BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
After almost a decade spent traveling to different parts of the world, gathering information about Armenian communities as a correspondent for Asbarez newspaper, I thought it was time for me to wrap up and finish my work.
There were less than a dozen remaining cities in the United States and a few in Canada that I needed to cover. I decided to start in Boston, then continue to Canada and visit Montreal and Toronto, which are the two cities in Canada where Armenians have established schools and churches, and in turn sizable communities.
My intention was to conclude my trip with a visit to Detroit, where 11,000 Armenians have made their homes. I should add that metro Detroit’s Armenian community is the fourth largest in the U.S., behind those in Los Angeles, New York, and Boston.
However, sometimes things don’t go as you have planned, and my clever plans failed, or should I say, “went down the drain,” because I tested positive for Covid. Since I was fully vaccinated against the virus—I had received two doses and two booster shots—I was confident and not at all worried that I would get it. I was not aware of how contagious the new variant was.
My initial plan was to be in Boston for the commemoration of the Armenian Genocide, which usually occurs around April 24. I arrived in Boston on Wednesday, April 20. I had never been to Boston and there was a lot to learn and see about Armenians of New England in the greater Boston area.
Boston was one of the main cities to attract Armenian immigrants, when the Armenian migration from the Old World began. Today, there are an estimated 30 to 50 thousand people of Armenian heritage in the Boston area. I had an ambitious agenda to visit all the Armenian organizations, churches, and schools.
Needless to say, I was very excited to explore the Armenian neighborhoods in the greater Boston area, especially Watertown, which is the center of the Armenian community, where approximately 8,000 Armenians reside.
A friend had, very graciously, invited me to stay at her house. While I was preparing for my trip, I learned that the Armenian International Women Association, of which I’m a member, was going to have a conference on April 29 and 30 in Boston. So, I extended my stay to be able to attend that meeting.
Below is my story from the day I arrived.
The town of Wellesley, where I was staying, is a suburb of Boston, about 25 minutes away from Boston Logan International airport. The claim to fame of Wellesley is the sprawling Women’s College, which offers some of the best liberal arts programs.
I arrived at the airport at 8:30 p.m. After picking up my luggage, I walked about 10 minutes to an area designated for Uber and Lyft services. All worked out fine and I was at my friend’s door in Wellesley around 10 p.m.
The following day, my host, Barbara, drove me to Watertown. I had heard so much about Armenian establishments in Watertown, that I couldn’t wait to begin my explorations. The main attraction in Watertown is the Armenian museum which is housed in a four-story building which formerly belonged to Coolidge Bank.
We arrived around noon, and before visiting the museum, we had lunch at the restaurant next door called, “Not Your Average Joe’s.” I loved the setting and the food and had the most delicious New England Clam Chowder. What else I could have in New England?
After enjoying a savory lunch, we went next door to the museum. Barbara is on the board of the museum, as well as on the board of the AIWA organization, which has its office in the same building. She explained that they are very fortunate to own a building that previously belonged to a bank, because they can keep some of their valuables in the old vaults.
We took the elevator upstairs to the office of AIWA. Next door on the same floor is another office which houses a foundation called Project SAVE Armenian Photograph Archives, Inc. Project SAVE collects and preserves documents and photographs related to the Armenian people and the work of Armenian photographers.
After that stop, we went downstairs to the museum, which had its beginning in 1972 in a church parish in Belmont. Later it expanded into a 4,000 square feet basement in a Watertown church.
In 1988, the Armenian Museum of America was able to purchase and remodel the former Coolidge Bank and Trust Building. At that time, the museum opened to the public as the Armenian Library and Museum of America. In 2013, the name was officially changed to the Armenian Museum of America.
Today the AMA is the largest Armenian museum in Diaspora, with the aim to preserve artifacts that tell the story of Armenians over a millennium.
The museum has three stories. On the first floor, you can see ancient artifacts, Armenian rugs, coins, and religious objects. On the second floor, there are Armenian ceramics and metalwork, as well as a Genocide exhibition. The third floor is dedicated to contemporary Armenian art.
On that day, on the third floor, I saw a very interesting display of artworks by Dr. Jack Kevorkian, better known as “Dr. Death,” who helped suffering patients end their lives. It was called “assisted suicide,” and was (and is) very controversial. To some he was a saint, to others, a murderer.
In 1999, Kevorkian was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 10 to 25 years in prison. He was released from eight years later and died on June 3, 2011.
There were a half a dozen of his macabre paintings on display. His work made me consider him to be a real artist. Today there are only 18 of Kevorkian’s paintings available — his early works have apparently been lost.
Around 5:30 p.m., we called it a day and returned home.
The following day, on Friday, April 22, there was a demonstration and march organized by the Boston Genocide Committee. The starting point was at Armenian Heritage Park in downtown Boston. From there it was a 45-minute walk to the Turkish Consulate. My host Barbara drove me to the park, where a group of 60 or 70 Armenians, mostly youth, had gathered.
The walk started on time, and I joined the group. As I was getting behind, a very nice young woman suggested that I might ride with another woman who was following the demonstrators in her car.
I should say that I was pretty impressed with the organized march. There were several Armenian flags and placards with messages and the high energy of the participants was palpable. I met a few young mothers who had brought their kids to the march. Most of the children were from St. Stephan’s Armenian preschool.
Along the way, they were chanting slogans such as, “Turkey is guilty of Genocide,” “1915 never again,” “Armenians want peace.”
So, I took the advice and rode with the woman in her car to the Consulate. Low and behold, two days later, on Sunday, the woman called and said that on Friday evening she had developed Covid symptoms.
I’m bringing my Covid story in, because I think: “If I got it, anyone could get it.” I have had four shots—two vaccines and two boosters. Last year I traveled internationally taking calculated risks, but this year I ended up getting Covid in Boston, of all places, because I underestimated how highly contagious the new variant is. In a vain attempt to disregard the symptoms, I delayed being more careful and isolating myself, and unfortunately, my host Barbara later tested positive Covid.
Before my isolation began on Tuesday, I had the opportunity to visit a few more places. Below is a rundown.
After the march ended at the doorsteps of the Turkish Consulate, I took a taxi to join a walking tour of Boston that I had made a prior reservation for.
My walking tour ended around Faneuil Hall in downtown Boston. Nearby, there was a Jewish Holocaust Memorial that I visited and paid my respects to the victims of those atrocities and also reflected on the genocide of my own people.
Right next to the Holocaust Memorial, there is a Marketplace. I sat there, enjoying the exceptionally nice and sunny weather, and had coffee and pastries. Afterwards I called a Lyft to go to St. James Armenian Church in Watertown, where there was going to be a dinner.
The driver of my Lyft was from Ethiopia, and he knew all about Armenians. He said the Ethiopian church uses the same St. James church in Watertown for their religious ceremonies, as well as their events. He also knew that the Armenian and Ethiopian alphabets are very similar.
After two years of hiatus, due to the pandemic, the evening of my visit to St. James was the first time that the tradition of having Friday night dinner had returned. I was elated to be there and enjoyed a very delicious Lamb Shish-kebab plate. My host Barbara joined me there as well.
The Friday night dinner, which is called, “Dinner at Hye Café,” is organized by the Hye Café Committee at St. James Armenian Church. The dinners are scheduled from September through May, on the Last Friday of each month.
During the summer months, there is another dinner that is held on every Thursday night. That dinner is organized by the Armenian Cultural and Educational Center in Watertown and is called, “Café Anush.”
The next evening, on April 23, there was a commemoration of the 107th anniversary of the Genocide at Armenian Heritage Park. Among the many prominent guests and dignitaries in attendance was Armenian entrepreneur and philanthropist Noubar Afeyan. Unfortunately, we didn’t attend that event.
Instead, the next morning we attended Holy Trinity Armenian Church of Greater Boston’s Sunday mass, in Cambridge. It was a special mass for the Martyrs of the Armenian Genocide and for the New Sunday (Nor Giragi) — the first Sunday after Easter and the commemoration of the Resurrection of Christ.
Holy Trinity was the original Armenian Apostolic Church in the area, located on Shawmut Street in the heart of Boston. As the community prospered and moved to the suburbs, land was purchased in nearby Cambridge, just outside Harvard Square, where a new church, in the traditional Armenian style, was built and consecrated in 1961.
After the mass, there was a coffee hour at the foyer of the church. After having coffee and pastries, we went back to the church to hear a performance by the Spring Concert of the Erevan Choral Society.
When the concert was done, Barbara drove me into the town of Cambridge and took me sightseeing around the Harvard campus — the Ivy League University. She and her husband are both Harvard graduates.
On the way home we had an early dinner at IHOP. It wasn’t the best restaurant I have been to on my travels, but it was nice to conclude a busy day with a hot meal. After that day, I became symptomatic and had to isolate and was not able to visit all the places I had planned on seeing.
Before I finish this report, let me share with you a little bit of what I learned about the migration of Armenians to America in mid 1800s.
Historically, the journey of Armenians to the United States was largely spurred as American Protestant missionaries started opening schools across Anatolia in Turkey. Around the mid-1800s a handful of Armenians began arriving in Massachusetts to be trained as clergymen.
Others came as domestic servants for Massachusetts’ missionaries. Before long, they found better-paying jobs in local industries and began spreading the word to friends and families back home.
Migration surged in the 1890s because of refugees fleeing the widespread massacres of Armenians in Turkey led by the order of Sultan Abdul Hamid—referred to as the Hamidian Massacres.
The hostilities continued into the early twentieth century, as the Turks levied high taxes on agricultural produce and forcibly conscripted Armenians into the Ottoman army.
Yet another instance of violence occurred in 1909, when the Turks drove thousands of Armenians from their homes in Adana, killing them or forcing them into exile.
But the largest surge was due to the horrific violence during World War I, when the Ottoman government charged Armenians with treason and slaughtered an estimated 1.5 million people.
The American missionaries collectively became the most important group of witnesses to the Armenian Genocide. In the meantime, they helped a small number of Armenians flee the massacres and settle in the East Coast of the United States.
During the early 19th century, Armenians were drawn to the industrial towns of the East Coast. In later years Armenians pushed westward to Detroit, Chicago, and to the Canadian industrial heartland of Ontario. They mostly clustered near their workplaces.
Today Watertown, in the greater Boston area of Massachusetts, is where the most Armenians have settled.
I’d like to end my story with a quote: According to Plutarch, Julius Caesar described one of his victories as, “Veni, Vidi, Vici” — I came, I saw, I conquered. Somehow, I feel these words describe my trip to Boston.
Those interested in learning more about the Armenian communities in the Greater Boston area or visiting specific organizations and institutes in the area, can do use the lists below as reference:
Armenian Churches in the Greater Boston Area include: St. Stephen’s Armenian Apostolic Church; Holy Trinity Armenian Church; St. James Armenian Church; First Armenian Church; Holy Cross Armenian Catholic Church; Armenian Memorial Church.
Armenian Organizations/Schools in the Greater Boston Area include: Hairenik Association; Armenian Cultural & Educational Center; Armenian Museum of America; St. Stephen’s Armenian Elementary School; Homenetmen Boston; AYF-YOARF, Greater Boston Chapter; Armenian Cultural Foundation; Armenian Heritage Park; Sayat Nova Dance Company; National Association for Armenian Studies & Research.
Armenian Businesses/Restaurants in the Greater Boston Area include: Eastern Lamejun Bakery; Massis Bakery; Fastachi; Arax Market; Sevan Bakery; Ani Catering & Cafe; Anoush; Noor Mediterranean Grill; Jana Grill & Bakery.