An AYF Olympics Pre-Empted…By an Armenian Church Shutdown

HAVERHILL, Mass. (A.W.)—On a day when I would normally have been covering Sunday’s Armenian (AYF) Olympic Games, fate had taken me to another destiny—a far greater mission than a mile or a long jump.

I covered the game of life—the closure of an Armenian church in my community.

Yes, I had been incognito or missing in action from AYFOlympic coverage the past three years, following four decades of service to the Armenian Weekly’s special edition.

Anoush Krafian pulls away to win the 4 x 100 relay
Anoush Krafian pulls away to win the 4 x 100 relay

My role as chief reporter, ombudsman, and linchpin has been turned over to Mark Gavoor, who has been the ideal replacement. A new beginning by a younger compatriot, who has introduced his share of zest and chutzpah to the publication, along with a dedicated staff of young and old journalists and photographers.

May they all rest in peace following the edition, because it ain’t easy getting all the stories and summaries in synchronization with one another.

So there I was late Sunday morning, at a church service in my city.  I volunteered to take some photos and put a story together for the last Badarak of St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Apostolic Church—a city’s cornerstone that has stood its ground since 1945. Two centuries, if you count the building’s overall longevity.

As a demolition crew was about to ascend upon this sacred structure, another church was being built to house the congregation three miles away called the Armenian Church at Hye Pointe.

No matter if it’s a Diocese Church or one from the Prelacy—we are Armenian Christians and worship the same God.  My allegiance has always been toward both sides of the ecclesiastical fence. I hope yours is, too.

Had you been there that day, you would have seen a church in transition, culminating a ten-year rigmarole of buying and selling, do’s and don’ts.

You would have seen a pastor shed his tears at giving his final sermon, a choir with a catch in its voice, a 60-year-old deacon who gingerly made his way up the steps to the altar for one last formality.

A stroke two months ago refused to take its toll on Garabed, the venerable servant.

You would have seen an organist in her 68th year behind the console, playing as she always has, perhaps mindful of the day she first took up the instrument at age 16.

You would have seen an infant, attending his very first service, joined by a cadre of children in the front pew, witnessing the loss of their church and Sunday School.

They prayed, they reminisced, they came together as one church body on his hallow day to say goodbye to one church and greet the arrival of another.

With God’s help, a new building will be celebrating its first Badarak on Armenian Christmas next Jan. 6.

Parishioners unite in prayer
Parishioners unite in prayer

The chitchat touched all parameters, from a couple that exchanged vows here 50 years ago to the generations that have served their congregation from acolytes to deacon, and sadly, the funerals that have lamented the community.

As I look back upon it all, athletes have their moment in the sun. So do churches and our reverent clergy. And so do people suffering from terminal cancer.

Such is my predicament these days, and I wish to thank you all for your prayers and well wishes.  Yes, there is good news.  I’m into my sixth month of treatment and responding quite well to the chemo treatments. Thank you.

The flip side is still a malignant tumor that refuses to go away, much less diminish its growth.

Mark has been my emissary at the Olympics and has been updating friends and acquaintances.  If you have a terminal illness, you will quickly realize that the best therapy of all is encouragement and a positive attitude.

The Olympics taught me that. No matter how many times, I stumbled on the track and found myself in an abyss over a story, along came a quick recovery.  Cancer is not much different.

I’ve fought it the only way I’ve known how—with guts and determination.  I joined a track team this past June.  It’s called the Relay for Life.  We walked our butts off with other victims and survivors, raising $12,000 with my Team Ararat.

The logo, you should know, is a picture of Mount Ararat carried this inscription, “When people work together, they can move a mountain.”

Many of you were part of that team with your contributions.  One of them was this year’s high scorer, Anoush Krafian.

Anoush made it a point to show up at the track with her three sisters, mother Heather and father Ara, who coached Greater Boston to its first ever Olympic title.

I covered Ara as both a swimmer and a bona fide runner back in his day and here he is coaching his Greater Boston team and joining me in my walk for survival.

Had it not been for the Olympics, I would never have known the Krafians. I would never have encountered the likes of Mark Gavoor, Harry Derderian, Steve Elmasian, Mesrob Odian, Richard Chebookjian, Bob Tutunjian and his talented children. I would never have met Tut’s wife Shooshan. I’ll hand you my telephone directory someday to fetch out all the names.

Come every Labor Day, I would have been in the usual holiday funk, wondering what to throw on the grill and entertain a houseful.

A church has been removed from our midst.  Another Olympics has come and gone.  Hopefully, as conscientious Armenians, we become loyal to our heritage no matter what the cause.

And cross that often-endless finish line without ever looking back.


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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