WATERTOWN, Mass.—The doors to St. Stephen’s Armenian Apostolic Church were open on Sunday afternoon, offering a distant glimpse of a sacred sight for faithful members driving by to wish their beloved Der Hayr a happy birthday.
At the base of the steps stood Rev. Archpriest Antranig Baljian, his wife Yn. Arpineh and daughter Nayiri Baljian Bell, waiting to greet familiar faces patiently lined up on Elton Avenue for what Der Hayr believed was going to be a peaceful drive-by blessing for Sunday School families down Artsakh Street.
It only took a few car horns and a steady stream of homemade colorful “Happy Birthday” signs for Der Hayr to figure out the parade was in his honor. The surprise gesture has become commonplace amid the pandemic that’s been keeping everyone confined to their homes and away from their churches, their community centers, their friends and relatives. This unusual period has been especially challenging for Der Antranig and other Armenian clergy in New England, who have been delivering sermons and performing badarak before a sea of empty pews and a live Facebook audience since March 22.
Despite the social distancing mandates, the Watertown parish—compelled to fill the gaping spiritual void in the community—has been connecting in innovative ways with its faithful. Every Sunday following an abridged live-streamed badarak with a handful of dedicated deacons and choir members in the sanctuary, Der Antranig takes a few extra moments to perform a virtual candle lighting service with specific prayer requests. The church has also been continuing its bimonthly Bible study sessions, which are now being conducted over Zoom. There’s also a new initiative—Prayers for the Frontline, a project developed to help children share the power of prayer with healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. “What good is having access to God through prayer if you never talk to Him?” posed Der Antranig during his monthly children’s sermon, which was broadcast on Sunday morning. “It’s like ‘hanging out’ with God in prayer. We can and should be praying at home,” he urged his young viewers.
As the pastor of St. Stephen’s Armenian Apostolic Church for the past 26 years, Der Antranig has been a reliable source of comfort and encouragement for his parishioners. Now, during this time of absence and separation amid grief and loss, community members, in a heartwarming display, turned out to support their spiritual leader and express their love and appreciation in celebration of his 70th birthday.
Flanked by Yn. Arpineh holding a sign that read “Love You, Miss You” (in memory of her late mother Aida Depoian), Der Antranig blessed about 200 well-wishers in Sunday’s spirited birthday parade. “God bless you all…Abrik,” he’d say, visibly overcome with joy.
The celebratory fleet included some rather creative participants, like the Krafian party of six that stopped curbside to sing and dance from the roof of their SUV to a popular Armenian birthday song. “It’s like a Rose Bowl parade,” Der Antranig exclaimed after seeing the Ourfalian family drive by with their cardboard fanclub cutouts. Church organist Maryann Kazanjian was resourceful in her delivery of a birthday cigar, using a nifty reaching tool from the passenger window to maintain social distancing.
For a few passengers, the experience was emotional. Overwhelmed, one woman broke down into tears at the mere sight of the open church doors that she could not enter. Another followed tradition, bowed her head and performed the sign of the cross.
Several members of the Armenian Relief Society (ARS) Watertown “Leola Sassouni” Chapter also participated, proudly waving Armenian flags and honking enthusiastically. Rev. Fr. Arakel Aljalian from St. James Armenian Church drove by as well, along with St. Stephen’s pastoral intern Der Taniel Manjikian on his bicycle. Following Sunday services from St. Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church in Merrimack Valley, Rev. Fr. Stephan Baljian made it just in time with his soon-to-be family of five to wish his father a happy birthday.
“I’m very flattered. It’s just a number, but I appreciate everybody coming out,” said Der Antranig to the Armenian Weekly. “We’ll get through this together with our prayers and with our faith.”