BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
Hello to my readers, this time from Montreal in Canada. It’s hard to know where to begin in describing the Armenian community in Montreal, which I found to be very active, with numerous organizations, as well as many churches and schools. I will start by discussing the day I arrived. I was flying from Frankfurt, Germany, with a huge luggage.
Every time I decide to visit a city, I try to make prior arrangements to meet someone who can give me information about the Armenian community there.
This time, I was very lucky to meet two people. The first was Raffi Yeretzian a young guy in his mid-thirties, whom I met through his online survey about Armenians in Montreal. He shared a lot of information with me before I arrived to Montreal.
I also met Hovsep Dalkian—through a mutual friend—who was a great help during my three-day stay in Montreal. He picked me up from the airport and gave me an overview about the Armenians in Montreal. Thank you, Hovsep.
As we were crossing the streets I noticed many political signs, for an upcoming election. There were Armenian women among the candidates. Later, I learned that three Armenian women were elected to the state national assembly. It’s very heart warming.
As you may know, the official language of the city is French. The city of Montreal is divided into 19 boroughs (in French, arrondissements), each with a mayor and a council. The population is close to two million.
From the airport Hovsep drove me to Saint-Laurent, the borough where a large number of Armenians live. He showed me around, and then he stopped at Sourp Hagop church. He parked his car and we walked across the street to St. Hagop Armenian School to get some information about the school.
Since we hadn’t made any prior appointment with the school administration, we received general information about the school and walked back to the church parking lot.
When Hovsep saw my disappointment, he said that he would ask his friend Vrej Armen Artinian, who is an active member in the the Armenian community, to meet us on Sunday and give more details about the school, the church, and the adjacent community center.
Hovsep then drove me to Montreal port, by the Ferris wheel, which in French is called, “La Grande Roue de Montréal.” After taking some pictures we strolled down to “Place Jacques-Cartier,” which originally opened in 1804 as a municipal market. Today, it’s considered as the heart of old Montreal. It is named in honor of the man who claimed Canada for France in 1535.
The surroundings were absolutely charming. I couldn’t believe that this space, “Place Jacque-Cartier,” had been there for 200 years. It was wide and it spanned for two blocks. Each side was lined with cafés and restaurants, with hanging flowers adorning the buildings. There was also a middle strip with more flowers. It was hard to imagine that the lovely square was once used as a public market.
Adding to the amusement of the place there were artists, artisans, portrait painters, and musicians performing there. Hovsep invited me to an early dinner at one of the attractive restaurants. Afterwards, he drove me to the room that I had made a reservation on Airbnb in Downtown Montreal.
While we were crossing the streets in Downtown Montreal, I noticed outdoor iron staircases that lead to the second floor apartments from the street. I was stunned to see the unpractical nature of those iron stairs in a city that, for half a year, is covered with snow and ice.
I asked my friend, Hovsep, and I didn’t hear a good answer. He said that all he knows is that Montreal has excellent snow removal services and the apartments with outside iron staircases were built during early 20th century. Hovsep explained that he doesn’t know what the architects who designed the “deadly” stairs were thinking when they build them.
The following day, which was Saturday, I had decided to stay in to get organized and start writing about my experience in Cologne, Germany and arriving in Montreal. However, a friend told me about a Ukrainian Festival in Montreal, and I thought I would rather attend that event, because I love Ukrainian dances and food. So I spent more than half a day at the festival and thoroughly enjoyed it.
The festival was at a huge park and the weather was perfect—in the mid-70s. Since I didn’t have Canadian money on me, I asked if there was an ATM nearby. I was directed to the kiosk of a local bank, which had a mobile ATM installed in a bus. The attendants were very helpful. They assisted me in withdrawing and converting money.
On Sunday, My friend Raffi had organized a brunch at his home. Viken Attarian, a friend of Raffi’s, picked me up and drove to Laval, a city north of Montreal, with a sizable Armenian population and where Raffi’s home was nestled among expensive homes.
Raffi had invited a few close friends so that I could meet them. The weather was excellent. He had set up a table in their backyard, next to the pool. I was surprised to see a full-sized swimming pool in Montreal. However, I learned that having a pool is pretty common there.
After having enjoyed the delectable brunch, Viken took me to Sourp Hagop Church to meet Vrej Armen Artinian, to learn more about the Armenian communities in Montreal.
As I was dropped-off at the parking lot of the church, I noticed the parishioner leaving the church service, carrying bunches of basil. I quickly found out that it was for the commemoration of the feast of Sourp-Khach, or Khachveratz, which in English is called the Exaltation of the Holy Cross—a major feast celebrated in honor of the recovery of the Holy Cross, on which Jesus was crucified.
As an Armenian tradition, on the day of Sourp Khach, at the end of the liturgy, the parishioners receive bunches of blessed basil.
The feast is observed in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches on September 14. However, in the Armenian tradition it is celebrated on the closest Sunday to the 14th—making it vary between September 11 to 17. I was in Montreal on Sunday, September 11.
The story of the feast of the Sourp Khach is told as the following: Saint Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, had converted to Christianity. She was divinely inspired to travel to Jerusalem in 326 AD, to look for the True Cross of Jesus. She, with the help of the bishop of Jerusalem, was able to recover the cross.
Now, back to my meeting. As I was dropped-off at the parking lot, I noticed that Hovsep and his buddy, Vrej Armen, were standing there waiting for me. I met them, and learned more about the Armenian community in Montreal.
Let me begin with a little history about the arrival of Armenians to Canada. The first wave of Armenian migrants to Montreal dates back to 1890s. They arrived from the Ottoman Empire to work in mines, where they were exposed to asbestos, and helped in the construction of the railroad.
The first significant influx of Armenians to Montreal was from Turkey in the 1950s, the second from Greece, and the third in the 1960s from Egypt.
Then came a surge of Armenians from the Middle East—Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey. The migration of Armenians from Armenia has increased since the country declared independence from the Soviet Union.
There’s a consensus, and an estimation, that the number of Armenians in Montreal could very well be as high as 40,000.
Below is information I received from Vrej Armen Artinian about the Armenian schools, churches and organizations in Montreal.
Sourp Hagop Armenian School, which is nestled on a street corner near the church, opened in 1973 at a different location. In 1987, the school moved to its present location. At first, the school rented the building, and later, in 2002, the community purchased it. The school accepts students from Kindergarten up to 11th grade, and has a total of 700 students.
As a side note, I’d like to mention that, in Montreal the last grade at the Secondary school is 11th. As I understand the old system of having 12th grade is combined with the Freshman class of the university, which constitutes two years of college before entering the university.
The school offers Armenian language and history classes on Saturdays for Armenian youth that attend public schools. Here, it is imperative to mention that the first Saturday Armenian language school at Sourp Hagop church was founded in 1958. Additionally, in the early 1970s, the church created Ararat Summer Day Camp, taking participants on many day trips in and out of Montreal.
The Church and the connecting community center was built in 1973, under the auspice of Cilicia’s Armenian Church and a substantial amount of donations from the Armenian community of Montreal.
Our friend, Vrej Armen, walked me through the very impressive complex adjacent to the church, which includes a multipurpose banquet hall, a dinning hall, a library, a bookstore, a gym with basketball court, and extra rooms for youth activities. Horizon Armenian weekly newspaper, where Vrej Armen was an editor and still is a regular contributor, also has an office at the complex.
The Armenian Relief Society operates a nursery school for kids at the complex. The school has 80 students, between six months up to two and a half years in age, and 160 kids from two and a half to four-years-old.
Additionally, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, the Armenian Youth Federation, the Hamazkayin cultural and educational association, the ARS, the Homenetmen sports and scouts association, and the Association of the elders all have their local and regional offices in the Community Center.
During the last two years, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the complex was renovated. Today, the center sparkles with its new upgrades. I should add that I was truly taken aback to see such a center—a combination of church, school, and cultural center and a banquet hall.
The following is a list of other Armenian churches that I didn’t have the chance to visit:
- Sourp Kevork church in the Armenian Community center in Laval. The church and center are also under the auspices of the See of Cilicia. The community center, like the one in Saint Laurent, serves the same organizations;
- St. Gregory the illuminator Cathedral, located in the borough of Outremont. The church is the seat of the Diocese of the Armenian Church, under the auspices of Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin;
- Holy Cross Armenian Apostolic Church of Laval. Holy Cross also operates under the auspices of Mother See of Etchmiadzin;
- St. Mary of Nareg Catholic Church. The church has a school, up to 11th grade, and accepts Armenian and non-Armenian students alike;
- Armenian Evangelical Church of Montreal. The church is located in Laval;
- First Armenian Evangelical church of Montreal.
I also didn’t get the opportunity to visit the AGBU community center and School. AGBU is one of the oldest Armenian community organizations in Montreal. It was founded in 1957 and very recently celebrated its 65th anniversary. The center is located at a complex on Manoogian Street, in the borough of Saint Laurent. AGBU’s Armen Quebec Alex Manoogian school accepts students up to 8th grade.
AGBU Armen Quebec is the oldest trilingual school founded in Canada, in 1970. Students are taught French, English and Armenian. The school is located next to the same complex as the AGBU center in Saint Laurent. It also includes a nursery and kindergarten. The total number of students are around 400.
There’s also a Tekeyan Center, under the Ramgavar political party, that I didn’t get a chance to visit.
In addition to the above Armenian institutions, there are several other benevolent, sportive, educational, cultural, political, and professional organizations in the Armenian community of Montreal.
I’d like to finish my report by telling you about a statue of Komitas, the father of Armenian Folk Music, which is erected in front of the Sourp Hagop complex and church.
Since the sculptor of the statue was at hand, we decided to take a picture with him in front of the statue. The sculptor, Dr. Megerditch Tarakdjian, is a medical doctor who, as a hobby, enjoys building sculptures. This concludes my extensive report of the Armenian Communities in Montreal.
Catherine Yesayan is a regular contributor to Asbarez, with her columns appearing under the “Community Links” heading. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.