It is an especially hot Wednesday morning in Oakland, but the community hall at St. Vartan Armenian Apostolic Church on Spruce Street is bustling. A group of about three dozen women and a handful of men are gathered around several tables, chatting and making sarmas, a mixture of rice, onions, and spices rolled into grape leaves. In the church’s commercial-grade kitchen, other women lay lettuce leaves in large pans where the sarmas will be cooked.
The meticulous work is just a small portion of what the community is preparing for its 68th annual Armenian Food Festival, taking place at the church on Oct. 6 and 7.
For over 100 years, a large Armenian community has called Oakland and other parts of California home, driven here by conflicts past. In 1915, as World War I raged, Armenians suffered a genocide in the former Ottoman Empire in what is now Turkey. Hundreds of thousands of lives were lost, causing an exodus of Armenians from the region who then sought refuge around the world, including in the Bay Area and other parts of California.
In the San Joaquin Valley, Armenians found work as grocers and dried fruit distributors. In Fresno, newly arrived immigrants went into farming and other businesses. By the 1930s, Armenians there “owned 40 percent of the county’s raisin acreage and represented 25 percent of its growers.”
In 1926, Armenians in Oakland established St. Vartan Armenian Apostolic Church at the corner of 23rd Avenue and E 17th St. When the parish formed, so did the Ladies Aid Society, a group of parishioners whose descendants have continued to carry forward Armenian culture and traditions.
As the community grew, so did the need for a larger church. In the early spring of 1955, two congregation members, Suren and Diana Toomajian, who lived on McKinley Avenue, spotted a house for sale on their corner at Spruce Street. The church purchased the property that May, and by April 7, 1957, the new St. Vartan church was ready to open its doors to parishioners.
“My mom [Diana] saw that the house across from theirs was for sale,” said Suzanne Vasgerdsian. “Right away, she called my dad and said, ‘We need to buy that lot for the church.'”
Her father, Suren Toomajian, was a prominent divorce attorney in the East Bay. He was so well known that in the 1940s, San Francisco journalist Herb Caen dubbed him “The Great Separator.” Toomajian’s office was on the 18th floor of the Tribune Tower, and he held on to it until Oct. 17, 1989, the day of the Loma Prieta earthquake.
His wife Diana was a founding member of the Ladies Aid Society and a staple in all of the church’s activities.
“My parents held a big dinner to celebrate him being a lawyer for 60 years,” recalls Suzanne, “and [during a speech] he said, ‘We built the church and then I donated Diana to it.’”
The Toomajian family lived at their house across the street from the church from 1936 until Diana Toomajian’s passing in 2016. In the years since the passing of her parents, Suzanne has continued being an active member of the congregation and an organizer of cultural activities, including the yearly food festival.
“The Ladies Aid Society started cooking together at the church. They were all fabulous cooks,” Suzanne said. “That cemented everything for the activities of the church.”
Her daughter, Nicole Vasgerdsian, is just as involved. Vasgerdsian runs “grandma’s attic” out of the church’s basement, where parishioners donate items that are later sold at a bazaar at the church after Sunday services. All proceeds benefit the church and efforts to help families back in present-day Armenia.
“Armenians were encouraged to assimilate and not necessarily retain the language and the culture, but they always wanted to keep the church alive,” Vasgerdsian said. “That’s where they put their energy.”
Paul and Rose Agajan were also early founders of St. Vartan church, alongside the Toomajians. They moved to Oakland from Chicago in 1943, and their family has continued to be involved with the church through their daughter, Carol, her husband, George Rustigian, and now their granddaughter, Beth Rustigian Broussalian.
According to Beth, Oakland reminded her grandfather Paul of his beloved Istanbul, and it wasn’t long before the family was making its mark on the city’s food scene by expanding the Casper’s hot dogs chain after the original Kasper’s was started by another Armenian immigrant, Kasper Koojoolian. Agajan also owned Jack’s Hot Dogs, located at 11th and Franklin Streets, from 1943 until 1987.
Sylvia Gozurian is the second eldest member of the Ladies Aid Society, who moved to Fresno when she was 19 years old. “I moved from Istanbul because we weren’t treated so well,” Gozurian said.
Her husband, Masis Gozurian, once worked for the Boghosian brothers, who ran a rug manufacturing plant and managed the rug department at the Breuners Home Furnishings branch in Oakland. When the brothers asked the Gozurians to move to the East Bay so Masis could manage the plant, the couple moved to Oakland and later to San Leandro.
Many of the men who fled Istanbul during the genocide chose to change their names on the boat coming to the United States, said Beth, because they feared the Turks would track them down and force them back into their army. Sylvia Gozurian’s husband, whose last name was originally Gozuroglu, was one of them.
“Once I came to church, the women [of the Ladies Aid Society] grabbed me and I haven’t left,” Gozurian said. “I never want to leave. I love everybody here.”
Today, it isn’t just Armenian immigrants who find a sense of community at St. Vartan; both Armenians and non-Armenians attend and are welcome at the church.
Beth, who is in charge of the logistics on festival prep days, said carrying the torch for her people’s legacy is crucial to the survival of Armenian history and heritage, especially at a time when Armenians in their ancestral lands are still experiencing conflict.
“We have to keep this church strong and vibrant. We have to keep our diaspora and community,” Beth said. “We are facing an existential crisis for Armenia. This is more important than ever because this may be all that’s left of Armenia.”
The 68th Armenian Food Festival takes place on Friday, Oct. 6, 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. and Saturday, Oct. 7, 12 p.m. to 11 p.m., St. Vartan Church, 650 Spruce St.
"*" indicates required fields