In its first two years, the Twin Cities Armenian Festival kept to the inside of St. Paul's St. Sahag Church. In its third edition this month, the festivities are spilling out into the spacious church yard.
In part, that's because the festival doubled its attendance last year, and organizers expect an even larger crowd this year.
But the change is also symbolic: The Sept. 18 festival is making a bigger push to draw in neighbors and other metro area residents looking to get a taste of Armenian culture.
"The main purpose of the Armenian Festival is not to have just another Armenian gathering," said the Rev. Tadeos Barseghyan, the pastor at St. Sahag. "It's to reach out to the general public and introduce ourselves."
Barseghyan set out to host the event four years ago when he arrived at the church, the only Armenian house of worship in Minnesota and most neighboring states. He had previously served as an intern priest in the greater Chicago area, where five Armenian churches hold their own annual festivals. The events are an opportunity for the community to celebrate its heritage — and show it off to residents unfamiliar with the culture.
By Barseghyan's estimate, about 200 families of Armenian descent live in the Twin Cities. The first arrivals made their way to Minnesota back in the 1890s, to work on railroads and bridges and eventually start small businesses. From Minnesota during World War I, they followed horrific news from back home, where Turkey started banishing Armenians from their lands in what is now eastern Turkey.
Last year, St. Sahag hosted a major commemoration of the 100th anniversary of those events, which scholars estimate resulted in the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians. Many Americans associate Armenia solely with them, Barseghyan said. The festival is a chance to show another, fun-loving side.
"The Armenian genocide is not the only thing people should know about Armenians," he said.
The St. Paul festival attracted 200 people in its inaugural years. This fall, organizers are shooting for 800. They are reaching out to Macalester College and other local campuses to ask for student volunteers, and they are inviting a slew of dignitaries.
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman can't make it, but he wrote a proclamation.
"The idea is to show there's an Armenian community in St. Paul, even though it's small," said Emma Ohanyan-Tri, one of the organizers. "This year we are trying to attract many attendees outside our community."
The event is a chance to sample traditional Armenian food, from khorovats — kebabs made of chicken or pork — to a selection of rich pastries, along with the country's potent boiled coffee served with lots of sugar.
There will be Armenian dance lessons and performances on the duduk, the national musical instrument made of apricot wood. There also will be games of Armenian backgammon and a display of crafts.
The event is from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the church, at 203 N. Howell St.
Mila Koumpilova 612-673-4781