Children from the Armenian School perform at the 80th Anniversary celebration for St. Hagop Armenian Church on Oct. 28 at Meadowbrook Country Club.
BY KATIE MATTESON
Julie Der Garabedian remembers growing up near Marquette and State streets in Racine’s Armenian neighborhood. It was a place where immigrant families lived in community and worshipped together, either at St. Mesrob Armenian Apostolic Church at 1326 State St. or St. Hagop Armenian Apostolic Church at 933 LaSalle Street.
Der Garabedian was a young child when St. Hagop was consecrated on Oct. 16, 1938.
Eighty years later, the congregation came together to celebrate and Der Garabedian was honored for her contributions as a Sunday School teacher, serving on the Board of Trustees of the church and most recently serving on the church’s Religious-Education and Cultural Committee, which invited speakers come to Racine to educate the public about the Armenian Genocide at the SC Johnson Golden Rondelle. Der Garabedian also made a donation to fund the center stained glass window at St. Hagop Church.
Dr. Levon Saryan, who serves as vice chairman of St. Hagop’s Board of Trustees, reflected on the church’s history during the church’s anniversary celebration Oct. 28:
“In 1934, a group of Armenians in Racine came together to lay the groundwork for what would become St. Hagop Armenian Apostolic Church. In the summer of 1937, Wergeland Hall was donated to the Armenians by Mr. J.J. Biggert, President of the J.I. Case Company, and then moved on wheels to its new home on LaSalle Street in Racine. On October 16, 1938, after hard work from all generations of the community, St. Hagop Armenian Apostolic church was consecrated. The St. Hagop community continued to grow and thrive, and in 1976 we erected a new church and community hall at our current location in Caledonia [4100 N. Newman Road].
“Every time I see that photograph from 1937 showing Wergeland Hall being moved into position on rollers, I think what a leap of faith it must have been for our founders to take that building and move it so that they, and we, could worship the Lord according to our ancient traditions. It took a year to get that old building into shape so that it could be used as church, and it served us well for almost 40 years.
“St. Hagop was established by men and women who had only been in the USA for a few years. The men mostly worked in factories doing manual labor, if they were lucky, since in those days it was the height of the Great Depression and work was hard to find. Funds to operate the parish were also hard to find; pennies and nickels were scrimped and saved so that the church could be equipped and furnished, and services held.”
Bishop Annoshavan Tanielian, Prelate for the Eastern Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America presented Der Garabedian with a Certificate of Merit in recognition and appreciation of her dedicated service.
The bishop told those gathered for the celebration that even though he was invited to attend other events, he traveled from New York to be with the parishioners from St. Hagop “to celebrate the past and also the future with boldness with the 100% Armenian, 100% American” congregation. He said that each generation has great potential and encouraged everyone to get their daily dose of “Vitamin G.”
Der Garabedian expressed appreciation to the church and dedicated the award to her parents and her sisters, who passed away at young ages (her older sister at age 13 and her younger sister at age 42).
She recalled happy times attending Garfield Elementary School, Washington Junior High and Horlick High School, as well as after-school classes on Monday, Wednesday and Friday at the Armenian School.
According to the church’s Commemorative Book, published when the new church was built, “the history of the Armenian school in Racine began in the year 1922 when the Racine Marzbed Chapter of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation decided to organize an Armenian school. They rented space above a Chinese laundry on State Street and used it as a clubhouse and Armenian school.”
Later the school moved to the adjoining building on the LaSalle Street church, to a classroom in a neighboring elementary school and finally to the Newman Road church, where classes still take place.
Children from the Armenian school performed during the 80th anniversary celebration.
Der Garabedian remembers her dad taking her to the school and while she was in class he read the Armenian newspaper and played cards, Tavlou (Armenian word for Backgammon) or discussed world and local problems over a cup of Armenian coffee.
An essay about Racine’s Armenian-American Community on the Racine Heritage Museum’s website includes a description of the social life of Armenian young people in the early years.
“The young people were drawn together because they shared a common religion and culture. They organized parties and dances with other Armenian youth of surrounding communities. They grew to love the Armenian music and dance their parents brought with them from the old country. In addition, Armenian youth had their own drum corps, an attraction in the annual parade down State Street. The most popular social event was the annual Madagh. Religious in origin, a Requiem Mass precedes the blessing of the food. Madagh is lamb stew over bulghur pilaf, with all of the food being prepared in large boiler pots called Khazans at the picnic site.
Armenians from neighboring communities shared in this sacrificial meal, with dancing following.”
The church continues to host its annual Armenian “Madagh” Picnic in June at Johnson Park. The public is welcome to attend the annual celebration of Armenian culture in Racine.