A unique conference: 200th anniversary of the Mekhitarists’ center in Vienna

The Mekhitarist Congregation plays a tremendous and invaluable role in Armenian spiritual and cultural life. Established 300 years ago by Father Mkhitar Sebastatsi, this Congregation considered the preservation of Armenian literary, historical and artistic values and the contribution to the comprehensive study and solution of religious issues one of its primary goals.
Accepting the Catholic faith as a dogma and a principle, the Congregation established its landmarks in several progressive European countries, the Near East, Turkey and Western Armenia.

The Congregation’s “birthplace” was Constantinople where there was a tremendous mass of Europeanized Armenians who were making enormous contributions in the trade, economy, diplomacy and culture of the Turkish state. It was those Armenians’ presence that helped Mkhitar Sebastatsi establish the Congregation in 1701. In the beginning, the Congregation was called the Anton Congregation. In 1703, it was moved from Constantinople to the Meton citadel in Greece where it stayed until 1716. After 1717, the Congregation continued its activities on the St. Lazar Island in Venice, which an Armenian benefactor by the name of Lazar had received as a donation from the Italian king for treating ill children at no cost and other benevolent acts. Among the Congregation’s most notable figures were Arsen Bagratuni and Ghevond Alishan, who were religious and experts of aesthetics, writers, geographers and historians. Currently, the Congregation has 26 congregates.

The history of the Congregation, the two main directions for its activities, that is, religious (Catholic) and Armenology (philology) have always required focus. There are not too many studies on the history of the Mekhitarist Congregation in Vienna. Even though the center of Europe has its unique landmark, it seems as though it has been left out of focus due to certain discrepancies with the Congregation in Venice for a long time.

The 200th anniversary of the Mekhitarist Congregation in Vienna served as an occasion for convening a new conference. In 1772, a group of congregates left Venice due to disputes over a change in the charter, settled in Triest in 1773 and moved to Vienna in 1801. That same year, the Austrian government officially recognized their status, and this led to the establishment of the Mekhitarist Congregation in Vienna. In the beginning, the Congregation was involved in publishing works on Catholic religion and theology and then began to touch upon Armenology.

In 2000, the Mekhitarist Congregations in Venice and Vienna held a joint general assembly at the Mother Monastery of St. Lazar in Venice where they took the decision to unite and create the United Mekhitarist Congregation. The center is the Mother Monastery on St. Lazar Island, and the monastery in Vienna has been recognized as the first major convent.
The Mekhitarist Congregation in Vienna has been around for nearly 200 years and is currently one of the branches of the joint congregation.

The Institute of History of the National Academy of Sciences of Armenia, the Ministry of Diaspora and the Mekhitarist Congregation have convened an international conference aimed at presenting several reports that will not only broaden views on the Mekhitarist Congregation in Vienna, but will also give participants the chance to get acquainted with the history of the printing house of the Mekhitarists in Vienna, be informed about the particularities of the mission of the Congregation’s schools to educate and to study the activities of Hakovbos Tashyan. Hakovbos Tashyan’s research and his library method have an important place in Armenology. In her opening speech at the conference, RA Minister of Diaspora Hranush Hakobyan placed importance on a unique fact that “the center of the Mekhitarists in Vienna is not only a scientific and spiritual center, but also a center of museums with the greatest collection of Armenian coins and carpets, 270,000 books, of which 40,000 are Armenian. The first Armenian tricolor is also preserved here.”

After the sessions held on the first day of the conference, “Hayern Aysor”’s cultural commentator asked academician of the NAS,
doctor of historical sciences, Professor Vladimir Barkhudaryan to assess the organizing of the conference. Barkhudaryan has especially reflected on the Mekhitarist Congregation in school textbooks entitled “History of the Armenian People” that he compiled.

“Whereas we have studied almost all pages of the history of the Mekhitarist Congregation in Venice, no matter how strange it sounds, we haven’t paid attention to the history of the Mekhitarist Congregation in Vienna for a long time. There is a closed circle for us Armenian historians and it has been impossible to forget that. The main reason has been that since its existence, this Congregation has been closed, hasn’t had any contact with Soviet Armenia and has had problems with the Mekhitarist Congregation on St. Lazar Island. This has been the reason why many values created within the Congregation have not been accessible. In the past couple of years, we established close ties, conducted several interesting studies, as well as established contacts to work together. It gives me pleasure to mention that a couple of years ago, the Mekhitarist Congregation in Vienna and the NAS Institute of Literature registered success in establishing close ties, and today this conference goes to show that there is bilateral interest. I must also mention the ministry’s efforts. Being a part of government and doing a lot for the strengthening of bonds between Armenia and the Diaspora, the ministry also helps include Armenology, which has established traditions in the Diaspora, in our interests. This conference truly opens a new page in Armenology because it includes reports that not only spark interest, but also, according to me, will serve as an occasion for our young historians to get acquainted with the activities of the Congregation in Vienna and find new topics and interests for research. In general, I must mention that the value of any conference grows when it opens new pages and gives people the opportunity to create new spheres of scientific interest. For us, the Armenological studies of the Mekhitarist Congregation in Vienna present certain interest in terms of science. I welcome this initiative and voice hope that there will be more conferences to come to discuss the Armenological studies completed at different institutions of the Diaspora.”

Levon Mutafyan

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