The Mekhitarists (Armenian: Մխիթարեաններ, Mkhit'areanner, also spelled Mechitarists) are a congregation of Benedictine monks of the Armenian Catholic Church founded in 1717 by Abbot Mekhitar of Sebaste. They are best known for their series of scholarly publications of ancient Armenian versions of otherwise lost ancient Greek texts and their research on classical and modern Armenian language.
Their eponymous founder, Mekhitar of Sebaste, was born at Sebastia in Armenia, then part of the Ottoman Empire, 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 a religious order to facilitate education.
Mekhitar 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 a priest and for four years worked among his people.
In 1700 Mekhitar went to Istanbul 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 (Peloponnese), 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 Mekhitarists were exempted by name from the decree.
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. This provided modern Armenian with a literary connection to its ancient past and literature.
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 labors) to Homer and Virgil and the best known poets and historians of later days.
Artist, Ariel Agemian, illustrated the "Imitation" and contributed several major portraits of Mekhitarist Monks and religious scenes. He is also known for documenting the Turkish Massacre from his own recollections. See examples of Agemian's works on his site agemianpaintings.com
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 San 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 Mekhitarists 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 Mekhitarists' 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 Mekhitarists 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 Mekhitarists are numbered among the lesser orders affiliated with the Benedictines. They have ever been faithful to their founder's program. Their work has been fourfold:
After a novitiate of two years, the candidates to the congregation take the usual religious vows, along with a fourth vow — "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 Mekhitarists would be undistinguishable from a friar of the Order 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 their 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, similar to the Cistercians or Camaldolese. 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 San 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 to 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.