| Debbie Gardner
SPRINGFIELD – They came from as far away as Boston, New York, Cape Cod and lower Connecticut to dance, to eat and to remember. Sept. 2 was the 30th anniversary of the St. Mark Armenian Church’s annual Armenian Fest, but to parishioner Sara Omartian, who was working the bakery table, the throng of fellow countrymen gathered under the nearby tent was something more.
“What you’re witnessing today is a miracle,” she said, referring to the 1915 genocide during which the Ottoman Empire tortured and killed one and one-half million Armenians – including her grandmother - and forced the remaining population into the Syrian Desert to die. “To be able to carry on the music, the cuisine.”
Both the music and cuisine was in clear evidence throughout the afternoon. Strains of traditional music floated through the crowd, provided by The Greg Krikorian Ensemble, a four piece Armenian quartet from the Boston area. Not far away another quartet of men worked over hot grills to prepare scores of authentic shish kabob and Armenian hamburger patties – a blend of two-thirds beef, one third lamb mixed with special spices – for waiting diners. On the long table behind the chefs, women from the parish packaged the kabobs and patties into grinder rolls, or full dinners, which included rice pilaf and a cucumber and tomato salad.
On adjoining tables, packages of Armenian spinach pies, string cheese, grape leaves, myriad sweets and demi-tasse cups of individually prepared Armenian coffee temped diners to savor the memories, and take some home for later.
“The line started at noon and three hours into it, there’s still a line [for the dinners],” David Jermakian, chairman of this year’s Fest told Reminder Publishing. Last year, the fest – which always takes place on the Sunday of the Labor Day weekend, drew nearly 500 in the pouring rain. With sunshine and temperate weather, Jermakian estimated this year’s event could easily draw 800.
“We won’t know exactly until the end, when we count the number of dinners we’ve sold,” he said, adding this year could be a record-breaker for the event.
The annual Fest itself is a bit of a miracle. According to Jermakian, St. Mark Armenian Church, located at 2427 Wilbraham Road, is a small parish with only 100 members.
“It’s quite a challenge to put on such a successful event, but somehow we manage to get it done,” he remarked, adding the Fest is the church’s biggest fundraiser of the year, raising nearly 20 percent of its annual budget.
His committee of 40 dedicated workers spends weeks in workshops preparing time-honored dishes and sweets, collecting supplies and taking care of all the other details necessary to put on a successful event.
“My mother’s mother started cooking these Armenian treats, then my mother, and now my daughters are continuing to create these delicacies,” he said.
Another crucial element for the volunteers is locating an authentic Armenian band to entertain Fest attendees.
“They play the same Armenian music that my grandparents, and their parents, have been listening to for over 100 years,” Jermakian said of The Greg Krikorian Ensemble. The crowd responded, with spontaneous groups spilling out onto the grassy field before the bandstand to take part in traditional Armenian line dances several times throughout the afternoon.
This year’s Fest also included tours of the church sanctuary in celebration of St. Mark Armenian Church’s 60th anniversary. Jermakian said the church was originally founded in 1953 on Dresden Street in Springfield, moving to its current Wilbraham Road location in 1983 following years of fundraising for a new church. The first outdoor event celebrating the Armenian culture took place on the Wilbraham Road grounds in 1988.