintendent. It was always emotional for all of us Alexanians, but especially so for my Grandmother, as it was there at the Cedarvale Farm that she spent the first year of her marriage to my Grandfather.

    We are indeed the fruit of the seeds planted in Georgetown so many years ago. All the Georgetown Boys and Girls were my heroes growing up, beacons of light that survived the Genocide.

  3. Christ was ONE. Armenians had thousands and thousands (if not more) of motherless orphans, who were either turkified or died of illness or starvation. May be our church should allocate a special day of remembrance of just the ARMENIAN ORPHANS.

  4. I read the story and thought of my father John Demirjian Ainilian who was in the orphanage in Lebanon. He has been gone for over 37 years now, but I still remember him telling me about his mother, ” she would feed me and go hungry. He was sent to the US in 1920 and she died in a refugee camp in Aleppo, Syria in 1935. He was never able to bring her here and they never saw each other again. How said it must have been for a boy of 10 to leave his mom and come to a strange country. I can still see the look in his eyes.

  5. Yes, Janet, there were hundreds of thousands of orphans, and you are right that we need to remember them all. The following is an excerpt from my father’s soon to be published diaries: Resistance: a diary of the Armenian Genocide 1915-1922.

    The following excerpt is from his writing about the Battle of Gharakilisa (Karakilisa). My father was wounded in the head during this battle and was taken to the Aramian Hospital, where he recovered after one month. Here is what my father, Misak Seferian, wrote about the orphans along the railroad line.

    “A train that had come from Tiflis to take the wounded was standing at the Gharakilisa Station. The ten-wagon train was full of the wounded. Aram Derderian of Oghnout of Goynoug, whose legs were both injured, was among them.
    Our train left the Gharakilisa Station at dawn on May 25, 1918, and reached Sanahin at noon. From the Gharakilisa Station to the Sanahin Station, along the entire length of the railway line, the road swarmed with exiled refugees. Farmers, teachers, students, women, men, elders, children, everyone walking, walking without knowing where they were going, just walking. The Sanahin Station presented a particularly terrible picture. About one thousand terrified and weeping orphans from Jalal-Oghli had joined the tens of thousands of exiles.
    In the evening hours of the same day, our train reached the Hayroum Station, where I witnessed two trains strike each other, killing thirty refugee women and children. Our train remained at Hayroum for three days, because the Turks of the region of Sadakhlou had cut the railway line going to Tiflis. They had also pillaged and massacred the refugees. “

  6. The above true stories are very sad indeed. I can’t imagine how some survived these atrocities. I think it is a very good idea to have a commemorative day set aside especially for the orphan children who survived. We should never forget the pain and agony those orphans endured. We should dedicate at least a day of remembrance for those who survived and for those who died.

    George Berberian

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