Milwaukee is renowned for its ethnic diversity; it’s an element of our city that is particularly obvious during the warmer months, when each weekend hosts a different ethnic festival. Cultural influences from countries like Poland, Ireland, Italy, Mexico and Germany are so pervasive, it’s hard to know where one ends and “America” begins. Though not as obvious, there are many smaller countries, like Armenia, with a presence in this city as well.
Beginning in the 1930s, Milwaukee’s Armenian community would gather every summer for an annual picnic featuring traditional Mediterranean dishes made from family recipes. Now held at the St. John the Baptist Armenian Church grounds in Greenfield, Armenian Fest is equal parts ethnic festival and church picnic. Delicious food is the focus, including shish-kabob, baklava, stuffed grape leaves, the pizza-like dish called lahmahjoon and much more. The festival also offers a live Armenian band, a cultural booth where visitors can learn more about the country, tour the church and purchase books and artifacts from the region.
On a contemporary world map, Armenia is a mountainous sliver wedged against Iran, Turkey and Georgia. But for thousands of years the majority of Armenians lived in what today is eastern Turkey. From there they roamed widely: A medieval Armenian church in Beijing and a monastery still occupying an island in the lagoon of Venice today were among the markers of a people who settled along an enormous stretch of ancient trade routes. In the 1800s, the majority of Armenians still lived within the boundaries of what was then the Ottoman Empire. Influenced by Western ideas of nationalism and racism, the Ottoman government began persecuting ethnic minorities within their empire, including the Armenians, in the latter half of the century. By the 1890s there were periodic massacres of Armenians and many were forced to escape to the New World.
It’s the same story as a lot of immigrant groups at that time. Milwaukee’s massive manufacturing industry, which offered an abundance of entry-level, assembly-line jobs that didn’t require workers to speak English, can be credited for drawing scores of immigrants here, Armenians included. The first Armenians settled in areas of southeastern Wisconsin where there were factories, places like Racine, South Milwaukee and West Allis.
From 1915 through 1920 nearly 1.5 million Armenians died during a large-scale genocide against the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Many of the survivors had relatives that had immigrated t o Milwaukee 10 or 20 years earlier and came here seeking work. Most of them came from one village in Turkey called Tomarza and are the basis of the community here. When the Soviet Union dissolved in the early ’90s, a trickle of Armenians from Armenia and Russia came to Milwaukee, as well as several hundred Armenians from Turkmenistan, a former Soviet Republic in central Asia.
It’s no coincidence that Milwaukee’s Armenian Fest is closely linked to the metro area’s largest Armenian church.
Much as Judaism is closely tied with Jewish life and culture, the distinct form of Armenian Christianity has long been the embodiment of the Armenian culture and the center of community life.
St. John the Baptist Armenian Apostolic Church Grounds/ 1825 W. Layton Ave./ Greenfield/ Sunday, July 26, 11 a.m. – 7 p.m. Parking and admission are free.