Mekhitarist fathers mark bicentennial of Vienna presence

by Hovsep M. Melkonian

Published: Sunday 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.

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