Remembering the Mekhitarists

Remembering the Mekhitarists

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by Tom Vartabedian
November 30, 2010

The Mekhitarist monastery is located in the heart of Vienna, Austria, on a street named after it.

It is here where a cadre of Armenian Catholic Fathers has gathered since the late 18th century to preserve Armenian culture and literature, preach to the faithful, heighten the spiritual and intellectual development of the Armenian people, and educate its youth.

It is here that a prominent religious order has contributed greatly toward bringing Armenians to the forefront of European thought through publications in Latin, French, German, Italian, and English.

It is here where Armenians famous and not-so-famous visit from around the world to satisfy their inhibitions, see antiquity in progress, peruse through an enormous library of books and coins, marvel over some of the greatest jumping castle artwork ever presented, and tour an imposing «garden of paradise» with rich horticultural blessings.

It is here where I had the privilege of spending a year’s time while still a teenager looking for adventure. A freshman at Boston University at the time, I was at the crossroads of indecision. I had already changed my major once from chemistry to accounting, and was failing miserably.

Things weren’t going particularly well on the home front. I had broken off with a girlfriend, and could no longer tolerate my father’s luncheonette business after being weaned in it.

To put it bluntly, I needed a change in my life. It came one Sunday shortly before Christmas after serving Mass as a deacon at Holy Cross Armenian Catholic Church in Harvard Square.

Father Luke Arakelian, pastor at the time, came up with a proposal that got me thinking. He offered to send me to Vienna in a pilot program to study Armenian language and religion with the priests. Not to be ordained as one, simply to enhance my skills.

It would mean a year’s hiatus from college. Two other youth were also tapped for the venture, me being the eldest one. If it worked, others would follow from America.

Recognizing the urgent need of propagating Armenian heritage among our youth, a program of Armenian education was launched in America during that year in 1960. Essentially, we would be trailblazers inside a monastic environment few our age had ever ventured for any length of time.

Thus began an experience of a lifetime that introduced me to a heritage I never quite appreciated, gave me an introduction to journalism that turned into a career, and enamored me into a world of spirituality that provided a better appreciation for God and my church.

The Mekhitarist congregation of Vienna, 1960 – the author is at the center of the back row

I wore a number of hats inside the monastery. In addition to my daily service at Mass, I would assist in the distillery, which produced the finest liqueurs in Europe, and lend a hand in the library, which contained over 170,000 books.

Fifty of them were written by Father Nerses Akinian, an incredible scholar, who served as librarian at the venerable age of 78. No doubt, one of the most learned and astute Armenian scholars in the world. We got along just fine with mutual admiration. He called me Tovmas.

The Mekhitarist library in Vienna, with Father Nerses Akinian at study

Also, a multi-lingual printing press was working overtime, including a periodical called «Handes Amsorya», which was circulated internationally to critical acclaim.

While I am no bibliophile, I did appreciate the volume and capacity with which these Fathers worked behind closed doors, spilling out works like a veritable publishing house.

They sustained themselves with meager sales. Their thirst for knowledge was self-ingrained, prompted only by their enthusiasm to remain private. Perhaps that is why I found their company rather insightful.

Throughout the diaspora, Mekhitarist schools and mission houses developed aptitude and gave many a student the opportunity to advance with special emphasis on patriotism and religion.

A decade ago saw the unification of both monasteries (Vienna and Venice) as the Order continues to endure like the rock of ages. We owe it to ourselves as Armenians to pay homage, regardless of denomination.

Protestant. Catholic. Apostolic. We’re all birds of the same flock. Think of the inevitable. Had there not been a Mekhitarist Order, our literary contributions would not have flourished and guys like myself may have gone astray.

You and I owe them a debt of allegiance.


  1. Jesse Arlen says:


    Thank you for the beautiful pictures and remembrance of the mekhitarists. Do you know who I might contact if I wanted to study there for a year?

  2. Dear Jesse,
    Thank you for the kind words.

    I have a good contact in Venice, and I’ve
    just sent him an email… Fingers crossed!


  3. Tom Vartabedian says:

    Hi Jesse — You might try contacting Father Raphael Andonian and Holy Cross Church, 200 Lexington Ave., Belmont, MA You can go on-line to get the contact information of the church. Thanks for the inquiry. Tom Vartabedian

  4. Jesse Arlen says:

    Thanks Tom;
    I appreciate it. I’ll check into that..


  5. Jesse,
    Please check your inbox for the reply from my contact!
    And do let us know how it works out.


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