At first, it looked like any ordinary Sunday afternoon at the St. Peter Armenian Apostolic Church in Watervliet.
Cars crowded the parking area and some of the older folks were heading inside to get out of the beating sun. But there were others who instead walked around the church to the backyard, following the sound of Armenian music and the smell of Armenian kebab. This wasn’t just another Sunday. It was second day of the Armenian Festival, and it was time to celebrate.
The Armenian Festival is an annual event. The church has had annual picnics for members since its inception in 1899, but for the last 20 years, it’s had an actual festival to help raise funds for the church and to introduce non-Armenians in the area to their culture.
As if shifting into an alternate universe, one certainly different from the more sedate atmosphere at the front of the church, the backyard is filled with people, either standing in line for the kebabs and the hye burgers, or dancing and clapping under the pavilion to Armenian music. At least 100 volunteers are helping in any way they can, from serving the food to carrying more meat from the church to the grills waiting outside.
John Ekmalian has been a member of the church since he was a child. He rushed from one grill to the next, helping the others with the patties, lamb and chunks of beef. The smoke from the grills covered parts of the crowd like a fog.
Ekmalian said over the two days, the festival volunteers cooked 900 pounds of lamb, 400 pounds of chicken kebab, 300 pounds of pork kebab, and 200 dozen lahmajune, which is ground lamb wrapped in homemade bread.
“It’s a way for us to give back to the community,” said Father Stepanos Doudoukjian, who has been a priest at the church since 1995. He explained that having picnics and festivals is very much a part of the Armenian culture. When he last visited Armenia, he saw families having picnics in the shadows of the church. “Being in the shadow of the church meant you were protected by God,” he said.
For John E. DerBogdossian, this was the first time he has been to an Armenian festival in 60 years. “My uncle when I was in [New York City] would take me to the Armenian festivals,” he said, and smiled as he sat under the shade, as the sun grew hotter and hotter through the day. As for why he hadn’t been in so long, he simply explained, “Life happened.” He smiled again, surrounded by his daughter, Lori Nellis, son, John C. DerBogdossian, his daughter-in-law, Cristene, and his wife, Ellen.
Santhosh Thomas and Anil Thomas, two friends originally from India, were curious to know more about Armenian culture and food. Anil knew about the church and the festival since he was friends with Doudoukjian, who had invited him to come. Santhosh was with his son, Isaiah, 6, who couldn’t stop staring at the large bouncy castles that were set up for the kids.
“We’ve come to taste the food,” Santhosh said, though his son’s gaze suggested otherwise.
Sharon Foley is the chairwoman of the church’s women’s guild, which was very involved in helping to organize for the festival, including the preparation of the food.
“I’ve been going to this church since I was a little girl,” she explained, as volunteers rushed past her with trays of food, and festivalgoers stepped in line for the baked goods that were lined up side by side. “People go to college, but afterwards they come back and put down their roots here. It’s a second home,” she said, as more sat down with their plates of food, and as the music outside grew louder, reaching around to the front of the church.