Meet the Legendary Margaret Lafian of Detroit



Multi-talented, and a noted beauty, Detroit-born Margaret Lafian could have sought the limelight in New York or even Hollywood, but this only child of Armenian Genocide survivors keenly felt the responsibility toward her parents to remain, and eventually become their caregiver.

Currently, Lafian is organist at St. John’s Armenian Apostolic Church in Southfield, Mich., a position she has held for 23 years (Photo: Tim Gouw)

Ms. Lafian is the daughter of Danny Donig Lafian of Haght, in Sepastia, and Arousiag (Mocossian) Lafian of the town of Sepastia.

Lafian’s parents received a letter from the Screen Actors Guild, offering their then-eight-year-old an audition, but they discarded the offer. Who knows what doors could have opened for the talented youngster, though no moss has grown beneath her feet.

Noticing that their young daughter was musically inclined, her mother surprised Margaret with a used upright piano. Thereafter, the seven-year-old devoted nine years taking classical piano lessons. At one point, she begged to quit the piano, wanting to take tapdancing lessons. Her mother firmly put her foot down, saying “No!”

At the age of 12, she challenged herself to master the organ, occasionally playing it during Surp Badarak (Holy Mass) at St. Sarkis Armenian Apostolic Church, located at the time in the Lafayette Ave. Hai Getron (Armenian Center). It was also there she attended Armenian school, becoming fluent in reading and writing the language of her ancestors, as well as immersing herself in the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF). She was a long-time member of the “Mourad-Zavarian” Chapter.

Margaret was an honor student in high school, excelling in shorthand at 120 words per minute, and typing 70 words per minute. It served her well, as she became employed as a legal secretary, adding another dimension to her intellectual versatility.

She went on to Wayne State University, where she studied music and singing, continuing on to Henry Ford College and graduating Magna Cum Laude.

Margaret was vocalist and played the keyboard with the Hachig Kazarian Ensemble for over 25 years, entertaining audiences in Chicago, St. Louis, and elsewhere throughout the Midwest and Canada.

She is the mother of Danny Lafian, who like his mother is fluent in writing and speaking Armenian, and also like her was active in the AYF, in addition to having spent summers at Camp Haiastan, where he made many friends. Margaret is greatly involved in the life of her grandson, Danny, 14, who attended the Manoogian Day School and recently became enrolled at the prestigious Detroit Catholic Central High School.

Margaret was one of five finalists in the Miss Detroit Pageant, the preliminary to the Miss America contest, receiving the talent trophy for singing an aria from the opera Tosca.

Lafian comments, “No one has handed me anything. I’ve done it all on my own.”

She has entertained at many of Detroit area’s fine dining destinations, such as Attaché Chop House, Varga’s, and Chuck Muer’s Sundog.

Taking her keyboard along, Margaret performs at private homes, senior centers, and offices. She sings Armenian folk songs as well as American standards. She has played for hundreds of outdoor weddings and at country clubs. She even translated a song, “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” into Armenian: “Keeneeyen Anoush Hampouyrner.”

Her full range of talent includes appearing in Armenian plays, where she memorized 32 pages of Armenian for Arshag Takavor and Parantzem Ishkhanouhi, playing the leading role of the princess.

Fluent in Armenian, Margaret has been an interpreter for 15 years for Executive Languages for legal depositions and proceedings.

Margaret went on to win a national essay contest, “Why Armenia should be free.” It was published in full in the Armenian Weekly. The article was read by Herb Philbrick, American FBI counterspy and inspiration for “I Lead Three Lives” TV series. He infiltrated the U.S. Communist Party on behalf of the FBI in the 1940s and wrote a best-selling book, I Lead Three Lives: Citizen, Communist, and Counterspy. Philbrick invited Lafian to Valley Forge, Pa., where she read her article in full at a Pennsylvania convention.

Currently, Lafian is organist at St. John’s Armenian Apostolic Church in Southfield, Mi., a position she has held for 23 years. St. John’s gold dome has become a beacon of beauty, a Michigan landmark. She plays not just for the parishioners: Her sensitive, sentimental heart is playing for the one and a half million Armenian martyrs, her countrymen who suffered under foreign invaders and genocide by the Ottoman Turks in 1915-1923, and she plays for the Republic of Armenia and for Karabagh to remain free.

She also is a voracious writer to correct injustice. To former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, who resided in the donated riverfront mansion of area industrialist/philanthropist Alex and Marie Manoogian, she wrote how unsafe it was to live in Detroit, and that the lack of security necessitated homeowners’ covering the windows and doors of their homes with iron bars, which were still no guarantee of not being invaded. She also told the mayor how late police response time was at crime scenes.

She is the recipient of a thank-you letter from Richard J. Connelly, vice president public relations, ABC Television, for her help as their temporary secretary during the 1980 Republican Convention. In appreciation, he invited her to be their guest to tour their city if she ever was in New York City.

Lafian was music teacher for five years at the Armenian Relief Society (ARS) Day School in Dearborn where she taught vocal music in two languages, Grade K-6. She translated Christmas carols into Armenian, including “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Oh Holy Night,” and even Sesame Street. Her end-of-school-year programs were like Hollywood productions, to the delight of parents, who were thrilled at the education their children were receiving.

Many of the 1915 survivor generation who later lived in St. Sarkis Senior Tower were beneficiaries of Lafian’s compassion; her mother, Arousiag, also was a resident there. Margaret accompanied them as together they sang Armenian songs and always ended the session with “God Bless America.”

Did Margaret’s old country parents have a clue their daughter would be so talented? It was not only piano and organ she specialized in; her talent encompassed vocalizing, acting, and even stints as a comedienne. It must have been fate to keep the talented young lady in Detroit. Even with marriage proposals, she admits, she could never abandon her parents to move elsewhere.

Margaret Lafian has withstood the test of time. It would not be daring to call her a “Detroit Legend.” She just keeps on ticking, putting all that talent to good use.

(To be continued.)



Betty Apigian-Kessel

Betty Apigian-Kessel

Betty (Serpouhie) Apigian Kessel was born in Pontiac, Mich. Together with her husband, Robert Kessel, she was the proprietor of Woodward Market in Pontiac and has two sons, Bradley and Brant Kessel. She belonged to the St. Sarkis Ladies Guild for 12 years, serving as secretary for many of those years. During the aftermath of the earthquake in Armenia in 1988, the Detroit community selected her to be the English-language secretary and she happily dedicated her efforts to help the earthquake victims. She has a column in the Armenian Weekly entitled “Michigan High Beat.”


  1. Dear Betty,
    It is always nice to read your stories about the past and all the wonderful Armenians. I am from Providence, RI and remember Margaret well from the AYF days. It was wonderful to remember her. I always enjoy your family stories because they always seem to have something in common with us as we were growing up in an Armenian community. God Bless you.

  2. Great story. Margaret and her mother were great friends of our family. Sometimes she was a pest (in a loving way) Armenians would say “jarbeek eh”. Anyway we Manoogians always will remember her in a loving way.

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