St. Sarkis church

Njteh Keleshian (left) a sub-deacon at St. Sarkis Armenian Orthodox Church, chants the gospel during a service.

Though they share an ethnic background, they don’t always speak the same dialect. Some mix Arabic with their Armenian words. Others blend in Farsi. But on Sundays, members of St. Sarkis Armenian Orthodox Church gather to worship in a sanctuary — once an abandoned home — in a Carrollton neighborhood. There, the pews creak and incense and candles fill the room in a smoky haze.

The entrance to the church looks like that of any other home in the neighborhood, with a front door of wood and glass. Later, church members added a cultural hall with a large kitchen and classrooms. It’s where they gather to eat and mingle after the two-hour service.

More than two decades since converting the home on Random Road, the building remains the only Armenian church in North Texas, members said. Now, it’s a gathering post for the ethnic group, many of whom immigrated to the United States from Turkey, Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Armenia, among others.

“We have a belief that whenever there are two Armenians anywhere, together they build a little Armenia,” said Hamlet Sarokhanian, member of the church’s Parish Council and an immigrant from Iran.

t. Sarkis Armenian Orthodox Church.

Father Ghevond Ajamian (center) ends a service at St. Sarkis Armenian Orthodox Church.

Remembering the past

The massacre of Armenians a century earlier scattered survivors to five continents in search of refuge. Now, their descendants have found new homes in countries such as the U.S., Syria, France and Lebanon.

In 1915, leaders of the Turkish government began a plan to expel and massacre Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire, many historians say. When it ended, about 1.5 million Armenians were dead, and others were forcibly removed.

This year, St. Sarkis and other Armenian churches around the world will remember the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. The church began planning the commemoration, which runs throughout the year, in 2013.

On Thursday, author Peter Balakian spoke about the genocide at Southern Methodist University.

“We believe it’s an incomplete mourning. It never got resolved. It got forgotten,” said Sarokhanian, who is also chairperson of the Armenian Genocide Centennial Committee of Dallas. “It’s been passed down from generations to generations. That is what keeps us unified.”

He remembers the stories his father told him about his two uncles who died after walking for days through the desert from Iran to Iraq. His father wasn’t born yet.

St. Sarkis Armenian Orthodox Church.

Father Ghevond Ajamian (center) conducts a service at St. Sarkis Armenian Orthodox Church.

“We only know the history from our families,” he said. “It was chaos.”

Julieta Chatinyan and her daughters, Lusine Meeks of Plano and Anahit Ballard of Frisco, understand the chaos. They wear handmade purple forget-me-not flower pins on their shirts. They’re a reminder of their late mother and grandmother, a survivor of the Armenian genocide who escaped from Palestine on one of the last trains.

“This year’s campaign isn’t as much about Armenian genocide as it is about stop genocide,” said Meeks, who also serves on the church’s centennial committee. She and her sister were raised in the the former Soviet Union. Since schools were censored, the daughters learned about their grandmother’s story from Chatinyan.

The flowers are among 200 that Chatinyan crocheted for church and community members to mark the genocide’s centennial. The purple flower is the official emblem of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide.

“We’re wearing it as a forget-me-not of all the victims of the genocide, but you can wear it to remember anyone who was close to you,” Ballard said.

St. Sarkis Armenian Orthodox Church

The congregation of St. Sarkis Armenian Orthodox Church attends a service on Sunday. The church will soon build on land donated in Plano.

Moving forward

Shant Aghyarian’s great-grandparents died in the march through the Syrian desert to Lebanon. Aghyarian, 25, a member of the genocide centennial committee, said the details are mostly unknown.

Though Aghyarian was born in the U.S., his father immigrated here years earlier after fleeing to Cyprus when he was 13 years old to escape a civil war in Lebanon. His father owned a deli in Houston before opening a car body shop in Dallas.

Aghyarian grew up in the church. At the time, the Armenian community was a small, growing population. Most, like his father, had moved for economic opportunities. Many were recent immigrants.

When he was 9, his family returned to Lebanon. He moved back to Dallas in 2011 to pursue graduate studies in biomedical engineering at the University of Texas at Dallas.

He left an infant church and returned to find it established and growing.

“I was there when [the church] opened, but I was too young to realize what was going on,” Aghyarian said. “I came back to find it getting bigger and bigger.”

The church opened its doors in the renovated home in 1991. Now, the church counts about 350 active families in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. People commute from around North Texas to attend Sunday services, and some even trek from Oklahoma.

Now, the church plans to build a new facility about three times larger than its current space in West Plano near Prestonwood Baptist Church. It plans to expand programs and offer athletics.

“The place we had was perfect for what could be accomplished at the time with limited funds and limited people. At this point, we’ve grown and it’s time to expand,” said Vahe Dayian, chairman of the church’s Parish Council. “What we’re trying to do now is reach more people who have not been part of the [church].”

St. Sarkis Armenian Orthodox Church.

Food is served after services at St. Sarkis Armenian Orthodox Church.

Land was donated to the church about three years ago by a member. Now, leaders are working to raise funds to construct the building.

Dayian said they lack about 25 percent of the $1 million goal needed to begin construction.

They hope to begin building as soon as possible.

“It would be poetically perfect to build the church 100 years after we were suppose to be annihilated,” Dayian said.

Reporter Nanette Light can be reached at 214-977-8039.
Who is Saint Sarkis?