The Roupenian Family

Mardiros and Mariam: Newcomers to Rhode Island from the Ottoman Empire

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By Ruth Bedevian

My maternal grandparents fell in love at an early age in the village of Soorsooree in Kharpert (Ancient Armenia) under Ottoman rule in the 1800s. While picking apples in the orchard one day Mariam saw Mardiros ride by on a horse, wearing his hat jauntily. She smiled at him and he tipped his hat. She was 14 and they were destined for each other.

Mardiros Shamshoian was the son of the moneychanger, Roupen, and was orphaned in childhood. With the inheritance that Roupen had left in trust with the local church, Mardiros was taken in by an “Agunntsi” woman who had raised him and educated him well. He was proficient in reading and writing Armenian, Turkish, French and English.

Mariam was the daughter of Ohanes Ohanesian, a wise man who taught his daughter about plants, herbs and their medicinal uses. Mariam’s mother had died young and Ohanes had remarried. From his second marriage, there were four daughters – Vartouhi, Zmroukht, Badaskhan and Berjouhi and twin sons, Garabed and Haroutune. (All four daughters perished in the Hamidian purges of 1894-96). Ohanes desired Mariam to marry whomever she wanted so he called a woman from the village to speak with her.

Mardiros earned a living by writing letters and preparing documents.

A year earlier, on March 9, 1891, Mardiros had made his first journey to America as he recorded in the Family Bible. Upon his first entry to the port of Boston, he assumed the surname Roupenian to honor his deceased father.

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He returned to marry Mariam shortly thereafter in November 1882. She was 17-years-old. Maridros was 18. Mardiros was so in love with Mariam that he implored her never to marry another because he would die.

The couple was blessed with a baby girl, Surpoohy. Two other babies were born before Surpoohy who died during infancy.

During the middle of the 1800s, Kharpert had more than 350 villages, almost all Armenian. Political tensions throughout the Ottoman Empire threatened the future for Armenians, causing Mardiros to leave a beloved wife and daughter and bear the pain of separation to seek a more secure future for his family. Mardiros returned to Pawtucket, RI in 1883 and worked at Royal Weaving, a huge textile factory. (Joseph Ott founded Royal Weaving and his company employed hundreds in Central Falls and Pawtucket for nearly a century.) To earn extra money, Mardiros wrote letters for people. Sometimes they paid him with a bottle of wine.

 

 

Massacres Reach Kharpert

It is 1895 and Mariam and Surpoohy were in grave danger. News of the ruthless carnage upon Armenians in other areas of the Empire was spreading, quickly reaching the villages. In early November, violence reached the Kharpert Plain. Surpoohy remembered Mariam putting her in the tonnir, the outdoor stone oven built into the ground where lavash bread is baked. She admonished her youngster sharply to make no sounds, giving her a piece of hardtack. Desperate to save her daughter, Mariam fervently prayed to God to send good people to find Surpoohy.

Grace from a Compassionate Stranger

Like many of the married men at that time who had left their families behind in order to work and send for their loved ones, Mardiros was vulnerable to deep loneliness and went with other men to drink. His boss whose name is lost to our family history) saw goodness in Mardiros and gave him a large sum of money, introducing him to Mr. Fales, a lawyer. Money was needed not only for passage but oftentimes to bribe Turkish officials even though documents were properly prepared. With Mr. Fales’ help, Mardiros prepared a Petition for Naturalization (dated December 31, 1895) for himself which enabled him to very quickly bring Mariam and Surpoohy to America.

The joy of reunion can only be imagined on February 2, 1896, when Mariam walked through the gates at Ellis Island holding 5-year-old Surpoohy’s hand.

Mr. Fales owned a building that he rented to Mardiros. Having free use of the empty rooms in the building, Mardiros, with Mariam’s help, opened a boarding house. It was located on Roosevelt Avenue in Central Falls. (Today trailer-trucks are stored on the site.) Rental income would cover their expenses. It was a promising livelihood requiring long hours of daily tasks, food shopping, quantity cooking, washing, and cleaning. Many Armenians from their pillaged homes found a comfortable shelter there until they settled themselves with jobs and their own households. Oftentimes, Mariam would mend clothing at boarders’ requests for additional income. She also was skilled in natural remedies and helped in delivering babies if Dr. Margosian did not arrive in time!

Mariam and Alice

Family Begins to Grow in ‘Pawtucket, America’

Between 1899 and 1906 Mariam gave birth to Roupen (1899), Kurken (1901), Souren (1902), Vahan (1904) and the baby Almas (my mother, Alice) in 1906. (Sadly Kurken died at 3-years-old.)

Mariam kept her promise to her father to watch over her younger brothers, bringing Garabed and Haroutune to America and looking after them even after they were married men. Garabed married Yeghsah a very jovial lady who was very fertile and gave him 7 children. These are the uncles, aunts, and cousins that comprised my mother’s large extended family.

Mariam helped Maridros with the cooking, cleaning and the myriad of duties the boarding house demands. She relied on Surpoohy to take the little one under her wing. My mother recalled, “My sister took dressmaking classes and taught me how to design and sew. She taught me to crochet and knit. I learned everything from my sister.”

On December 3, 1911, in “Pawtucket, America” as Mardiros recorded in the Bible, Surpoohy married Kerop Karian (Karavagorian). The wedding took place in the boarding house (Sts. Sahag & Mesrob Church in Providence had not yet been established). This was a joyful time, but sorrow was to overshadow the Roupenians in 1914.

Mariam forbid her 10-year-old Vahan to play at the Dumps where his friends would scavenge for useable items they could repair or sell. Vahan disobeyed. Climbing over a very tall fence, he fell. Landing hard, he fainted. He didn’t tell his mother nor did his friends. He was in severe pain, running a high fever and vomiting. Dr. Margosian said, “Maybe appendicitis or an intestinal blockage.”

My mother was 8-years-old and remembers vividly, “Surpoohy came and wrapped my brother in a blanket. He was ashen, so pale. Vahan was rushed in a horse and buggy to the hospital.” The diagnosis was a pierced intestine. The next morning, Mariam and Mardiros lost their fourth child to this imperfect world.

My mother wept, “Vahan was so handsome. He had auburn hair and hazel eyes. The entire city of Pawtucket grieved.”

Mariam was 50-years-old and Vahan’s death was a turning point. She wailed, “No more! Too busy working in this boarding house. No time to watch my child.” The boarding house closed. World War I had begun.

Mardiros

New Challenges

The Roupenians moved to a second-floor apartment on High Street over a Chinese laundry in Central Falls. With a partner, Mardiros opens a variety store, selling ice cream, candy, and fruit. The variety store was located on Central Avenue not far from the apartment. The partner was aggravated with his partner and his children because Mardiros saw nothing wrong with the children eating the candy and ice cream meant for sale. “He was so good-natured and loved his children,” my mother recalled with a smile.

It was now 1916 and America was on the brink of entering World War I. The family was dependent on Roupen’s income from the light bulb factory. He returned home one day telling Mariam that he dropped a case of bulbs. The boss fired him, taking his pay to compensate for the cost of the broken bulbs.

My mother recalled, “My mother took me with her to the factory to translate, asking the boss to forgive her son and rehire Roupen. The boss said to me, ‘Little girl, please tell your mother that I did not fire her son. He took his full wages and gave his notice to quit.’”

“Oh, did my mother want to crawl under the floor!”

When Mariam told Mardiros, he exploded!! “Deghas chess! Tourse Yeleer!” (You are not my son. Get out!”)

Having nowhere to go, Roupen joined the US Navy. That plunged Mariam into further turmoil. This time, she took Souren to plead for her son’s return. The officer advised Mariam that if the family needed his earnings, he could arrange to have Roupen’s paycheck sent to her.

“No, no. My son go war. He die. Me take money? No,” she cried. The recruiting officer said to Souren, “Tell your mother I am sorry, but her son now belongs to Uncle Sam.” Realizing his transgression, Roupen pleaded with his mother, “Mama, let me go and become a man.”

Roupen was strong and muscular and took well to wrestling. He engaged in a wrestling match between the US Navy and the US Army on the USS George Washington in the presence of President Woodrow Wilson on the way to France for the peace talks. Roupen won the medal. Since Roupen, there have been 4 generations of Roupenian men who have proudly served in the US Navy! Indeed, Roupen became a man.

The USS George Washington was originally a captured German ship used for transport. It crisscrossed the Atlantic 22 times during Roupen’s tour of duty, taking supplies and troops to battle-weary Europe. The news came that the ship had been torpedoed. Stunned, Mariam joined the American Red Cross, sewing pajamas, knitting socks, and all the while, praying, “Deghas yed bidi ka.” (My son will come back.)

Without Roupen’s earnings and many customers on credit, Mardiros had a serious accounts receivable problem and sold out to the partner and started to work in Howard and Bullock’s Machine Shop.

Mariam, aspiring to “move up on the hill,” managed to find an apartment in Pawtucket at 510 Broadway and arranged to take care of the landlord’s baby in return for a reduction in the rent. The Roupenians – Mardiros, Mariam, Souren and Alice lived there until 1923.

It was during these years that Mardiros becomes a Bible Student. Souren also took an interest and father and son become loyal active members of the International Bible Students’ Association. Mariam said to Mardiros, “You are a man who changes colors. I am Loosavoghchagan. I will die Loosavoghchagan, but I will never refuse the word of God in my home.” Thus, Brother Mardirosian led many a gathering in the living room at 510 Broadway.

My mother said of Souren, “Papa called Souren ‘My Archangel.’ He was a Jack of all trades. He was great. He fixed everything in the house.”

Souren was the only child to complete high school. Working at Royal Weaving during the day, he finished his schooling by attending a vocational school at night, learning mechanical drawing and drafting. These were the prosperous years. Mardiros and Souren were taking home $30-$40 each a week as weavers. Mariam was saving every nickel and dime to put a down payment on a house of their own.

Reaching for the Dream

By 1923 the Roupenians purchased a 9-room cottage with three mortgages, costing $6,500, at 1116 Washington Ave., South Attleboro, Mass. Mariam was 59-years-old and finally, her dream was realized — a home of their own with a large backyard with fruit trees and space for planting a garden. Mariam slaughtered a rooster at the front door, an old-world custom to shed favor upon the home.

My mother fondly remembered, “Friends and relatives came to visit frequently. My parents’ hospitality was abundant, setting their table for all with the bounty from their garden. Mama set up a roadside stand and sold her produce on the honor system. She canned the vegetables for winter. She made a tonnir and planted a grape arbor. Oh! How she made ends meet! Our home was filled with joy.”

The happy years were to end in August 1930 when Mardiros passed into his eternal rest. He had lived the whole of his life trusting and helping others and respecting the word of God. Brother Mardirosian delivered the eulogy and officiated at the funeral home and burial. My mother said, “All of Pawtucket came to pay their respects to my father. He knew so many people and had been so good to everyone.”

With Mardiros’ passing in the first year of the Great Depression, Mariam struggled to keep up the mortgage payments and taxes. Mariam was forced to sell the house and move to a cold-water flat on Turner Street in South Attleboro. It had a coal stove, toilet,and no bathtub. Soon, however, she was able to move down the street to brand new low-income housing for $17 a month. Eventually, she went to Surpoohy’s home.

A mountain of strength and courage, loving wife and mother, Mariam surrendered her soul to her Creator and joined her beloved Mardiros in 1943. Gently they rest together in Walnut Creek Cemetery, Pawtucket, RI. May the Lord illuminate their spirits.

***

My mother, Alice, gave me grandparents to love who lived and died before I was born. I treasure the many hours my mother spent with me at her kitchen table sharing her memories. Together, Mardiros and Mariam triumphed over their forced exodus from their ancestral home, the struggle to carve a new life in a new world, the sorrows of loss, and World War I. Throughout their journey, they held steadfast to their faith in our Lord’s everlasting love. They have given me a precious, priceless gift.

(Ruth Bedevian is a resident of New Jersey. She received the Ellis Island Medal of Honor in 2017. She is a longtime member of the Armenian International Women’s Association. She is compiling her family members’ histories from their lives in the Ottoman Empire to the New World.)

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