THIS WEEK IN ARMENIAN HISTORY
(Prepared by the Armenian National Education Committee [ANEC])
Foundation of the Mekhitarist Congregation
(September 8, 1701)
Since its inception, the educational and cultural activities of the Mekhitarist Congregation had a very important role in Armenian history. After becoming a priest at the age of 20, Mekhitar of Sebastia (1676-1749) decided to find a congregation in order to work collectively to increase the spiritual, moral and intellectual levels of the Armenian people. He was consecrated celibate priest in 1699 and soon converted to Catholicism. However, he did not renege his Armenian ancestry and identity.
On September 8, 1701, on the feast of the birth of the Virgin Mary, Mekhitar and a group of sympathizers founded the congregation of St. Anthony the Abbot in Constantinople. The congregation initially had twelve members, including four celibate priests. The conflict between the Armenian Apostolic and Catholic communities in the Ottoman capital took a bloody turnaround. Mekhitar and his sympathizers fled the Ottoman persecution and moved to the Peninsula of Morea (Peloponessus), in Greece, which was under the domination of the Republic of Venice, and settled in the fortress of Methon.
An assembly held in 1705 prepared the draft bylaws of the Congregation, based on the bylaws of the Benedictine Congregation and extracted from the canons of the life of St. Anthony the Abbot. He sent two of his students to Rome with the draft, and letters to Pope Clement XI and the governor of the Propaganda Fide. The assembly of the Propaganda Fide, since the canons of St. Anthony were incomplete, suggested Mekhitar to choose from the canons of St. Basil, St. Augustine, or St. Benedict. The Armenian priest chose the canons of St. Benedict and presented the new draft of bylaws to the Pope on May 12, 1711. The bylaws were approved by Clement XI in 1717, who bestowed the title of Abbot upon Mekhitar.
Meanwhile, a war started between the Ottoman Empire and Venice in December 1714. Mekhitar and most of the congregation members fled Methon and moved to Venice. However, they needed a cloister and a monastery to carry on their plans. The Venetian Senate had just approved a law that forbade the establishment of any new religious congregation in the city. Nevertheless, the highest body took Mekhitar’s request into consideration and proposed that he find a place outside the city. Mekhitar chose the island of San Lazzaro, which belonged to the order of the Mendicants. On August 26, 1717, the Senate of Venice conceded the island to the congregation with right of permanent residence, and Mekhitar and his followers, a total of sixteen, settled there on September 8, the anniversary of the foundation of the congregation. The renovation work at the church was completed in 1723, and Mekhitar started the construction of a new monastery, which was finished in 1740, including a library and a refectory. Mekhitar passed away on April 27, 1749, and was buried before the main altar of the island. On his death, he had already achieved the publication of some twenty books, including the first volume of the Haigazian Dictionary, which his disciples would complete twenty years later. After his passing, the Congregation was named after him.