Fr. Hovagimian of Vienna Mekhitarists Interviewed
Reporter, 17 December 2014
For nearly 250 years the Mekhitarian/Mekhistarist Monastery of Vienna
has retained its status as one of the spiritual and cultural pillars
of the Armenian Diaspora. It was established in 1773, after a group of
monks separated from the mother Venice congregation to Trieste. In
1810 the congregation moved again, this time to Vienna, when Emperor
Francis I of Austria provided them with refuge in an abandoned
Capucine abbey in the St. Ulrich suburb of the city.
The monastery includes a church, museum, library, and school. The
library has the largest and the oldest collection of Armenian
newspapers: some 170,000 volumes. The museum has one of the most
significant Armenian coin collections, the oldest dating from the 4th
century B.C. It also has ancient tapestries, ceramics, maps, a huge
globe of the world, old Armenian silver works, Bibles, paintings by
Naghash Hovnatan and Aivazovsky, and cartoons by Saroukhan. Its 2,600
illuminated manuscript collection is the third-largest after that of
Armenia and Jerusalem. The library also has an estimated 500,000
books. The street where the monastery is located is called
Mechitaristengasse. It’s in the 7th district of Vienna.
The Mekhitarist congregation was founded by Mekhitar Sebastatsi in
Constantinople in 1701 and after a short stay in the Peloponnesians,
established itself in the San Lazzaro island in Venice.
Keghart.com interviewed Father Vahan Hovagimian, the head of the
Vienna monastery, in late fall.
Keghart: Tell us about yourself, Father Hovagimian.
Father Hovagimian: I was born in Kamishle, Syria in 1958. I lived in
Lebanon and came to Vienna in 1972 to continue my schooling and to
study at the university. I was ordained priest in 1984. I am in charge
of the parish, the library and the museum. My title is “Hiurungal
Vartabed”– guest priest, custodian.
Keghart: How many priests are there in the monastery?
FH: We have six priests here and 18 in other countries.
Keghart: What’s the focus of the Mekhitarist mission?
FH: Our motto is “Ora e labors” (“prayers and work”). Praying in
community and working together. In addition to spiritual work, we
are–as always–occupied with education/schools, parish work, research,
Keghart: How many students do you have here?
FH: In 2000 we had 380 students. We now have almost 30. Our student
numbers shrank because of the availability of many schools around us.
The glory days of our school were from the post-WWII years until the
Keghart: How are your relations with the local municipality?
FH: We have good relations with the municipality and with the state.
They support us when we ask for their financial help. When we ask for
help, say, for renovations, they help us, but only when the cost is
too high. They pay one-third of the cost. The monastery also has
private buildings and receives monthly rents from these buildings.
Keghart: I understand you have another source of revenues…liqueur production.
FH: We produce six types of very popular Mechitharine liqueurs. They
are generally speaking stomach-friendly beverages which are based on
ancient recipes our Founder Mekhitar Sebastatsi brought with him to
Europe. One of them is good for the heart. Others are for diabetics or
for people with stomach problems. We also have an appetizing bitter.
They come in .70L (22 Euros) and .35L (13 Euros).
Keghart: There are about 4,000 Armenians in Vienna, many of them
recent immigrants from Armenia. Can you talk about the community?
FH: For years our community had about 3,500 people, almost all from
Bulgaria, Hungary, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iran. In the past ten years
immigrants–mostly from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Syria–have joined the
community. I don’t have exact population figures, but it’s safe to say
that the number of the newcomers is 4,000.
Keghart: Can you tell us about Mekhitarian’s great tradition of
research and publishing?
FH: We publish four to five books a year. Recent publications include
“Symposion, 200 Jahre Mechitharisten in Wien” and of course “Hantes
Amsoria 2014” and the “National Library Series” which started in 1889
and so far contain 227 volumes. We also continue with the “Studies of
the Armenian History” series. We sell “Hantes Amsoria” around the
world, including in Armenia. “Hantes Amsoria” and other journals can
be obtained through subscription.
Keghart: Considering your vast library of books and publications, do
Armenian and non-Armenian scholars utilize them for their research?
FH: The library is open to all–to “odars” and particularly to Armenians.
Keghart: How many visitors/tourists stop by the monastery every year?
FH: We get more than 3,000 visitors a year; almost 1,000 Armenian.
Keghart: Is it true that the Nazis occupied the monastery as their
offices during WWII? If yes, what did the monks do?
FH: I know that our monastery was used in the WWII as headquarters for
Marines. The monks went to the Middle East. The monastery treasures
and books were hidden in the basement of the monastery.
Keghart: Is the Mekhitarian Brotherhood growing?
FH: For three weeks recently I was in Venice, in our main mother
monastery at St. Lazzaro. We had the ordination of two young deacons.
We hope that in 2015 they can become priests. Two days after the
ordination of the deacons, four youngsters made their vows, to devote
their lives to God and to the Armenian Nation.