By Tom Vartabedian
HAVERHILL, Mass. — Since 1945, St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Apostolic Church has remained a sacred cornerstone of this once-bustling shoe capital of the world.
It maintained a lofty presence at the junction of Main and Winter Streets, across from GAR Park which dates back to the Revolutionary War, and near the City Hall, the town library and an all-purpose Citizens’ Center.
This week, a wrecking ball will level this historic structure. In its place a strip mall will be built, with a Domino’s Pizza as the focal business.
The sale of this church, coupled with another Diocesan church in Lawrence (Holy Cross), precipitated the construction of a new establishment across town in what is being called the Armenian Church at Hye Pointe.
A final service was celebrated on September 4 to bid farewell to a church that stood there for 70 years. Its legacy actually dates back to the early 19th century, remaining as a liturgical edifice throughout its vast history.
Up to 10 Armenian pastors have served the parish over these seven decades, joined by Rev. Father Vart Gyozalian, whose tenure began six years ago.
The charming cleric did all he could do to hold back the tears during a very emotional homily. He was joined at the altar by Very Rev. Simeon Odabashian, vicar general, and a full cadre of deacons and choir members.
“We have gathered to say good-bye here but at the same time, offer a rich hello to our new destination,” said Gyozalian. “We will open our hearts and minds to a new beginning as our Christian spirit moves forward with God’s blessing.”
He recalled the many baptisms and weddings he had conducted over time, along with the more sedate funerals; the buoyant genocide commemorations, picnics, bazaars, and church anniversaries.
“Wherever we go, that is where Hye Pointe shall survive,” he added. “The memories and mission will continue to work hand-in-hand.”
It is hoped that an Armenian Christmas Badarak will be celebrated in the new community center, followed by weekly services until the sanctuary is built. Parishioners meanwhile will attend a temporary site at Sacred Hearts Catholic Church two miles away.
Items have already been put into storage while other treasures are being secured. The sale of a pipe organ to a buyer in Florida was but one consolation. Pews, stained glass windows, altar, icons and memorials are all being safely preserved for their new home.
In one of the more fervent moments that concluded the service, parishioners approached the forefront to kiss the Vemkar (consecrated cornerstone) from the Holy Altar following a consecration service.
Generations occupied the pews for what turned into an emotional farewell. At one end was four-week-old Callen Naroian, attending his first Badarak, joined at the other spectrum by Sylvia Tavitian, who has played the organ at this church for 68 years.
Tavitian started here as a 14-year-old choirgirl — the year a 33-RPM record was making its debut, in 1948. At one time, she was joined at the altar by her late husband, Paul, a choir chairman, and two sons who were sub-deacons. Now, she has grandchildren active in the church.
A stroke this past February did not keep Deacon Charles “Garabed” Loosian from fulfilling his lifelong commitment.
The dedicated servant gingerly made his way to the sanctuary to offer his usual prayers — capping his 60th year.
“We can say goodbye to all the structural problems this church had been facing,” said Loosian. “I will continue serving my God in our new location as our goals and dreams move forward.”
Over time, Loosian served as Armenian School superintendent while his wife, Azadouhi, was teaching classes over a 25-year period.
Adversity also didn’t keep Richard Naroian from taking his familiar place in the choir — like he has for the past 30 years. Cancer treatments refuse to take their toll on the man, known for both his dancing and singing prowess at festivals. Three years ago, he was honored as a “godfather” of the parish.
“I look out and see my family there every Sunday with twin grandsons and that’s all the encouragement and sustenance I need to continue my service,” he said. “The people in this church have been my support system during this illness.”
His devoted wife of 47 years, Barbara, is also joined by two active sons, one here and another at St. James in Watertown. Jason has served as superintendent of the Sunday School.
Since the age of 12, Alice Kasparian has seen the hourglass work in her favor. It’s a remarkable career that has extended 70 years in the choir, involved her entire family, a wedding here, children, grandchildren, the whole manifestation of religious life.
To see the building face its demise is indeed bittersweet for Kasparian. But knowing there is another church waiting to greet the future encourages her.
“Like others, I have a great deal of anticipation for the future,” she points out. “We are blessed in many ways.”
Sonia and Michael Ohanian were married in this very church in 1955. They have witnessed all the phases, the good times and bad, the agony of storm damage, the ecstasy of survival. Like others, their diligence and work ethic were never compromised. The two have been to Armenia 13 times, helping that country with bar coding technology.
Another couple like Marty and Shirley Aaronian have also stood out in terms of attendance, he at 54 years and she at 64. They were wed at Holy Cross Church before establishing a family history in Haverhill.
“This has been our spiritual home,” they say. “There’s a general feeling of excitement. A new church will attract growth and offer added fellowship to the community. Progress is good. It can only mean a positive move forward for us.”
Larry Pahigian serves on both the Merger Committee and Parish Council. The 84-year-old venerable agrees a new future lays ahead for himself and others of his kind, regardless of age.
“This has been a dream for 20 years,” he pointed out, with wife, Alice, by his side. “Now, it has become a moving reality. I feel a broader, more compassionate sense from one another inside my church community. It’s a moment we can all appreciate.”