When Miriam McFadden was attending Brigham Young University 13 years ago, her dark coloring prompted returned missionaries to greet her in Spanish.
Spanish is not the native tongue of Armenians.For the past year, the Salt Lake real estate broker has proudly proclaimed her cultural heritage with a bumper sticker: "Armenian."
"All of a sudden," McFadden says, a wry twist in her voice, "people notice it."
Memories are important to Armenians. And Utah's Armenian community is inviting the public to mourn with them, as they remember the 25,000 or more victims of the tragic Dec. 7 earthquake with a traditional Mass at 1 p.m. Sunday at St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral.
Utah Armenians are grateful for the outpouring of financial support after the devastation of the earthquake, with death counts ranging from 25,000 to 60,000. While there is no way to repay the community for their support, McFadden said local Armenians are establishing a blood bank. "We figure that's one way we can give some of ourselves. It just makes you very emotional to think that people would open their hearts and pocketbooks."
Other chapters of the Armenian Relief Society, with some 200 groups established around the globe, plan to establish their own blood banks.
The 40-day memorial Mass, which will memorialize the Utahns' dead relatives as well as the rest of the victims, will be conducted by Reverend Anoushavan Artinian, a priest from the Armenian Apostolic Church Western Prelacy in Los Angeles.
Traditionally, Armenians mourn their beloved dead with a series of memorial Masses - at burial and on the seven-day, 40-day and year anniversaries.
"Basically, we are hoping that it will give us a real sense of comfort," said McFadden, vice president of the local Hamaspure chapter of the Armenian Relief Society. "There is nothing we can do except ask why."
She thinks her ancestors must have innately understood the psychology of grief when they began the tradition of the 40-day memorial service, a tradition that benefits the survivors. "I think the first 40 days are the worst. Then the anger is gone, and you start remembering the good times."
Armenians remember that history treated their ancestors unkindly. Persians, Greeks, Romans and others conquered their pocket of land. Between 1894 and 1918, the Ottoman Turks killed some 1.8 million Armenians. Thousands more Armenians died in Stalin's purges and through the devastation of World War II, after the Soviet Union took control in 1920. Recently, Armenians have clashed with neighboring Azerbaijan.
They are, they say, a people as persecuted as the Jews. Many Armenians fled, settling in Iran, Syria, Lebanon or France. As many as 300,000 Armenians have settled in Glendale, Calif.
McFadden describes the Armenian Apostalic Church as a traditional Christian religion, whose faith centers around a belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and Christ's promises of life everlasting.
The church ordains male ministers, but Utah's Armenian community is too small to support a full-time priest. When a minister is needed for baptismals or burials, members call the Western Diocese in California. The group had begun fund-raising efforts for a building, but donated its nest egg to earthquake survivors instead.
The Armenian Apostalic Church is democratically governed. "Whoever gets an idea and can convince other people," McFadden said, "we do it."
In Utah, the translated name of their service organization, the Armenian Relief Society, often gets confused with the LDS Church's women's auxillary by the same name. The group serves as the social and cultural arm for Armenian people living in Utah, no matter what church they attend. McFadden feels it's essential for the younger generation to be exposed to their native culture and language.
Sunday's Mass will be followed by an Armenian meal, a soul dinner, in honor of the dead. A traditional Armenian dish - similar to individual pizzas and ordered from California for the occasion - will be served. No dessert will be served at the memorial dinner, as sweets are reserved for happy times.
McFadden said the Armenian church serves to cement bonds among a people wedged apart by persecution.
"Our church is not as religious to us as it is cultural. It has kept the nation together.
"We might belong to different churches," McFadden said. "We come from different countries - Syria, Lebanon, U.S.S.R. Armenia, Iran, France. Because of living in different countries for many years, you take on the language, food and habits of the host country. That makes us a little different from each other, but when a national thing happens, something that involves all of us, we forget about all those differences and we come together as Armenian people."
Out of the quake's tragedy, the world has again become acquainted with Armenia.
"Maybe the world got to know us a little bit," McFadden said. "At the beginning of the century, during World War I, every mother would urge her children to eat by saying: `Remember the starving Armenians.'
"You know, now the world remembers the starving Armenians again."