Remembering Rev. Vartan Kassabian: a moment frozen in time
Published: Wednesday March 25, 2009
Haverhill, Mass. - It was a cold winter's day as the snow whipped across the Hannah Duston Nursing Home, where my mother occupies a room.
In walked a man wearing a clerical collar, dressed more appropriately for spring. He approached the desk, signed a guest book and gave the receptionist a warm greeting.
"Nice day, isn't it?" he smiled.
Every day was a nice day in the life of this priest, even in the throes of a nor'easter.
He slowly made his way up an incline to the dormitory, bent on bringing some cheer and spirituality to the infirm. Not that this wasn't part of his job, mind you. But quite often, the mission goes above the call when you're a cleric.
There are four Armenians inside this nursing home and prior to his ministry at St. Gregory Church in North Andover, they were all strangers waiting to become his friends.
The first was a prominent attorney who practiced law in this city for 50 years. The Alzheimer's he contracted permeated a gifted mind. Each visit with the man became a newfound experience.
Communion was administered with a prayer, along with a warm embrace. The fact he belonged to a different church made no difference.
Next came a visit to a woman who was relatively bed bound, notable for being a one-time organist inside an Armenian Protestant Church for many decades. They chatted briefly, smiled at an anecdote, then out came another communion host.
The third Armenian happened to be a remote churchgoer, somewhat outspoken about spiritual life, but of good mind and spirit. The fact she was being visited by a Der Hayr from any church brought little sanctity until his departure.
She couldn't wait for the next call. It is often that way when you are widowed and alone with no known relatives and few, if any, friends on call.
"When all seems lost, he truly made me feel like life was worth living," the woman often told others.
Last on the list was a visitation with the only remaining Genocide survivor in Haverhill, my mother – a true-blooded 97-year-old Armenian Catholic who looked no other way for spiritual fulfillment.
"Good morning, Jenny," chirped the priest. "I hope you're having a good day because if you're not, how could my day be any better?"
"I'm having a better day now that you're here," she told the Der Hayr. "I hope you brought God with you."
"He's right beside both of us," said the priest. "Time for a prayer."
Another sacred host was removed and the two held hands, reciting the Hayr Mer as others curiously looked their way. The television showed some devastating murder scene in the Midwest. A nurse was preparing for an inoculation. Someone had tripped an alarm while attempting to leave a wheelchair.
But the power of prayer was a powerful message to overcome as the words resonated throughout the room. And then came the usual smile as Der Hayr saved the best for last – the kicker as he would put it. Some levity in a dire situation.
"Growing old is an art," he told my mother one day. "And you handle it very well."
They got to be good "old" friends over these past three years with the periodical visits – until the end. I would have preferred a death sentence to the news I was about to deliver.
"Mom, you know that priest who used to come and give you communion? He won't be coming to see you anymore. Well ... he died. He's with God."
A tear filled her eye and trickled down her somber face.
"Why didn't He take me instead?" she said. "He was a good man.
"Der Vartan was a good man."
To the churches he pastored and the people he served, to his beloved Prelacy and the nation he so gallantly worshipped, the family he leaves behind, Der Vartan didn't die. Far from it.
He just got a promotion.