by P. Richard Shahtanian, Esq.
Every church community has its share of parishioners who stand out for their years of dedicated service and Saint Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church of Merrimack Valley is no exception to this fact. These faithful parishioners have been, and continue to be, essential to our existence as a church community. Chake Boloian is the perfect example of such a parishioner whose unwavering dedication is an amazing story of faith and love for her church.
Our church building was purchased on December 22, 1969. The founding members started everything from scratch, including its choir. During these initial years, the choir had a regular group of approximately eight singers and organists. Chake was one of those original choir members and since then has never looked back, even though it took her a while to feel comfortable.
“I had no singing experience whatsoever and other than singing a little bit at my parochial school in Syria growing up, I never sang in front of people”, said Chake. She further explained, “I came to this country in 1957 and had to learn a lot of different things … I knew nothing about the Badarak but I learned over time by practicing at home and as a result I slowly became more comfortable with my voice and singing in church … I also learned to greatly appreciate the Badarak because it is such a beautiful and peaceful service that inspires and rejuvenates me.”
That inspiration and rejuvenation is evident, given her length of service to the choir. In fact, it is remarkable that Chake is the only choir member from that original group over 50 years ago who still sings today.
As most of you know, Chake and her husband Michael (known affectionately as “Red”) have three children, namely Carol Minasian, Sylvia Mahlebjian and John who was born the same year the church was purchased. Except for missing a few Sundays when John was a toddler or an occasional illness, Chake very rarely missed a Sunday in the choir. She was in her early thirties when John was born and she juggled raising her young family with her commitment to the church. Throughout all these years, she remained steadfast to not only her commitment to the choir but also to the Ladies’ Guild, Armenian Relief Society, and many other church related activities such as bazaars, Avak luncheons, and making Mas.
Chake has served along with many different choir members throughout the years and has genuinely enjoyed each and every one of them. Nina Hovsepian is one of those members who began singing with Chake approximately 27 years ago and cherishes Chake’s mentorship, friendship, and inspiration.
Here is what Nina had to say: “… for our St. Gregory community, Chake has been our committed melodious pillar connecting our choir to the Sharagans with her quiet confidence and harmonious leadership. She has an academic understanding of the Badarak. She signals when and what to sing, weaves her velvet voice measure to measure, and embraces both choir and congregation in her warmth and love. When I walk up into the church and see Chake in her choir shabeeg… there is a sigh of relief… all is in Divine order!”
Another such member is Sossy Jeknavorian, our longtime Sunday School Director, who said the following: “When the choir was formed about 51 years ago, Chake joined the choir immediately and brought an incredible energy with her beautiful, sweet and perfect voice. She showed up every Sunday, sang the Sharagans and especially the beautiful solos. Singers have come and gone but Chake remains dedicated and sets an example for others… when I joined the choir, I was very nervous to sing the solos but Chake encouraged me and helped me to a point where she would nudge me and say “go” to start singing the solo… Chake has inspired me and many others. She is a remarkable person …”
Chake’s dedicated service has not gone unnoticed. During the 46th Anniversary celebration of Saint Gregory Church in 2016, Chake was honored with the Distinguished Service Award from the Armenian Prelacy for her years of service with the choir. At that time, her son John recalled the following about his mother, “My sister remembers when she was little going to Saturday rehearsal with our mom and lying around the pews while she practiced… we had an organ in the house that my dad purchased for her, just so she could sing and practice. She has not stopped and my dad still wears the biggest smile of all when she sings. He would remind us all the time when we were in the sanctuary, ‘that’s your mother singing.’”
Our parish priest, Rev. Fr. Stephan Baljian, was installed as our pastor just a few years prior to her being honored by the Armenian Prelacy. Der Hayr has a lot to say about Chake’s service but he clearly recalls his very first Badaraks at our church and remembered how impressed he was with our choir and specifically with our dedicated Choir Director, Knarik Nerkararyan, and Chake. “I remember thinking to myself that Knarik is so incredibly talented and professional and Chake is the headliner and matriarch!,” Der Hayr said.
Typically, Chake and Red were the first parishioners to arrive at church on a Sunday morning until COVID-19 prevented them from doing so. The pandemic, along with other age related ailments, took away one of the most important things in her life.
“We missed so much going to church together on Sunday and I felt empty but it was so good coming on Easter and we are going to try and start coming again regularly… I pray others will start coming back too,” said Chake. It is clear that although Chake may have slowed a little bit physically over the last few years, her mind and Christian faith are stronger than ever.
Also, during these last few years, daughter Sylvia began singing in the choir. Sylvia and Knarik have been a dynamic duo during the pandemic and Chake’s passing of the baton to Sylvia makes her story even more amazing and special. Chake explained, “I never pushed Sylvia to sing… it’s totally what she wants to do…I never believed in being a pushy person about anything… but I did tell her that it’s a big commitment especially while working as much as she does with three boys at home.”
Sylvia, who works as the Senior Director of Talent Development at Analog Devices, admits she sometimes gets emotional having her mother alongside her in the choir. Like her mother, Sylvia is completely self-taught and although she enjoyed teaching Sunday School for many years, she finds a different and special kind of spiritual fulfillment serving in the choir. When Chake was asked how she feels about her daughter taking such a prominent role in the choir, she paused for a moment and emotionally said, “let’s just say that I’m very very proud of her.”
Chake acknowledges that life was different 50 years ago as there were fewer activities and things competing for peoples’ time and attention. “Church was not only the main focus of our lives, but it was also the main focus for many others like us. I realize it’s different today… things have changed a little over the years… we made lifelong friends from our church and our social life centered around the church,” said Chake.
She prays that the younger generations can also find that same closeness and spiritual connection to the church as her generation experienced. Fortunately, for all of us, the only thing that has changed for Chake Boloian over the years is that now you can find her daughter singing by her side.
(Chake’s story is written in loving memory of Tom Vartabedian, who was a dear friend, mentor, and teacher to many in our community.)