When anyone or anything turns 100 years old, it seems only right that there should
be a party or celebration. So when the “red brick church,” Holy “T” as so many of
us call it, sent out invitations marking the hundredth anniversary of its sanctuary,
Armenians everywhere took note.
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RSVP’ing with delight, we inked the date on calendars and combed closets for
our Sunday best (black tie optional) attire. Knowing right then and there blinding
sequins and glitter would fill the room, I told my mother we’d pull out all the
stops and that she should get out her mauve, lacey dress – the one she wore to my
As for me, filling out the response card and sending in our reservation was
simply a formality triggering the arrival of countless, childhood memories – each an
appetizer to an evening I knew would bring the past into present.
What was it, I wondered, about the church? Was it the billowing incense, a scent
so strong and sacred it often transported me to another world? Was it the hymns
I listened to while secretly watching my grandmother drop to her knees and weep
in sorrow? Her family had been sacrificed in the massacre and, although she never
spoke a word of it to any of us, she carried the weight of her grief into every moment
of her life.
We were all kids then, gathering on Sundays in the celebrated sanctuary, sitting
obediently on metal folding chairs, memorizing ancient prayers whose words we
could barely pronounce. It was in this space we acquired our faith, a second family
– a sense of belonging to something bigger than ourselves. It would take us years to
understand, but now, as we parked the car and I helped my mother through cloud-
colored chiffon draped doors, I knew full well how this church and its people had
sustained me and our family through the years.
In the days leading up to the gala event, my mother began complaining of fatigue,
a lack of energy and appetite, “feeling her age, damn it” she told me, a disappointed
tone in her voice as if her own skin and bones were betraying her. To complicate
matters, the weather change was playing havoc with one of her knees, the same one
that used to dip and bend to the sound of a Middle Eastern oud and clarinet playing.
While she bantered, I closed my eyes – seeing her on the dance floor at summer
picnics, legs bending with ease, hands twirling in the air, her passion for life seeping
from fingers and toes.
Trying to console her, I told her my right knee was also giving me trouble and that
both of us needed a Geritol fix. We went shopping instead. We would not miss this
once-in-a-lifetime event. If the building could endure the wear and tear of a century,
so could we, I told my mother, knowing that once I got her there, all aches and pains
As the evening approached, I could see the color in my mother’s cheeks returning
to its normal hue. Even her Estée Lauder lipstick – a pinkish red color, seemed
brighter than usual. She was wearing her history and heritage, bejeweled in her
roots and culture. Earlier at home, she had asked me to remove the Lifeline necklace
that had become her appendaged companion following one of her falls. Tonight,
the Armenian cross would hang from her neck. I would later watch in amazement
as she and other church elders, some needing wheelchairs and walkers, made their
way through the crowd, swarmed by youthful parishioners eager to applaud their
unfaltering love for the church.
Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church has been a spiritual and cultural hub
for generations. Established in the heart of Old Armenian Town in downtown
Fresno, it remains today a symbol of hard-working and passionate people who have
made great artistic, intellectual and philanthropic contributions to the San Joaquin
Valley and world. Robed priests, congressmen and other dignitaries gave speeches
recounting with pride the Armenian community whose love buoyed and withstood
everything from genocide to earthquakes. The magnificence of the evening would
forever underscore its place in our community and hearts.
On a clear and beautiful November evening, the New Exhibit Hall was
transformed into a grand walled city adorned of pure love and pride.
One generation melting into the arms of another, pausing to honor families – those
who had survived and made their way to Ellis Island, eventually finding home here
in the San Joaquin Valley.
Days later, I would still note the sparkle in my mother’s eyes – one that outshined
even the most sequined gowns that were part of the evening’s jubilant décor.