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Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

A Lighthouse in a Turbulent Sea

With deep roots in Armenian Christianity, the Mekhitarist Fathers maintain their unique monastery in Venice.

In 1717 an Armenian abbot and 20 fellow monks stepped onto a tiny island in the lagoon of Venice. The island, San Lazzaro, was a gift from the city of Venice. The monks, or vartabeds, as they call themselves, were members of a newly established order, the Congregation of Mekhitarist Fathers.

Their visionary founder, Mekhitar Bedrosian of Sepastia (or Sivas, as it is now called), had established the order in 1701 to meet the spiritual, moral and intellectual needs of the Armenian people. Like the monks of the Middle Ages, the vartabeds (Armenian for “Reverend Doctor”) were destined to help preserve a culture that might otherwise have been lost.

Armenia’s Christian roots run deep. Tradition holds that the country had been evangelized in apostolic times by Sts. Bartholomew and Thaddeus. Historical evidence confirms that St. Gregory the Illuminator, after years of persecution, succeeded in converting King Tiridates III around 300 A.D. The King proclaimed Christianity the official religion of the state, making Armenia the first Christian nation.

About 50 years after the Council of Chalcedon (451), the Armenian Church broke from full communion with the universal church. Economic, political, cultural and linguistic factors contributed to the schism.

So the matter stood until the 12th century, when the Crusaders, passing through the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia (in present-day Turkey and Lebanon) as they traveled to the Holy Land, re-established contact with the Armenian Church. An alliance between the Crusaders and the Armenian king encouraged a union between the Armenian and Latin churches, in Cilicia, in 1198. This union deteriorated in the late 14th century.

Another decree of reunion of the Armenian and Latin churches, published at the Council of Florence in 1439, was not widely accepted. Nevertheless, the document provided the framework for the establishment of the Armenian Catholic Church, which Pope Benedict XIV erected in 1742 with the creation of a Lebanese-based Armenian Catholic patriarch whose authority extended to Armenian Catholics in the southern provinces of the Ottoman Empire.

Historically oft-invaded, Armenia was, from the beginning of the 16th century, the object of contention between the Ottoman and Persian empires – war and persecution were sweeping away an ancient, venerable culture. It was into this environment that Mekhitar Bedrosian was born in 1676.

Greatly disturbed by the trials of his afflicted nation, Mekhitar, a simple friar, decided at the age of 20 to gather a group of men who would dedicate themselves to the preservation of the Armenian cultural patrimony. With this goal in mind, he traveled to Constantinople, where, in 1701, he founded a fellowship of nine disciples. This was the nucleus of the Mekhitarist community.

Persecuted in Constantinople, Mekhitar and his companions fled, first to Morea (a town in present-day Greece) in 1703, then to Venice in 1715. Befriended by the Doge, the monks reached their final destination, San Lazzaro Island, on 8 September 1717. Mekhitar himself conceived the design of the monastery and supervised its construction.

Thus began not only a religious order but a movement with cultural, educational and literary dimensions. Its center in Venice made that city an important link in the dialogue between Armenians and the West. For more than two centuries, the Mekhitarist fathers were to be a lighthouse in a turbulent sea, guiding the Armenian people by publishing archeological, historical, literary and scientific works, as well as establishing schools for Armenian youths.

The efforts of the Mekhitarists have resulted in the publication of Armenian classics, the popularization of Armenian history, the restoration of the Armenian linguistic structure and the translation into Armenian of Greek, Latin and European texts.

A succession of publications, including 125 classical works by Armenian authors and a two-volume Armenian dictionary that remains unsurpassed, has come from San Lazzaro. The order has had its own review, Bazmavep, since 1843.

In 1773, as a result of disagreement over constitutional revisions, a second branch of the congregation was established in Trieste. In 1810, this branch moved to Vienna. Both communities remain in fraternal dialogue.

In 1810, by imperial decree, Napoleon Bonaparte designated San Lazzaro an academic institution, thus exempting it from dissolution. Since then, the Mekhitarists refer to the monastery as the Academic Institute or the Armenian Academy.

The essential character of the community, which Mekhitar considered vital, has continued into the 20th century. The vartabeds are celibate priests who have received, or are in the process of receiving, doctorates in theology. They take special care to meet the spiritual, intellectual and material needs of the Armenian people.

Today, the San Lazzaro monastery complex comprises a church, an art gallery, an archaeological museum, a library with more than 150,000 books in Armenian and other languages and a printing house established in 1789.

The church, a simple Gothic structure, was built around 1400 A.D., but it has undergone many renovations, including those made by the founding abbot, who lies buried in front of the high altar.

The monastery’s art gallery, which houses a handsome collection of Armenian and European works of art, also preserves many of the items used by Mekhitar.

The monastery’s library contains 100,000 Armenian volumes, perhaps the richest collection of Armenian volumes in the world. The vartabeds have preserved more than 5,000 Armenian manuscripts, including rare manuscripts from the ninth to the 18th centuries. In several instances, the ancient Armenian translation in the possession of the Mekhitarists was the only existing copy of a Greek or Assyrian classical work that might otherwise have been lost. In one room, there are almost 4,000 rare volumes in various European languages.

In the museum of arts and sciences, built in 1870 and closed to visitors, there are scientific exhibits.

Visitors are welcomed to San Lazzaro, and the community has had many distinguished guests. The English poet Lord Byron stayed there several times during the years 1816 and 1817 to study the Armenian language. The author and playwright William Saroyan, an American of Armenian descent, was another, more recent, guest.

Today one may tour the island in the company of a father-guide but must leave early, for the Mekhitarist fathers work until midnight. Following the Benedictine rule, which the Mekhitarists observe, the vartabeds and seminarians keep the monastic traditions, including communal prayer and silence during meals.

These dedicated religious scholars carry on the dream of their founder: to foster the rebirth and preserve the cultural patrimony of the Armenian people.

Peg Maron is Production Editor of Catholic Near East magazine.

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