Mekhitarist fathers mark bicentennial of Vienna presence

Mekhitarist fathers mark bicentennial of Vienna presence
by Hovsep M. Melkonian

November 13, 2011

Views of the Vienna Mekhitarist Library.

Members of Mekhitarist Congregation in 1961.

Washington – This year marks the 200th anniversary of the establishment
of the Mekhitarist Fathers in Vienna.

The Austrian Postal Authorities have already issued a commemorative
stamp to mark the occasion. Earlier, the Central Bank of the Republic
of Armenia also issued a commemorative coin with a face value of 1000
drams meant to pay tribute to a unique Armenian institution that has
played a critical role in engineering the Armenian Renaissance in
the 19th century, thus opening new horizons of learning and knowledge
before the Armenian people.

The Mekhitarists of Vienna, along with their brethren in Venice,
belong to the Mekhitarist Congregation established by Abbot Mekhitar
in 1700 in Constantinople, capital of the Ottoman Empire, and
headquartered since 1717 on the island of San Lazaro, near Venice.

The Congregation was established with the express wish, objective and
goal of its founder to serve “God and Nation”, by bringing education
and enlightenment to the Armenians through their studies, research
and publication of our classical literature and history, while at the
same time trying to cleanse the classical Armenian language from the
foreign influences that had marred its original beauty and expression.

This concerted, dogged and planned effort by the Mekhitarist Fathers
in Venice and Vienna was ultimately instrumental in reviving the
interest of Armenians in the ancient treasures they had neglected
for centuries and enabled Armenians to reconnect with their forgotten
heritage, to discover its riches and thus take pride in the achievement
of their forefathers. It was a period of enlightenment, knowledge,
progress and new found dignity in the 19th century. It is this period
that both Armenian and non-Armenian scholars have aptly called the
“Armenian Renaissance”, attributing its emergence to the actions,
scholarly activities and dedication of the Mekhitarist Fathers.

In an article titled “Literature and Intellectual History from 1700
to 1915” critic and poet Vahe Oshagan writes: “What makes these elites
remarkable is the fact that it was committed to the preservation of
the traditional culture, to the faith and language of its forefathers,
and to the survival of the Armenian nation”.

It is within this context, therefore, that the bicentennial of the
establishment of Mekhitarist Fathers in Vienna assumes a particular
historical importance on account of the unique role they played in
engineering this revival and leading it for two centuries. They had
inherited this vision from their founder Abbot Mekhitar (1676-1749),
and true to their calling, sacrificed their comfort, their life and
their earthly belongings to achieving this noble objective.

The darkest of times: decade and despair in the 18th century The
actions of the Mekhitarist Fathers, both in Venice and Vienna, are
best understood when viewed against the backdrop of the times in which
the Congregation was founded and the nature of the goals they set
out to accomplish.

“At the beginning of the 18th century the Armenians and the entire
east, were in the throes of the middle ages “writes historian Hrant
Pasdermajian in volume II of his “History of Armenia”, published in
French in 1971 in Paris. French historian Edouard Jean Dulaurier
(1807-1881), provides a broader perspective of the times in question
in an article titled “Contemporary Armenian Society” also published
in French in the “Revue de deux mondes ” on April 15, 1854. In that
article Dulaurier states that “the Armenian nation after all the
disasters it had suffered , enslaved and under pressure, was quickly
heading towards total intellectual failure. Her language and traditions
were being lost bit by bit every day succumbing to the dialects and
customs of the surrounding populations”.

By 1700 the incessant and successive foreign invasions, persecutions
and exactions of the earlier centuries had taken their toll on the
Armenian population and were causing important population shifts away
from traditional Armenian centers in favor of newer centers in Europe
and Asia, thus creating a far flung diaspora with weaker internal
links that could promote cohesion and ethnic unity, thus jeopardizing
the continued existence of the Armenians as a single national entity.

Moreover, Armenians living in their historical homeland under three
different political rules (i.e. Tsarist Russia, the Ottoman Empire
and Persia), were slowly and gradually losing the vital national
connections that make the concept of “one nation, one language and one
entity” a viable proposition. Literally separated from each other by
these warring and competing powers, Armenians found themselves serving
three masters while slowly developing separate identities, reflecting
the socio-economic and political realities of the environments in
which they lived.

The visionary: Abbot Mekhitar (1676-1749)

It was in such dire circumstances for Armenia and Armenians that a
child named Manoug was born at Sebaste (Sivas) on February 7, 1676.
History will later recognize this child as Abbot Mekhitar or Mekhitar
of Sebaste.

At age fifteen Manoug entered the monastery of Surp Nshan and was
ordained a deacon, taking the name of Mekhitar. The young Mekhitar,
thirsting for knowledge and spiritual guidance, travelled from one
monastery to another (i.e. Etchmiadzine, Sevan and Pasen) in search
of knowledge and learning but was deeply disappointed at the limited
opportunities he found there for acquiring the knowledge he sought.
Returning to Surp Nshan monastery he devoted himself to studies and
self-improvement and was ordained a priest on May 17, 1696 by bishop
Anania.

>From the very first moment of his ordination, Mekhitar pursued two
objectives. In the first place he wanted to set up an order of learned
preachers (vartabets) devoted to the service of the Armenian people
and its cultural and spiritual renewal. He also wanted to travel to
Europe to acquaint himself with the ideas and changes that were taking
shape there so that he could bring the benefits of these changes to
his compatriots.

It was in Constantinople that Mekhitar gathered nine followers in 1700
to establish his cherished religious order that became known as the
Mekhitarist Congregation after his death. However, facing
inter-communal, sectarian and religious persecutions, he and his
followers soon decided to move to Morea, a Greek city under Venetian
rule, to be safe from religious persecution he had faced in the
Ottoman capital. His stay in Morea was cut short by the war between
Venice and the Ottoman Empire. The war resulted in the defeat of the
Venetians and the loss of Morea as Venetian territory. Fearing Ottoman
reprisals, Mekhitar and his followers moved again and finally found
refuge on the island of San Lazzaro, near Venice, where he established
his monastery in 1717. Since that date the monastery of San Lazzaro
has become the center of Armenian culture and learning in Europe and
the world. It also became a center for scholarly publications that
brought fame to its academy of scholars and made it a point of
reference for Armenian studies to worldwide specialists.

Mekhitar and his followers had already begun the publication of
scriptural, spiritual, and theological works and texts while in
Constantinople. These activities were continued by Abbot Mekhitar,
his followers and the next generations of monks in San Lazzaro, Venice.
The Mekhitarist Fathers under the guidance of Abbot Mekhitar busied
themselves also translating a large number of books, ranging from the
early Fathers of the Church and the works of St. Thomas of Aquinas
to Homer and Virgil as well as to the best known poets and historians
of later days.

Mekhitar distinguished himself with a literary output of 14 personal
works and 27 translations or editions of scriptural, spiritual,
theological or classical works. The most notable one is the “Dictionary
of Armenian Language”, which took almost twenty years to complete
and which was published three weeks after his death in 1749 while
the second volume was published in 1769. This marked the beginning of
the tradition of philological and linguistic studies that characterized
the work of the Mekhitarist Congregations both in Venice and
Vienna. Abbot Mekhitar also undertook and completed the publication
of a new edition of the Bible in November of 1735. This was an epoch
making publication that ranks high in the long list of achievements
of the Mekhitarist Fathers.

The score of Mekhitarist mission

There were two main avenues through which the Mekhitarist Fathers
carried out their mission. The first was in the field of linguistics
which Mekhitar himself pioneered. In 1727 he published a grammar
book for vernacular Armenian and in 1730 a more substantial and
authoritative grammar of classical Armenian. The crowning moment of
his efforts was the publication in 1749 (three weeks after his death)
of Volume I of the first comprehensive dictionary of the Armenian
language. Mekhitar had worked on this for over twenty years and
produced a definitive dictionary after much research of the original
meanings of the words. Volume II was published in 1769. Through his
dictionary of classical Armenian, Abbot Mekhitar established the
foundations of the Armenian language as a modern and standardized
literary medium, expunging from it foreign words and regional
variations that had deformed its original and classical beauty.

The second avenue which the Mekhitarist Fathers pursued to accomplish
their mission was printing. Principally, by means of the innumerable
periodicals, pious manuals, Bibles, maps, engravings, dictionaries,
histories, geographies and other educational and popular literature
they published over the years, they provided the nation with scientific
and scholarly references that established Armenian learning on solid
grounds. In doing so, the Mekhitarist Fathers pioneered numerous
academic disciplines in Armenian learning that did not exist until
then.

Recognizing the unique role the Mekhitarist Fathers have played in the
history of the Armenian nation, and paying tribute to them for their
multifaceted achievements , Pope Paul John II (1920-2005) in a pastoral
letter dated on July 3, 2001 and addressed to the Mekhitarist Order
marking the 300th anniversary of establishment of this Armenian
Catholic Congregation wrote: “The characteristic element of the
Mekhitarist spirituality is the search for holiness, through an
intense prayer life and no less demanding dedication to cultural
studies, primarily focused on the great Armenian patristic sources.
Mekhitar wanted to safeguard the Armenian monk-doctor from losing
himself in an itinerant life, with the weakening of the profound
sense of his own identity. For this reason he laid down that the monks
should live a common life in monastic house, under the protection of
obedience. The monasteries thus became centers of spiritual formation
and cultural studies , and exercised an extraordinary influence on
that intellectual aristocracy that was in great part at the origin
of the cultural , political and social rebirth of the Armenian people
in successive periods” (see Vatican Archives:

).

The social, cultural and political rebirth that the Mekhitarist
Fathers brought to their nation is usually referred to as “the 19th
century Armenian Renaissance” by the majority of Armenian historians
and scholars. This renaissance, renewal or rebirth came as a result
of the planned, interconnected and focused effort undertaken by
the Mekhitarist Fathers that manifested itself specifically through
notable achievements in the following fields:

Publication of Armenian classical texts: The Mekhitarist Fathers were,
from the very first day of the establishment of their congregation ,
instrumental in the study, and publication of texts of classical
Armenian authors of the 5th century. This covered historiographical
and theological works that were long forgotten and neglected by
generations of Armenians. Thanks to these efforts the works of these
classical writers and authors (i.e. Khorenatsi, Agathangelos, Goriun,
Yeznig, Pausdos, and Yeghisheh etc.) as well as others were brought
to the attention and appreciation of Armenian readers. The Mekhitarist
Fathers translated a wide range of such works into Latin and other
European languages, thus showcasing the treasures of Armenian
literature to academic circles. Before long, the Mekhitarist Fathers
came to be known as scholars who delivered to Europe the long-lost
knowledge of the Armenian past while bringing to Armenians the culture
and heritage of Europe, both ancient and modern.

Cleansing of the classical Armenian language: The Mekhitarist
Fathers produced and published also grammar books and dictionaries,
standardizing the rules of the classical Armenian language. They also
adopted modern European techniques (chiefly German) for the study of
classical works and pioneered the study of linguistics among
Armenians. “The Dictionary of the Armenian Language” prepared by
Abbot Mekhitar and published in 1749 was a pioneering work from that
perspective. Already in 1727 he had published a grammar book for
vernacular Armenian and in 1730 a more substantial and authoritative
grammar of classical Armenian. Others soon followed. During 1836-1837
the Mekhitarist Fathers published “The New Dictionary of the Armenian
Language” jointly authored by Mekhitarist Fathers Gabriel Avedikian ,
Khatchadoor Surmelian, and Meguerditch Avkerian. To this eminent list
of linguists we must add the names of such luminaries as Father
Arsen Pakradouni, (1790-1866 ), Mathew of Eudocia ( 1715-1777) and
Meguerditch Asgerian ( 1720-1810) who through translations of foreign
texts showed how Armenian could be written in its purest aesthetic
form and construction.

Research and Study of Armenian history: The Mekhitarist Fathers also
excelled in historiography. The towering figure in this endeavor was
Father Mikael Chamchian (1723-1823). Chamchian wrote a three volume
“History of the Armenians” (published in 1785 through1786). This
became the definitive Armenian history text in this formative period
of the modern Armenian scholarship. He used all the available sources
of the time, both Armenian and foreign, to author and publish in 1785,
the complete history of the Armenian nation. The three-volume
publication became the basis of the Armenian critical history.

An impressive number of Mekhitarist Fathers devoted their life to the
study of Armenian history. The most celebrated and prominent figure
among them is Father Ghevont (Leo) Alishan (1820-1901), a beloved and
cherished name in Armenian literature. He produced a varied and rich
literature on history, geography, ethnography, philology, botany
and archaeology. Among the most notable works he produced are the
Illustrated Geography of Armenia (1853), Fragments and Vestiges of
Armenia (1870-1902), and monographs devoted to certain regions of
Armenia such as Shirak (1881), Sisuan (1885), Ayrarat (1890) and
Sisakan (1893) that enhanced our knowledge and understanding of the
past of our historical homeland.

Translation from and into Armenian: The Mekhitarist scholars
translated, between 1825 and 1850, some 130 volumes of European
literature, including major works of Greek and Latin as well as
Italian and French classics. Translating European literature into
Armenian has served the triple purpose of enlightening the uneducated
public, perfecting a literary language and catching up with the
civilized world. The most important works belonging to antiquity and
modern times in Greek, Latin, Italian, French, German and English
were translated into Armenian by the Mekhitarist fathers during this
period. For example, Father Haroutiun Avkerian (1774-1849) translated
John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” in 1824. Followed translations
from Plato, Lamartine, Dante and other major figures of European
literature. The Mekhitarist Fathers translated into Latin and Greek
also the texts of the early fathers of the church whose originals were
lost, but whose Armenian translations dating to the 5th, 7th and 10th
centuries were miraculously preserved in Armenian manuscripts. Among
these documents were the “Letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch”, some
works of St. Ephraim the Syrian, notably a “Commentary on the Epistles
of St. Paul” and an edition of Eusebius’ “Ecclesiastical History”,
just to name a few. Father Meguerditch Avgerian (1762-1854) was the
scholar who undertook this task. The publication of these works caused
a great sensation among academic and church circles in Europe at the
time, a fact that enhanced further the reputation of the members
of this congregation and the importance of Armenian manuscripts as
repository of universal heritage.

Education and the network of Mekhitarist schools: In addition to the
literary and historical studies the Mekhitarist fathers created a
network of Armenian schools, persuaded that education and enlightenment
were essential for saving Armenia and Armenians from darkness and
ignorance. These schools were opened particularly in areas where
the local Armenian population was devoid of institutions devoted to
Armenian learning. The first schools were opened in Hungary in 1746,
and then spread to cities and centers of Armenia and Western Armenia
from thence to cities in Ottoman Empire and Persia, Iran. After World
War I, Mekhitarist Fathers opened schools in Paris, Constantinople,
Aleppo, Beirut, Buenos Aires and Los Angeles to cater to the needs
of the survivor communities of the Ottoman Genocide of Armenians. The
Armenian school in Istanbul today, known as The Pangalti Lyceum,
was established in 1825 and is the oldest Mekhitarist School in the
world still serving the Armenian community since its inception.

Collection of ancient manuscripts: Abbot Mekhitar and his successors
collected Armenian manuscripts and saved them from destruction thus
protecting our cultural heritage. With the collection of manuscripts,
the Mekhitarist Fathers were also collecting primary sources for
further and future research. Thus a treasure began to accumulate first
on the island of San Lazzaro, then in Vienna. To-day the Mekhitarist
libraries in Venice and Vienna have more than 8000 manuscripts
jointly. This collection is second to the collection held in the
Armenian Repository of Manuscripts in Yerevan (Madenataran) and the
one found at the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem.

Vienna Mekhitarists’ path to scholarly reputation

Following internal disputes, a number of Mekhitarist Fathers separated
from the Mother House in Venice in 1773 and settled first in Trieste
then Vienna in 1811. The Mekhitarist Fathers soon were busy there
too training new seminarians and organizing missions into historical
Armenia in pursuit of the goals and objectives of their founder.

A decree signed by the Austrian Emperor Franz I on December 5, 1810
recognized the presence of the Mekhitarist Fathers in Vienna and
permitted them to set up a printing house .

In time, the Mekhitarist monastery in Vienna, like the one in San
Lazzaro in Venice, became a major center and point of reference for
Armenian culture and studies worldwide. It amassed collections of
antiques, artistic ceramics, sacred silverware, mostly of Armenian
origin.

The monastery amassed collections of antiques donated by benefactors,
in particular coin collections (5000 historical Armenian coins and
20,000 from other nations). The art gallery prides itself with a wide
collection of works by well-known Armenian painters. Moreover, the
Mekhitarist Fathers of Vienna collected a total of 2800 ancient and
valuable Armenian manuscripts.

As in Venice, the Mekhitarist Library in Vienna accumulated significant
ancient and modern printed books that formed the basis of research
on a large scale. The result today is over 170,000 volumes and the
largest collection of Armenian newspapers and periodicals in the
western world. As a result, the Vienna branch of the Mekhitarist
Congregation became a center for scientific research in the
philological disciplines, a trait that distinguished it from the
center in Venice. Influenced largely by the German academic standards,
the Mekhitarist Fathers of Vienna devoted their considerable energies
to the critical analyses of classical historians, to linguistics to
archaeological research and the study and revival of the classical
Armenian language known as “Krapar”.

The Mekhitarists of Vienna made great strides in linguistic studies
with the works of Father Hovsep Katerdjian (1820-1882) who excelled
also as a translator of Cicero, Xenophon and Bossuet, in addition to
authoring a “Universal History”; Another prominent figure was Father
Matatia Karakashian (1808-1913) who focused on the Armenian of what
was known as the “Golden Century” and published a critical “History
of the Armenians” (1895). Ghevond Hovnanian (1817-1897) philologist and
translator; Clemens (Kghemes) Sibilian ( 1824-1878) Archeologist and
numismatist; Arsen Aydenian ( 1825-1902) Linguist, author of “Grammar
of the Modern Armenian Language” (1866); Hagop Dashian (1866-1933)
Philologist ,linguist ;. Grigoris Kalemkerian ( 1862-1917) philologist
and linguist; Gabriel Menevishian ( 1864-1936) linguist and
Armenologist; Nerses Akinian (1883-1963) philologist; Hamazasp Voskian
( 1895-1968),expert on Armenian monasteries, Vahan Inglizian
(1897-1968) and Bedros Der Boghossian (1898-1980), philologists are
some of the Mekhitarist Fathers in Vienna who achieved fame in their
research of Armenian history, linguistics.

The Mekhitarist Fathers achieved fame in other areas as well. Their
printing house in Vienna became a point of reference for the imperial
government that ordered in 1849 the printing of Hungarian banknotes,
and in 1854, ordered school books to be printed for the Ministry of
Education. With its ability to print books in a multitude of foreign
languages, the Printing house of the Mekhitarists in Vienna became
an institution by itself in modern times.

The Mekhitarist Fathers of Vienna also founded in 1887 a periodical
named “Handes Amsorya” that soon became a noted philological and
linguistic publication. In addition the Mekhitarist Fathers started
publishing ,beginning in 1889, a series or collection named “National
Library” that encompasses the new research and studies on Armenian
History. Approximately 300 volumes have been published in these series
that are constantly replenished with new research and studies published
by the Mekhitarist Fathers in Vienna.

Appreciation

A handful of dedicated , learned and selfless priests, called to
action by the vision of their founder, have succeeded in engineering
one of the most impressive and awe inspiring miracles in the history
of Armenia and Armenians, building upon the work and traditions of St.
Mesrob Mashdotz, the creator of the Armenian alphabet and the “Golden
Age” in our Literature”. In doing so the Mekhitarist Fathers played
the most crucial of roles in the “national awakening” of Armenians
in the 19th century.

They retrieved and researched the Armenian history, literature,
geography and language, and presented these to Armenians and the
contemporary world through their publications. They were also
instrumental in disseminating nineteenth-century European ideological
and cultural currents in Armenia and among Armenians. Thus they
consciously and systematically carried out an enlightenment project
on behalf of the nation and laid the groundwork for future development.

Historian John Douglas gives the following appreciation for the role
they played in Armenian history : ” Both monasteries (i.e. Venice and
Vienna) served and continue to serve as important strongholds for
the Armenian culture in the diaspora dedicated to scholarship and the
preservation of the Armenian traditions. The monks wrote and published
books and periodicals and helped develop the modern language” (
see The Armenians, John M. Douglas, New York, 1992,p.273). Another
historian, Reuben Adalian adds: “There has been no institution in
Armenian history to compare with theirs, and the scientific and
research centers operating today in Armenia and in the Armenian
diaspora have not been in existence long enough to begin to match the
Mekhitarian output” ( see Reuben Adalian, From Humanism to Rationalism:
Armenian Scholarship in the Nineteenth Century, University of
Pensylvania,1992, p.1).

These are some of the laudatory expressions of appreciation given
by Armenian and non-Armenian scholars with regard to the mission and
objectives achieved by both the Mekhitarist centers in Venice and
Vienna that give an idea to the scope and extent of the national
mission carried out by the Mekhitarist Fathers in the past centuries.
The accumulated knowledge, studies and treasures kept in these two
European centers would require extensive and comprehensive research to
make fully justice to the content and scope of the work accomplished
by these Fathers.

In the meantime, the mission continues both in the diaspora and
independent Armenia. To face the challenges of the modern times, the
two branches of the Mekhitarist Congregation have been reunified
now after a “schism” that lasted more than 250 years. Indeed , at a
general extraordinary meeting held at San Lazzaro from July 10 to 21,
2000 the members of the Mekhitarist Congregation decided to create a
unified congregation, with the convent at San Lazzaro being considered
the mother monastery, and the convent in Vienna being considered the
first principal monastery.

Welcoming this development , His Holiness Karekin II, the Catholicos of
All Armenians in a letter addressed to the Mekhitarist Congregation
wrote on July 22, 2000: “We are confident that the reunified
Mekhitarist Congregation will continue to serve the needs of the
Armenian nation with greater vigor and energy in the spiritual and
cultural fields for the glory of God.”

Pope John Paul II, in his pastoral letter of July 3, 2011, called upon
“the dear sons of Mekhitar … to hold on to this heritage and keep
it alive… Do not be afraid to be open to new horizons, rethinking
and updating ancient forms, if the needs of the time require it”.

In the ancient monasteries of the Mekhitarist Fathers in Venice and
Vienna these words resonate with the praise and thanks of a grateful
nation that has seen and experienced the benefits of a cultural
miracle.

Sources consulted

Books:

Adalian, Reuben Paul, From Humanism to Rationalism: Armenian
Scholarship in the Nineteenth Century, University of Pensylvania, 1992
Bezdikian, Haroutiun, Rev.: Abbot Mekhitar and the Contribution of
the Mekhitarist Fathers to Armenian Culture ,Yerevan, 2003.

Douglas, John M. , The Armenians, J.J. Winthrop Corporation, New
York,1992

Dedeyan Gerard, Histoire du Peuple Armenien, Editions Privat, Toulouse,
2007 ( in French).

Goode, Alexander: A Brief Account of the Mechiaristican Society
Founded on the Island of St. Lazaro, with Paschal Aucher, Venice,
1835 ( Library of Harvard University).

Oshagan, Vahe , Literature and Intellectual History from 1700 to 1915
Panossian, Razmik , The Armenians : From Kings and Priests to Merchants
and Commissars,Columbia University Press, New York,2006

Pastermadjian, Hrant: History of the Armenian People, Volume II, From
Turkic invasions to the Treaty of Lausanne , in French (Paris 1971)
and in Armenian (Beirut, 1980).

Redgate, Anne E., The Armenians, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford ,1998

Tololian, Minas : A Century of Literature, Vol. I, 1850-1920, Second
Edition, Boston, 1977 ( in Armenian)

Yardemian, Dajad, Rev. : The Contribution of the Mechitarist Fathers
to Armenian Culture and Armenological Studies, Los Angeles, 1987

Others:

The Mekhitarist Website :�

PAZMAVEB, Armenological Review, Volume 158, No 1-4, 2000

Vatican Archives

http://www.reporter.am/go/article/2011-11-13-mekhitarist-fathers-mark-bicentennial-of-vienna-presence-
www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/speeches/2001
www.mekhitar.org
www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/speeches/2001

You may also like