09/06 Framingham Tab: A place where people feel comfortable

A place where people feel comfortable

Liz Mineo
Thu Sep 06, 2007, 02:11 PM EDT

Framingham - On a spring evening in May of 1997, four Armenian couples gathered around a kitchen table in a Hopkinton home and spoke of their dream to establish an Armenian church in MetroWest, where they could worship, build a community and maintain their religion and culture.

Their dream has long become true.

Ten years after that evening, where the Armenian Church of MetroWest was born, the parish is to celebrate the fourth anniversary of its consecration in October. At this consecration in 2003, the church was given a new name: the Armenian Church of the Holy Translators.

The consecration, by which a church building is declared a sacred place by the church's authorities, was an important milestone and also a sign of how far the Armenian church of MetroWest has come.

The Armenian church has grown from 25 original members to 140, and gone are the days when services would be held at people's backyards first and then at the Sisters of St. Joseph's facilities on Bethany Hill in Framingham.

The parish bought the Park Street Baptist Church, at 38 Franklin Street, in 2001, and parishioners renovated it for over two years. The church across the street from the Downtown Common boasts a golden Armenian cross on the steeple. Its simple yet beautiful Armenian-style sanctuary features Orthodox iconography, stained glass windows filled with Armenian symbols, and an icon depicting the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus presiding the main altar.

"We decided to keep the simplicity of the Baptist church," said Father Krikor Sabounjian. "We want to make our church a place where people feel comfortable. We want parishioners to feel this is their home."

To do that, Sabounjian holds services in which he includes families and their children, making sure both adults and children participate, following the church's motto, "Where faith, family and fellowship meet."

Before communion, Sabounjian gives a lesson on the teachings of Christ to children who gather around him at the foot of the altar. After the lesson, children leave the sanctuary and start Sunday school, while Sabounjian goes on with the liturgy by giving his sermon and ending the service.

It's not typical of Armenian churches to do that, said Sabounjian, but it's something that has enriched the parish. Eighty children take part in Sunday school, and these days, Sabounjian is busier baptizing children more than leading funerals, weddings or other ceremonies.

Full participation in the church is one of Sabounjian's goals. To accomplish that, he included English in his first liturgies, which attracted many new parishioners and helped the church grow initially. But following a mandate from higher authorities, Sabounjian had to go back to using traditional Classical Armenian in the services, which has made people less participant and stopped the church's growth.

"We would like to have permission to be more flexible and meet the needs of people," said Sabounjian. "I would like people participating rather than observing."

Part of the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church, the Armenian Church traces its origins to Christ's original apostles, St. Thaddeus and St. Bartholomew, who are believed to be the apostles who brought the word of Christ to the Armenians. Armenia adopted Christianity as its state religion around 301 A.D.

As for the Armenian genocide, Sabounjian and his parishioners are expecting the U.S. Congress' resolution acknowledging the genocide, which took place from 1915-1923 in modern Turkey. By some estimates, 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Turks and another million are reported to have been deported. The Turkish government has refused to recognize the genocide, and the United States government has yet to take a stand on the issue.

"We're waiting to see what happens," he said. "We're hopeful history will be recognized."

Sabounjian takes his job seriously. After all, he feels better equipped than many to lead a religious congregation. Though he was raised in an Armenian family in Watertown, went to a seminary for seven years and spent six months in an Armenian monastery in Jerusalem in 1975, when he was in his mid-20s, he didn't become a priest until 1998.

"For 20 years I tried not to be a priest," said Sabounjian, 54.

But he felt a constant tugging while working in the corporate world, where he achieved financial success but didn't feel fulfilled. The experience in the real world has helped Sabounjian be more understanding of people's difficulties to live a religious life while keeping balance between work and family.

"I feel better equipped to understand the pressures people have to keep their families together, work hard and maintaining their faith," he said. "I've been there, done that."
Still, Saboujian hopes his congregation continues to grow, and helps MetroWest Armenians maintain their faith and heritage, and deepen the parish's relationship with the community in general. Members volunteer at the nearby Salvation Army soup kitchen, and the church also donates turkeys, Christmas gifts and Easter baskets to local families in need.

"My goal is to create an atmosphere where people can gain and enhance their relationship with Christ, through the teachings of the Armenian church," he said. "I would like our Sunday services to influence the way our parishioners live Monday through Saturday. I would like that their experience at church helps them transform how they live their lives."

Source: http://www.townonline.com/framingham/homepage/x931144677