He was the one-man army who protected the centuries-old church located at Armanitola in Old Dhaka from ruination and grabbing
It was Bangladesh time 2:07am on April 11 when the present warden of the Armenian Church in Dhaka Armen Arslanian announced the sad news from the US.
Michael Joseph Martin, the church's former warden and the last Armenian resident in Bangladesh, was no more. He was 89.
In the obituary posted on the church's Facebook page, Armen wrote, "He [Michael] and his family spearheaded what can only be described as a monumental effort to preserve our beautiful church, and it is something that will never be forgotten."
Michael was the one-man army who protected the centuries-old church located at Armanitola in Old Dhaka from ruination and grabbing.
Born in 1930 in Rangoon (present-day Yangon) of Myanmar (the erstwhile Burma), Michael was the youngest among nine children of Joseph Abraham Martin and Eleanor Gertrude Martin.
After surviving the Japanese attack during the Second World War, Joseph and Eleanor sent their five children, including Michael, to Kolkata for education. Michael completed his graduation from the Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy, and took a job in his father's export-import firm Martin and Sons in Kolkata.
Later, he worked in a jute trading company named Messrs Sinclair Murray and Co Ltd. He got experience in river transport business during his service.
After a couple of years, he started his own venture Khulna Shipping Co for carrying jute, hessian cloth and exported cargoes. During that time, he also had a restaurant called Café Stadium.
It was in his restaurant where he met Veronica Martin. As a romantic relationship between them blossomed, they got married.
In a note written for the church's website, Michael said after his marriage, he ran an electrical goods supply business under Guardian Trading Company in Khulna while Veronica taught at Khulna Port School.
Later in 1985, she was given charge of the Davidian Girls School hostel in Kolkata.
In 1986, Kolkata's Armenian College Principal Vahan Poladian approached Veronica to convince Michael to take charge of the Armenian Church in Dhaka. It was because Poladian had received a letter from a group of foreigners who recently visited the church and found that its properties were being illegally occupied.
"I took steps right away after receiving the message from Veronica. My visit to church caused a great surprise and stir [to the land grabbers]," Michael wrote.
The church was built in 1781 by Armenian traders Michel Cerkess, Okotavata Setoor Sevorg, Aga Amnius and Merkers Pogose.
The 750 feet long church has four doors and 27 windows. The main floor is divided into a pulpit enclosed by railings, a middle section with two folding doors, and an area separated by a wooden fence for women and children to sit.
According to Michael, Armenian national Stephen Nahapiet was in charge of the church before 1985. After the death of his cousin Archie Nahapiet, Stephan became frustrated and irregular at the church. The cousins also worked at a jute baling and trading company in Narayanganj.
Stephan appointed a local man, Siddik, to take care of the church and its properties. But Siddik betrayed, misusing his position to allow opportunists to grab the church properties.
Michael wrote, "I faced many problems. There were many people who were against me taking over authority. Siddik and his staff were rebelling. The entire church premise was covered with garbage and needed immediate attention."
He had to solve land disputes in court. After successfully evicting the illegal tenants on some church properties, he constructed markets in the Armenian Street.
"Construction of the markets was done to make use of the church properties and generate a source of income for it," Michael wrote.
In the evening, people would come to the church premises, sit on the graves, smoke, and also play football in the graveyard where some of the graves slid. The gravestones were later raised with concrete. A boundary wall was erected to restrict outsiders.
It was the time when the church building was in a very bad condition. Later on, the entire building was renovated.
"The finance for execution of all the work and court cases was an immense problem, and weighed heavily on me. I used family funds and also adopted various methods of securing the flow of funds personally," Michael recalled in his note.
Every time he initiated renovation, land grabbers tried to resist. Despite this, Michael did not give up. "I had to bring labourers from another city (Khulna) for the repairs, plastering and painting."
For his sincere service to the church, he was acknowledged by Catholicos Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians and the supreme head of the Armenian Apostolic Church. The St Nerses Shnorhali Medal was bestowed upon him as a tribute.
Taimur Islam, chief executive officer of Urban Study Group, an organisation best known for its heritage conservation campaigns, had worked with Michael since 2006.
He recalled, "He [Michael] protected the church single-handedly. Many locals did not accept him because he strongly protested unauthorised intrusion, but he loved Bangladesh. The church is an invaluable gift for us."
Michael's wife Veronica served at the Davidian Girls School till 2000 and then came to Dhaka. She passed away in 2005 and was buried in the graveyard adjacent to the church.
Her death left Michael almost devastated.
In an accident five years ago, Michael got his hip bone broken. He received treatment two times in a city hospital.
"Later, he left Bangladesh to stay with his three daughters Eleanor Martin, Christine Martin and Cheryl Martin in Canada where he breathed his last," the church's caretaker Shankar Gope told The Business Standard.