Disastrous fire forges community friendships

For the past nine years the Belmont Ward, Belmont Massachusetts Stake, and the First Armenian Church of Belmont have come together to share Christmas traditions. The women of the Armenian Church join the Relief Society for the annual Christmas wreath-making party and Latter-day Saints participate in the Armenian Church's Christmas Eve service.

Friendship between the two churches was literally sparked by a disaster - the burning of the Belmont Ward meetinghouse in 1984.On Aug. 1, 1984, the fire - described as being of "suspicious" origin - ruined the newly constructed Church building before ward members even had a chance to meet in it. Other congregations and organizations in Belmont, a suburb west of Boston, generously offered space in their buildings for the ward to use temporarily. Church members met in St. Joseph's Catholic School, the First Armenian Church, the Congregational Church, and even in the Belmont Town Hall.

"Every congregation offered help and kept us in their prayers," said Christine Christensen, Belmont Ward Relief Society president at the time. "We had a lot to say thanks for. It was a very sweet connection with our neighbors."

One woman Sister Christensen gives particular thanks to is the Rev. Joanne Hartunian, who was assistant pastor of the First Armenian Church in 1984. The Armenian Church suffered religious suppression and persecution in the early 20th century Ottoman Empire. The Rev. Hartunian explained that Armenian Church members know what it is like to be a minority in the greater world. "When the Mormon Church burned down, we did what we had to do, reaching out with Christian love and support," she said.

Having attended homemaking meetings with an LDS friend, she offered the use of the Armenian Church for homemaking meetings, with the request that the women's groups of both churches pool their talents and expand their existing programs. Her father-in-law, The Rev. Vartan Hartunian, had already graciously opened the building to the Latter-day Saints for worship services.

"Our women's group was meeting monthly already," Joanne Hartunian said. "We studied health, literature, crafts, and aspects of our Armenian culture. We especially sought spiritual guidance and enrichment for our families and our lives as women. Meeting with the Mormon women allowed us to do that on a much larger scale. It was like attending a `mini-college' where people had a choice of which program to go to and a broader base of expertise to benefit from."

Bonnie Horne, a member of the Belmont Ward, said: "Meeting with the Armenian women gave a broader meaning to sisterhood. Their women's room was a warm and comfortable place to be . . . it was very enjoyable."

Relief Society women learned how to make paklava [Armenians spell this honey and nut dessert with a "p"; Greeks spell it with a "b"T, how to do Armenian dances, and bake exotic Christmas cookies.

"We joined the Armenian congregation in collecting mittens for needy families overseas," said Sister Christensen. "We hung the pairs up to decorate a Christmas tree in the basement of the Armenian Church."

The Relief Society wreath-making party, a tradition begun in the early 1960s, is always attended by the Armenian women. And the annual Armenian Church Christmas Eve service includes performances by Belmont Ward members.

Subscribe for free and get daily or weekly updates straight to your inbox
The three things you need to know everyday
Highlights from the last week to keep you informed