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Longtime member Gary Rejebian notes that St. James Armenian Church, 816 Clark St., is unique in its location in the heart of Evanston’s downtown.
“This parish is uniquely situated in the middle of town, unlike most every other Armenian church in the area,” he says. “It’s become an integral part of this community.”
St. James has about 120 members, and its building was consecrated in 1945. Its central location has given rise to its ever-growing Taste of Armenia street fair, which takes place this year on Aug. 26.
“This whole street festival has evolved into a whole citywide event, where people come to it from all over,” adds Mr. Rejebian. “… I think attendance runs into the thousands – it’s one of the larger festival events in the City.”
This year’s edition of Taste of Armenia is largely taking inspirational cues from the Smithsonian Institution’s Folklife Festival that took place in Washington, D.C., earlier this summer; that event featured a program entitled “Armenia: Creating Home.”
Mr. Rejebian, who attended the Washington, D.C. festival, says, “It was a huge event, where they focused on Armenian artisans and the native culture, and how families bring that culture home wherever they live.”
Past Taste of Armenia festivals have featured exhibits and presentations on topics ranging from church architecture to vignettes on the Armenian American experience.
“Armenia was the focus of this country’s first international human rights campaign,” Mr. Rejebian says “Telling those stories, and telling the stories of how Armenians immigrated here, and where they came from, is vital.”
The Smithsonian’s exhibition, he adds, “focused on the traditional native arts of Armenia. We’d like to have that this year, bringing a piece of the Smithsonian festival to Chicago, emulating the same theme.”
Armenia declared its independence in 1991, and there has been a burgeoning appreciation of its culture and history both within the nation and within the Armenian American community.
“One of the biggest stories out of that are the discovery of the oldest winery in the world,” Mr. Rejebian names as an example. “The Armenian winemaking trade has boomed, with world-class, highly rated wines.”
Some of those wines will be available at the festival, he says. “These are wines you can’t usually buy locally.”
Stone crosses, or Khatchkars, are ubiquitous throughout Armenia, commemorating not just deaths, but other special occasions. Khatchkars will also feature prominently at Taste of Armenia this year.
“They can be used to mark the occasion of a wedding, or a birth,” explains Mr. Rejebian. “They’re created for a lot of different purposes. The one in front of the church was installed to commemorate the martyrs of the genocide, for example. This year, we’ll have a young stone-carver demonstrating his work.”
The festival will also include cooking demonstrations, dance lessons and performances, and miniature-painting and jewelry-crafting demonstrations.
“We’ll also be selling Armenian fruit-preserves, and doing pairings with the wines,” says Mr. Rejebian. “It’s a full-plate.”
The core planning group around the festival consists of about 25 St. James members, but about 50 people “work like crazy” to make sure the festival runs smoothly, he adds.
Armenians have been part of the Evanston landscape for the better part of a century, Mr. Rejebian notes. “Because of that foothold, in the middle of a ‘walking town,’ and the relationships that we’ve built over the decades, I think we’ve extended the reach of this event to the whole of the Evanston community.”