Armenian Festival grows to two days

It took fingers from a considerable portion of the globe to make the modest vegetarian grape leaves that will sell three for $2 at this weekend's Armenian Festival.

Wednesday morning, one man and about a dozen women gathered around the food preparation table at St. Mary Armenian Church in Costa Mesa, stuffing marinated leaves with fillings of rice, onions and parsley. Asked whether many members of the group came from Armenia, Ladies Society chairwoman Claudette Mekalian asked those present to state their countries of origin.

An eclectic series of responses echoed back: "Syria." "Turkey." "Lebanon." "Bulgaria." "Belize." Others mentioned some truly exotic faraway lands, like Fresno and Bakersfield.

Members of the congregation of the Eastside church may have taken diverse roads to Costa Mesa, but they share a bond over faith and festivity. And that also goes for the crowds that fill the annual Armenian Festival, which began in 2009 and is expanding this year to two days instead of one.

"We've made a lot of things," Mekalian said. "Our freezer and refrigerator are filled with pastries. This isn't the first day we're all together. The Ladies Society is the heart of the church."

Saturday and Sunday, the church grounds will fill with vendor booths, food, music, dancing and more. Officials will offer tours of the church, while Tom Bozigian, the leader of the four-piece band that will play both days, will teach traditional Armenian dances.

Archpriest Moushegh Tashjian said the church decided to expand the festival to two days because of growing attendance. St. Mary first began hosting the festival during its formative years two decades ago, but with volunteers and resources limited, it put the event on hiatus before long.

"It involved [a] lot of hard work, you know," Tashjian said. "We were short. We were a growing parish."

By 2009, the church had expanded enough that Tashjian and his colleagues opted to try the festival out again, and the response encouraged them to keep going. This year's festival is expected to require the help of about 120 church members.

Work in the kitchen began Tuesday, as the team prepared cheese boreg, baklava and other traditional dishes. At the festival, chefs will barbecue meat kabobs as well.

Festival chairwoman Debbie Simonian said that even though the event celebrates Armenian culture, it draws a wide audience — and she always enjoys making converts.

"It's fun because so many of them don't think they've ever tasted Armenian food, and then when they taste it, they're surprised," she said. "It's like, 'Oh, we eat kabobs all the time!'"

If You Go

What: Armenian Festival

Where: St. Mary Armenian Church, 148 22nd St., Costa Mesa

When: Noon to 10 p.m. Saturday, noon to 6 p.m. Sunday

Cost: $2

Information: (949) 650-8367 or

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