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The Mechitarists (Armenian: Մխիթարեան, also spelled Mekhitarists), are a congregation of Benedictine monks of the Armenian Catholic Church founded in 1712 by Mechitar of Sebaste. They are best known for their series of scholarly publications of ancient Armenian versions of otherwise lost ancient Greek texts.
Their eponymous founder, Mekhitar, was born at Sebaste in Armenia in 1676. He entered a monastery, but was concerned about the level of culture and education in Armenia under Turkish rule at that period, and sought to do something about it. Contacts with Western missionaries led him to become interested in translating material from the West into Armenian and setting up an order to facilitate education.
Mechitar set out for Rome in 1695 to make his ecclesiastical studies there, but he was compelled by illness to abandon the journey and return to Armenia. In 1696 he was ordained priest and for four years worked among his people.
In 1700 he went to Constantinople and began to gather disciples around him. Mechitar formally joined the Latin Church, and in 1701, with sixteen companions, he formed a religious institute of which he became the superior. They encountered the opposition of other Armenians and were compelled to move to the Morea, at that time Venetian territory, where they built a monastery in 1706. In its inception the order was looked upon merely as an attempted reform of Eastern monachism. Filippo Bonanni, S.J., writes at Rome, in 1712 when the order received its approval, of the arrival of Elias Martyr and Joannes Simon, two Armenian monks sent by Mechitar to Pope Clement XI to offer the most humble subjection of himself and convent (Ut ei se cum suis religiosis humillime subjiceret). There is no mention, at the moment, of the Benedictine Rule. The monks, such as St. Anthony instituted in Egypt (quos St. Antonius in Aegypto instituerat), have begun a foundation in Modon with Mechitar (Mochtàr) as abbot.
On the outbreak of hostilities between the Turks and Venetians they migrated to Venice, and the island of San Lazzaro was given to them in 1717. This has remained the headquarters of the congregation to this date; Mechitar died there in 1749, leaving his institute firmly established.
The order became very wealthy from gifts. The behaviour of the abbot Melkhonian caused a group of monks to leave in disgust and elect their own abbot, first at Trieste and then in 1810 at Vienna. They also established a printing press. The work of printing of Armenian books was by this time of great financial importance and the Venetian Republic made considerable efforts to encourage their return, but in vain.,
In 1810 all the other monastic institutions in Venice were abolished by Napoleon, but the Mechitarists were exempted by name from the decree.
Lord Byron visited the monastery, and his companion John Cam Hobhouse has left this account of the visit on Wednesday November 13th, 1816:
- Byron and I then went in [a] gondola to [the] establishment of St Lazare. It was some time before we were let in – the brothers were at prayer, but when we walked into their church one of them bowed out and most courteously showed us about. Unfortunately the key to the library was not to be found – the keeper of it was out. We saw the neat galleries and little chambers of the fathers, with Armenian letters over them. Our conductor showed us a man’s dictionary of Armenian and Latin – told us there were about forty frati and eighteen pupils, some few from Armenia, but mostly Constantinople. One has been in London and talks English. The youths learn Latin, all of them, and some Greek – also German and French some – and all Italian – English will now be taught.
- Those who please of the pupils enter the order (they have revenues on the mainland). Zanetto said Napoleon despoiled them, but our conductor contradicted this, and said that he gave a decree from Paris saving this brotherhood from the fate of the other monasteries on account of their patriotic labours for their countrymen. We saw their press, where eight men are employed, when we saw them on an Armenian Testament. They are now on a translation of Rollin. Their average is four books a year. They are all for the use of the Armenian nation, and all printed, as our guide said, in the literal (=literary/classical) Armenian. They are shipped for Constantinople, and there sold.
- The dining-hall set out there looked like a Cambridge dining-hall – and the establishment is about 100 years old founded by one [Mechitar], whose picture is in the refectory. It did our hearts good to see the place. We are to return and see the library. They are all Catholics.
In every one of their many undertakings their founder, Mechitar, personally showed them the way.
To him they owe the initiative in the study of the Armenian writings of the fourth and fifth centuries, which has resulted in the development and adoption of a literary language, nearly as distinct from the vulgar tongue as Latin is from Italian. Thus the modern Armenian remains in touch with a distinguished and inspiring past, and has at his service a rich and important literature which otherwise would have been left, unknown or unheeded, to decay.
Mechitar, with his Armenian "Imitation" and "Bible", began that series of translations of great books, continued unceasingly during two centuries, and ranging from the early Fathers of the Church and the works of St. Thomas of Aquin (one of their first labours) to Homer and Virgil and the best known poets and historians of later days.
At one period, in connexion with their Vienna house, there existed an association for the propagation of good books, which is said to have distributed nearly a million volumes, and printed and published six new works each year. To him also they owe the guidance of their first steps in exegesis — the branch of learning in which they have won most distinction — and the kindred studies of the Liturgy and the religious history of their country.
At S. Lazzaro he founded the printing press from which the most notable of their productions have been issued, and commenced there the collection of Armenian manuscripts for which their library has become famous. To any but members of the order the history of the Mechitarists has been uneventful, because of the quiet, untiring plodding along ancient, traditional paths, and the admirable fidelity to the spirit and ideals of their founder.
Principally by means of the Mechitarists' innumerable periodicals, pious manuals, Bibles, maps, engravings, dictionaries, histories, geographies and other contributions to educational and popular literature they have served Catholism among the Armenian nation.
The following are the most valuable of their contributions to the common cause of learning. Firstly the recovery, in ancient Armenian translations, of some lost works of the Fathers of the Church. Among them may be noted Letters (thirteen) of St. Ignatius of Antioch and a fuller and more authentic "History of the Martyrdom of St. Ignatius"; some works of St. Ephrem the Syrian, notably a sort of "Harmony of the Gospels" and a "Commentary on the Epistles of St. Paul"; an edition of Eusebius's Ecclesiastical History. The publication of these works is due to the famous Mechitarist Dom Pascal Aucher, who was assisted in the last of them by Cardinal Mai. Pascal Aucher (Harut'iwn Awgerian: 1774-1855) also become Lord Byron’s tutor in Armenian, and his "spiritual pastor and master". He translated Paradise Lost into Armenian (1824). To Aucher also we are indebted for a German translation of the "Armenian Missal" (Tübingen, 1845) and "Dom Johannis philosophi Ozniensis Armeniorum Catholici (AD 718) Opera" (Venice, 1534).
Two original historical works may also be noted: "The History of Armenia", by P. Michel Tschamtschenanz (1784-1786) and the "Quadro della storia letteraria di Armenia" by Mgr. Pl. Sukias Somal (Venice, 1829).
The rule followed at first was that attributed to St. Anthony; but when they settled in the West modifications from the Benedictine rule were introduced, and the Mechitarists are numbered among the lesser orders affiliated with the Benedictines. They have ever been faithful to their founders program. Their work has been fourfold:
- they have brought out editions of important patristic works, some Armenian, others translated into Armenian from Greek and Syriac originals no longer extant;
- until the late 20th century they printed and circulated Armenian literature among the Armenians, thereby exercising a powerful educational influence;
- they have founded primary and secondary schools in various locations, four of which are still operational: in Istanbul, Pangaltı Ermeni İlköğretim Okulu ve Lisesi, founded in 1825, in Beirut, founded in 1930, in Buenos Aires founded in 1956 and in Los Angeles, founded in 1979;
- they work as Eastern Catholic missionaries in Armenia. The congregation is divided into two branches, the head houses being at S. Lazzaro and Vienna.
After two years' noviceship, they take the usual vows, with a fourth in addition — "to give obedience to the preceptor or master deputed by their superior to teach them the dogmas of the Catholic Faith". Many of them vow themselves also to missionary work in Armenia, Persia and Turkey, where they live on alms and wear as a badge, beneath the tunic, a cross of red cloth, on which are certain letters signifying their desire to shed their blood for the Catholic Faith. They promise on oath to work together in harmony so that they may the better win the schismatics back to God. They elect an abbot for life, who has the power to dismiss summarily any of his monks who should prove disorderly. They wear the beard, Oriental fashion, and have a black habit — tunic, cloak and hood. In the engraving attached to the description, the Mechitarist would be undistinguishable from a regular hermit of St. Augustine, except for his beard.
When however, Pope Clement XI gave them his approval, it was as monks under the rule of St. Benedict, and he appointed Mechitar the first abbot. This was a great innovation; nothing less than the introduction of Western monasticism into the East. There, up to this time a monk undertook no duties but to fill his place in the monastery. He admitted no vocation but to save his soul in the cloister. He had, in theory, at least, broken off all relations with the outside world. He had no idea of making himself useful to mankind, or of any good works whatsoever save his choir duties, his prayers, his fastings, and the monastic observance. He belonged to no religious order but was simply a monk. As a Benedictine, he would be expected to devote himself to some useful work and take some thought of his neighbour. It is clear from P. Bonanni's description that Mechitar and his monks wished this change and had already adopted the Western idea of the monk's vocation. The adoption of the Benedictine rule, therefore, was merely a recognition of their desire to devote themselves to apostolic work among their schismatic brethren, to instruct their ignorance, excite their devotion and bring them back into the communion of the one true Catholic and Apostolic Church. And it was also a security that they would not afterwards lapse into the apathy and inactivity associated in the Eastern mind with the life of the cloister. It is not quite accurate to speak of them as a Benedictine "Congregation", though it is their customary description. They are a new "Order" of monks living under the rule of St. Benedict, as distinct from the parent order as the Cistercians, Camaldolese, Silvestrines or Olivetans. Hence we do not find them classed among the numerous congregations of the Benedictine order.
Missionaries, writers and educationists, devoted to the service of their Armenian brethren wherever they might be found, such are these Benedictines of the Eastern Church. Their subjects usually enter the convent at an early age, eight or nine years old, receive in it their elementary schooling, spend about nine years in philosophical and theological study, at the canonical age of twenty-five, if sufficiently prepared, are ordained priests by their bishop-abbot, and are then employed by him in the various enterprises of the order. First, there is the work of the mission — not the conversion of the heathen, but priestly ministry to the Armenian communities settled in most of the commercial centres of Europe. With this is joined, where needed and possible, the apostolate of union with Rome. Next there is the education of the Armenian youth and, associated with this, the preparation and publication of good and useful Armenian literature.
The parent abbey is that of St. Lazzaro at Venice; next in importance is that at Vienna, founded in 1810; there is a large convent and college for lay-students at Padua, the legacy of a pious Armenian who died at Madras; in the year 1846 another rich benefactor, Samuel Morin, founded a similar establishment at Paris. Other houses were established in Austria-Hungary, Russia, Persia and Turkey — fourteen in all, according by early 20th century statistics, with one hundred and fifty-two monks, the majority of whom are priests. Not a great development for an order hundred of years old; but its extension is necessarily restricted because of its exclusive devotion to persons and things Armenian. Amongst their countrymen the influence of the monks has been not only directive in the way of holiness and true service to God and the Church, but creative of a wholesome national ambition and self-respect. Apostles of culture and progress, they may be said, with strict justice, to have preserved from degradation and neglect the language and literature of their country, and in so doing, have been the saviours of the Armenian race. Individually, the monks are distinguished by their linguistic accomplishments, and the Vienna establishment has attracted attention by the institution of a Literary Academy, which confers honorary membership without regard to race or religion.
In 1911, they had fifteen establishments in various places in Asia Minor and Europe with some 150 monks, all Armenians; they used the Armenian language and rite in the liturgy.
- San Lazzaro degli Armeni
- Mekhitarist Monastery of Vienna
- Abbot Mekhitar
- Ghevont Alishan
- Mikayel Chamchian
Sources and references
- This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
- This article incorporates text from the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913, a publication now in the public domain.
- Bardakjian, Kevork. The Mekhitarist Contributions to Armenian Culture and Scholarship. Cambridge, Harvard College Library, 1976.
- Bore, E. Vita del servo di Dio Mechitar (Venice, 1901); Saint-Lazare (1835)
- Heimbucher, Max. Orden u. Kongregationen (1907) I.37
- articles in Wetzer u. Welte, Kirchenlexicon (ed. 2) and Herzog, Realencyklopädie (ed. 3)
- articles by Sargisean, a Mechitarist, in Rivista storica benedettina (1906), La Congregazione Mechitarista.
- Casanova, Giacomo. History of My Life, p. 265. (Excerpts at Google books)
- Home page of the Mekhitarists
- The Home monastery at San Lazzaro - with photographs
- A Brief Account of the Mechitaristican Society Founded on the Island of St. Lazaro by Haroutiun Aukerian (1835) at Google Books.
- Address of Pope John Paul II to the Mechitarists - in 2001, at the 300th anniversary of the foundation of the order.
- "Mechitarists". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Catholic_Encyclopedia_(1913)/Mechitarists. hy:Մխիթարյան միաբանությունka:მხითარისტები