Worcester Telegram AP article

Sunday, December 12, 2004

A pipe dream come true

Boy organist enchants church congregation

By Don Stacom THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Vahe Hovhannisyan, 9, plays the organ at St. Stephen’s Armenian Apostolic
Church in New Britain, Conn. With the help of his sister, Ani, 13, right,
Vahe is now the church’s official organist, playing at funerals, weddings
and Sunday services. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Enlarge photo

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NEW BRITAIN, Conn. – It is a tale shared by 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 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 the Rev. 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 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,’ Winters said. `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 he 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, Ani,
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.’

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