Posts Tagged ‘Mekhitarist Congregation of Venice’

(Prepared by the Armenian National Education Committee)



Birth of Fr. Nerses Akinian

(September 10, 1883)


Fr Nerses Akinian

Father Nerses Akinian was one of the most prolific and renowned names of Armenian philology in the first half of the twentieth century.


He was born Gabriel Akinian on September 10, 1883, in Artvin, an area in northeastern Turkey that was part of the Russian Empire at the time. He was sent to the Mekhitarist seminary of Vienna at the age of twelve, in 1895, and entered the Viennese branch of the congregation in 1901 when he was anointed a celibate priest and renamed Nerses. He followed the courses of the University of Vienna, where he studied Greek, Latin, and Syriac, history of Greco-Roman and Byzantine culture, philosophy, and theology. After graduation in 1907, he would have a wide number of functions in the Mekhitarist Congregation for the next decades. He was first a teacher at the seminary (1907) and later its deputy principal (1908-1911) and principal (1916-1920). Along his educational tasks, from 1909 until his death Fr. Nerses Akinian was also the head librarian of the Vienna monastery and the editor, with intermittencies, of Handes Amsorya, the Armenian Studies journal of the Viennese branch of the Mekhitarists. He became a member of the general board of the congregation in 1931 and superior of the monastery from 1931-1937.  


From the very beginning, Akinian passionately pursued historical studies, following the general orientation of the Viennese Mekhitarists, and researched the whole extent of Armenian history and literature with German-like rigorousness and method. He was an indefatigable traveler, and would go to many countries to study Armenian culture and gather thousands of Armenian manuscripts and printed books for the library of Vienna. In 1912 he represented the Mekhitarists of Vienna at the consecration of Catholicos Gevorg V Sureniants (1911-1930) and traveled to his birthplace, Artvin, and Eastern Armenia, where he visited Ani, Garni, Geghard, and other ancient places. During World War I, he collected money to help the refugees of the Armenian Genocide, as well as Armenian war prisoners in Germany and Austria.


In 1924 Fr. Akinian was assigned to pastoral mission in Soviet Armenia and he would also visit Moscow, Nor Nakhijevan (Rostov-on-the-Don), Batumi, Tbilisi, and Lvov. This gave him the opportunity to visit ancient monuments and research collections of ancient Armenian manuscripts, particularly in Armenia, where he worked at the collection of Holy Etchmiadzin (which would be later moved to Yerevan and became the basis for the collection of the Matenadaran). In 1929 he was arrested, suspected of being a foreign spy, and forced to leave Armenia after a forty-day imprisonment. He went back to Vienna and continued his studies in different cities of Western Europe, including Berlin, Munich, Tubingen, Paris, Rome, and Livorno. In 1939 he went to the Middle East, but remained stranded in Beirut for the next seven years due to World War II. He spent his time teaching at the local Mekhitarist School and studying available Armenian manuscripts. He returned to Austria in the fall of 1946 and spent his last years in Vienna. In 1954 he earned an honorary doctorate from the University of Vienna.


Akinian published most of his studies in Handes Amsorya over more than a half century. Many of them were also published in book form. He published more than 40 books related to Armenian medieval literature, Armenian text issues, and Armenian Studies in general. He also compiled catalogues of Armenian manuscripts conserved in collections of Cyprus, Poland, Ukraine, and elsewhere. He discovered and published works by fathers of the Church and various early Christian authors (John Chrysostom, Pseudo-Dionysus the Areopagite, Irenaeus, Ephrem the Syrian, Proclus, and others). Some of his studies on Armenian ancient authors, like Koriun, Movses Khorenatsi, Yeghishe, Ghazar Parpetsi, and others, became controversial due to his penchant to accommodate their texts and chronologies to his views. He passed away on October 28, 1963, in Vienna, leaving more than a dozen unpublished works in the archives of the Mekhitarist Congregation.

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(Prepared by the Armenian National Education Committee [ANEC])


Foundation of the Mekhitarist Congregation
(September 8, 1701)



Mekhitar of Sebastia

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.


The Mekhitarist Monastery on the island of San Lazarro in the Venetian Grotto.

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.


The library inside the Mekhitarist Monastery in Vienna, Austria.

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.

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In the first decade and half of the twentieth century, poet Taniel Varoujan rose to become the most remarkable name of Armenian literature. He would have become an internationally known name had not his exile and assassination trounced his career during the Armenian Genocide.

            Taniel Chibukkiarian was born in the village of Perknik, in the vilayet of Sepastia. After attending the local school, in 1896 he went to Constantinople, where he attended one of the schools of the Mekhitarist Congregation of Venice. He then continued his education at the Moorat-Raphaelian school of Venice from 1902-1905. In 1905 he entered the University of Ghent, in Belgium, where he followed courses in literature, sociology, and economics. He adopted the surname Varoujan (from an Armenian word that means "male dove") when he started to publish his poems. In 1906 he published his first volume of poetry, Shivers, followed the next year by a booklet that contained a long poem, The Massacre. He graduated in 1909 and returned to the Ottoman Empire. The same year he published a new volume, Heart of the Race, which TanielVaroujanestablished him as a poet.

Returning to Sepastia, he became a teacher between 1909 and 1912. In 1910 he married his student, Araksi Tashjian, vanquishing the opposition of her father. In 1912 they moved to Constantinople, where he became the principal of the St. Gregory the Illuminator School until his deportation in April 1915.

               He published a new and even more powerful collection of poetry, Pagan Songs, in 1912. In late 1913 he joined forces with four young writers, Kostan Zarian (1885-1969), Hagop Oshagan (1883-1948), Kegham Parseghian (1883-1915), and Aharon Dadourian (1888-1965), to create the group "Mehyan." They issued a manifesto that called for the renovation of Armenian literature and language, and founded a short-lived but important monthly journal, Mehyan, that published seven issues (January-July 1914). Due to aesthetic divergences, Varoujan left the group after the third issue (March 1914).

                The poet had three children: Veronica, Armen, and Haig. His wife was pregnant with their third child, when Varoujan was included in the Turkish black list and arrested on the night of April 23-24, 1915, by the police with hundreds of Armenian intellectuals and leaders. He was deported to Changr (Chankiri) together with many of his colleagues, where they lived in a sort of internal exile for the next two months. On August 26, 1915, along with his friend, the poet and physician Rupen Sevag (Chilingirian, 1885-1915), and three other Armenians, they were taken to Kalayjek. On the road, following a previous plan, a group of Turkish chetes (irregular soldiers) attacked the carriage that transported them. They were forced to take their clothes out, and then savagely assassinated. The same day, Varoujan’s son, Haig, was born in Constantinople.

            The poet’s papers had been confiscated at the time of his arrest. In 1921 his wife Araksi was able to recover, after paying a hefty bribe, his unfinished last book, The Song of the Bread, which was published the same year in Constantinople.

               After his death, Varoujan’s works were published in no less than thirty editions over the past nine decades. Collections of his poetry have been also published in French and Italian. His daughter Veronica Safrasian (1910-2009) lived for many years in New York, while his younger son Haig (1915-2002) passed away in Fresno.

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