Harriet Balian approached the small altar near the entrance of St. Sahag Armenian Church, lit a candle, and offered a prayer for more than a million people she had never met.

It was an act inspired by her mother, who a century earlier in Turkey had lit candles in memory of the thousands of Armenians driven from their homes and massacred by government soldiers.

“There were 1.5 million Armenians killed!” said the 87-year-old Balian, her voice cracking in the St. Paul church. “People just like you and me. And most people today don’t know anything about it.”

That could soon change. In the days ahead, Minnesota will host a series of events to raise awareness of the 100th anniversary of the so-called “forgotten holocaust,” which began April 1915 and ended in 1918. It wiped out an estimated 75 percent of Armenians in their homeland in what is now eastern Turkey, scholars estimate.

Last week, Pope Francis called it “the first genocide of the 20th century,” echoing a description long used by scholars. The pope’s words heartened Chacke Yeterian Scallen, a Deephaven retiree who had flown to the Vatican with her family to hear what the influential pope would say.

She carried memories of her mother’s forced march from her comfortable home to the Syrian desert. Although her mother managed to escape the Turkish soldiers in charge, others in her group told her she would have to kill her infant daughter because her cries would alert Turkish soldiers. Before that could happen, the baby died that night.

“My mother lived to be 89, and she never stopped talking about her firstborn,” said Yeterian Scallen. “Was her little body left intact? Did the dogs dismantle it?

“There are so many stories like this.”

Yeterian Scallen recalled a quote she’s seen displayed at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, written by Adolf Hitler: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

Organizing relief

Armenians first made their way to Minnesota in the late 1890s, when the St. Paul area became home to a tiny community started by rug dealers, railroad workers and others, said Lou Ann Matossian, a historian of Minnesota’s Armenian community.

Following news of the massacres, Minnesota became a regional center for organizing relief to the exiles, she said. Twin Cities churches held fundraisers. Armenian leaders even sent an appeal to then-President Woodrow Wilson seeking aid for them.

Matossian points to a collection of Minnesota newspaper articles from 1915. A typical headline: “Turks Burn Town and Massacre Armenians.”

“When I speak to audiences I tell them, ‘This is what your great-grandparents knew,’ ” Matossian said. “Why don’t we know about this now?”

What was known then was that Armenians were being rounded up from their homes, forced to leave on foot with few possessions, and marched to the Syrian desert, where anyone still alive was likely to die of hunger or thirst.

“Many of the men had already been killed [in their villages] or been forced into the Turkish army,” said the Rev. Tadeos Barseghyan, pastor at St. Sahag, who grew up in the region.

“The Armenians were seen as alien and a major obstacle to the fulfillment of the … goals of creating a homogenous Turkish society,” said Alejandro Baer, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

Turkey continues to deny this interpretation. In a response to Pope Francis’ remarks, the Foreign Affairs Ministry of Turkey issued a statement saying the Armenian deaths must be considered in context, as part of bloodshed of World War I. “With a selective point of view, he [the pope] ignored the tragedies that befell on the Turkish and Muslim people who had lost their lives in World War I,” it said.

Searing memories

While the Armenian genocide is largely forgotten today, its stories remain alive in the kitchens and church halls of the survivors’ descendants.

Balian, for example, said her mother escaped death because she somehow got connected to a Turkish family that needed a seamstress. She sewed uniforms for the Turkish army, and to her dying days, hated the colors red and black because they reminded her of soldiers who forced her away.

Barseghyan said his great-grandmother spent her life believing she would someday return to her family home because the soldiers told her so. She kept the house key her entire life, and as she got older, would repeat “They didn’t come today. They didn’t come today.”

“When she died, the family buried the key with her,” said Barseghyan.

John Desteian, a St. Paul psychologist, said his grandmother survived after being taken in at an Armenian General Benevolent Union orphanage. She didn’t share much of her ordeal, “but she cried whenever she talked about it,” he said. After the war, she ran into a French soldier who happened to know someone from Minnesota, where she had family.

At age 20, and in the chaos after World War I, she made her way here.

Survivors, still

Now, 100 years later, Minnesota will put the spotlight on the saga of such Armenians. In the days ahead, there will be religious observances, including an ecumenical service at the St. Paul Cathedral on Saturday, educational events sponsored by the U’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, an exhibit of art by Armenian survivors, a film at the International Film Festival, a billboard campaign and more. (For more information, go to www.saintsahag.org.)

St. Sahag church will host the official memorial event on April 24, the date generally assigned to the beginning of the tragedy.

Judy Ohannesian of North Oaks will attend. One of her prized possessions is an old family tree, which she spreads out on a table for visitors. A photo of her grandfather, who helped many of his relatives out of Armenia, is on the left side. Some tree branches around him are bare; others abruptly end. But then the branches grow and grow.

“None of these people would be here if he [grandfather] hadn’t found them,’’ she marveled. “All of the Armenians today are descendants of such survivors.”