Vahe Hovhannisyan

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The Associated Press State & Local Wire November 30, 2004, Tuesday, BC cycle

Nine-year-old boy takes over organ duties at New Britain church

By DON STACOM, The Hartford Courant

NEW BRITAIN, Conn.


It is a tale shared by so many old, ethnic churches entrenched in Northeast cities: The pews are getting a bit emptier, the parishioners a bit more elderly.

As the first-wave immigrants who once clustered together in tight-knit neighborhoods die off, their children - or grandchildren - move on. And the churches that had been vibrant centers of worship, culture and social life begin to fade, their vitality sapped.

In the heart of downtown, the 100 or so dues-paying members of St. Stephen's Armenian Apostolic Church are committed to keeping the oldest Armenian church in Connecticut alive and well. And they believe they have in their midst someone who will strengthen their link to the next generation. His name is Vahe Hovhannisyan, and in March he will be 10.

"Vahe is a gift to us from God," said Father Krikor Keshishian, priest at St. Stephen's. "He loves his music, and he loves his church."

Vahe captured the congregation's attention last summer when longtime church organist Shirley Kevorkian announced she was tiring of her duties.

"I thought we would have to start playing recorded music on CDs; I didn't know what we could do," Keshishian recalled. "Vahe came up to me and said 'I'll play."'

And now the shy 9-year-old - who has never formally studied music - is St. Stephen's organist. For 2 1/2 hours every Sunday morning, Vahe accompanies the choir and deacon for the liturgical service.

Vahe plays a keyboard at home, and takes music classes twice a week with his fourth-grade class at Griswold School in Berlin. But he has never formally studied music or taken professional lessons. He practices at the church every weekday afternoon, and recently learned the music for the funeral and wedding ceremonies.

"You're just overwhelmed that this little boy would take over playing the organ, and that he would want so badly to do it," said Lila Winters, 75, a lifelong member of St. Stephen's.

>From the pews, the diminutive boy can hardly be seen behind the 3 1/2-foot-high Conn organ. First-time visitors to the church occasionally ask who played the music, and are astonished when Keshishian points to the boy.

"When he plays, you look at the older parishioners and they've all got smiles on their faces," said George Rustigian, former chairman of the church's trustees. "He's probably doing as much for the elderly as for the youth."

There is no doubt that St. Stephen's seeks more youth. Some second- and third-generation parishioners remain, of course, but others have drifted off, drawn to more comfortable homes in distant suburbs, or to jobs in the Sunbelt, or perhaps simply away from the church that bound their parents and grandparents so closely.

St. Stephen's parishioners have seen that cycle play out just a few blocks away. All Saints Church served the city's once-thriving Slovak community for 84 years, but faltered in the later decades and closed in 2002.

"We're hanging on, sometimes by a string," said Winters. "Some people are so old, they don't come because they can't make the stairs. We have a banquet every year with more than 150 people. If they'd come to church every week, we'd be fine."

Out of perhaps 100 dues-paying members at St. Stephen's now, more than a third live in the city and many attend services sporadically.

"Maybe we have 50 people one week, then the next Sunday we'll get 10," Rustigian said. "It's very difficult if just the parents and grandparents support the church. We need the younger Armenians."

Kevorkian is one of the last members of the original community. Her parents were founders of the church in 1925, and she still lives nearby.

"I was practically raised in the church. It's like a second home to all of us," she said. "Everything runs around it, all our functions."

She played St. Stephen's organ for 60 years, and this year was ready to stop.

"You become very popular, everyone knows me and every little thing about me. But you get tired," she said.

Vahe, who has listened to classical music since he was a toddler, volunteered to take her place. Keshishian was skeptical, but said the boy won him over with a relentless determination to learn the music.

"When you love something, you do it. And I know the boy loves music," Kevorkian said. "He's only at the beginning stages. He'll be very good when he's really into it."

Tigran and Sophia Hovhannisyan brought their son, Vahe, and daughter, Annie, to the United States from Armenia eight years ago. They are precisely the sort of young family that St. Stephen's seeks: Devoted to the church, and eager to keep up their cultural heritage.

Vahe is a Boy Scout, swims at the YMCA and plays soccer and basketball; but every afternoon he goes to St. Stephen's to practice. At his home in Kensington, he listens to Strauss, Verdi and Beethoven, and plays on a Yamaha keyboard in the living room.

Asked about his music, he is almost bashful, and says quietly, "I think I wanted to play the piano when I was 3."

What is his favorite piece in the liturgy? Vahe replied by walking to the Yamaha to play Amen Hayr Soorp, or Amen Holy Father.

"I like the melody," Yahe said simply. "I just like to play it."

Keshishian patted him on the head, and said: "We are all proud of Vahe. He's very awake for a 9-year-old boy. What was I doing when I was 9? I don't remember. But he is playing the entire divine liturgy."