WATERTOWN — On June 30, 40 pilgrims from St. James Armenian Church in Watertown made a 10-day pilgrimage to Armenia to embark on a spiritual journey to explore the country and give back to their homeland. The group, led by Fr. Arakel Aljalian, consisted of several families traveling together and pilgrims of all ages. With Yerevan as their base, the pilgrims made day trips to visit various sites throughout the country.
The trip began with a city tour of Yerevan, as the group visited Armenia’s Natural History Museum, taking in Armenia’s ancient roots, and learning that Yerevan is 29 years older than the city of Rome. A visit to the Armenian Genocide Memorial and newly renovated museum was a moving site to see for all, especially following the Armenian Genocide centennial events this past spring.
Each day brought a new journey for the group, many of whom were visiting Armenia for the first time. The participants visited various breathtaking monasteries and churches, seeing the origins of our faith firsthand. While visiting the Geghard monastery complex, which was bustling with tourists of various nationalities, the group was able to have a private moment in the upper chapel. Aljalian led the group in the singing of the Lord’s Prayer and “Der Voghormya” while the pilgrims spent a few moments in prayer and reflection.
Participant Steve Derderian noted, “Our family had a wonderful trip to Armenia. We were able to see so many historical sites and also spend time with cousins we met for the first time, in their village of Vanashen.”
On Sunday morning, the group departed for Holy Echmiadzin, attending Divine Liturgy in the mother cathedral followed by an audience with His Holiness Karekin II. The Catholicos visited with the group, sharing his thoughts on the Armenian Genocide centennial, the growth of the Armenian Church, and answering questions from the group.
Other churches visited included Khor Virap – the site of the pit of St. Gregory the Illuminator, Noravank Monastery, and the beautiful Haghartsin monastery complex.
With temperatures hovering near 100*F, the group enjoyed a welcome relief from the heat with a visit to Lake Sevan. After an outdoor lakeside lunch and a visit to the churches at the top of the peninsula, the group was able to relax with a dip in the cool waters of the lake.
In the evenings, the group got a chance to enjoy the lively nightlife and culture of Yerevan. Group dinners filled with live music and dancing gave the pilgrims a chance to connect with one another. The group enjoyed spending time in Yerevan’s beautiful outdoor cafes as a way to unwind at the end of a long day. Attending a concert of the Tatul Altunian Song and Dance group brought our homeland’s rich culture to life.
“Upon returning from our homeland, not only were we enlightened with a renewed reinforcement of our culture, but created memories and friendships with our travel companions which will stay with us forever, said participant Caroline Sislian. “How blessed are we to have had this opportunity.”
A new addition to this year’s pilgrimage for St. James was a few days dedicated to service, giving the group a chance to spend time giving back to their homeland.
Visiting the Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR) Children’s Support Center in Yerevan was a touching experience for the pilgrims. Following a tour of the facilities, the group spent time with the children and staff, playing games and singing songs. Bonds were formed quickly over a pizza and ice cream lunch, donated by the group.
On the second day of service, the group partnered with the Paros Foundation, traveling to Gumri to help out with various projects. The participants split up in to smaller groups to assist with the Paros Foundation’s efforts to help the city of Gumri in its rebuilding efforts, which still continue following the 1988 earthquake. Some participants helped tear down a ‘domik’ – makeshift housing made out of old shipping containers and metals – after the Paros Foundation moved the family into an apartment. Others worked at the ‘Debi Arach’ Children’s Center, preparing and distributing backpacks to the local children and preparing the backyard for use by moving soil, building paths and setting the groundwork for a playground. A third group visited the Terchoonian Home Orphanage, painting classrooms and bedrooms for use by the children. Some of the home’s children were eager to help, working alongside our group members and forming unforgettable bonds. After a long and fulfilling day of work, the group enjoyed a delicious fish dinner hosted by the Paros Foundation.
After ten very full days and nights of touring, working, and exploring, the group gathered at a popular outdoor restaurant for their farewell dinner. They enjoyed live music and dancing – and of course, fresh lavash — as they reflected on their experiences. Participant Florence Bahtiarian said, “The 10-day pilgrimage trip to Armenia with St. James was an amazing experience and a dream come true for me. We were able to learn about the 3000-year history, and experience our fascinating heritage and culture first hand. The food was so fresh, and in abundance, with fresh hot lavash at every meal. Being able to visit Armenia during the 100th year Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide will always be a special memory. I can’t wait to go back again.”