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The Long Road Home

Onnik Krikorian writes how Armenian Catholic monks established their first school in Armenia

story and photographs by Onnik Krikorian

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“Five years ago, when I was 75, I thought it was time to rest and pray in preparation for the last joyous journey to be with our Father in heaven, but it was not to be,” said Father Hovsep Behesniryan, a priest of the Armenian Catholic Armenia Congregation. After serving more than 64 years in ministries in Venice, Paris, Los Angeles and New York, “I was called into service once more, this time in Mekhitarist.”

He was sitting in a parlor of the Mekhitarist minor seminary, located in the Armenian capital city of Yerevan, where the Ethiopian-born priest supervises the education of those who hope to follow his path. The seminary opened in October 2004 and is now home to 22 boys, age 13 and older.

“Every boy who comes here believes God called him,” said 16-year-old Narek Tchilingirian, who spent a month at the seminary before deciding to enter. His mother, Tsovinar, was not surprised. “He always went to church regularly, and he always took part in religious ceremonies and youth organizations.”

Father Hovsep’s return to the land of his ancestors has more than personal significance for the octogenarian. The seminary also marks a significant step in the homecoming of an Armenian religious community after centuries in exile.

Father Hovsep’s community was founded by a farsighted Armenian monk, Mekhitar, who in the early 18th century gathered around him disciples committed to the intellectual and spiritual renewal of the Armenian people. Influenced by the work of Catholic religious then active in the Ottoman Empire, Mekhitar sought to establish a college in Constantinople, the center of the Ottoman Armenian community. But Mekhitar’s ideas, which also included his advocacy for the reestablishment of full communion between the Armenian Apostolic and Catholic churches, generated hostility.

In 1701, Mekhitar found refuge in Morea, a Greek territory then occupied by the Venetians, where eventually he established a monastery in the Benedictine model. After pledging his fidelity to the papacy, Mekhitar received papal approval for his foundation in 1712. Two years later, however, Mekhitar and 16 of his disciples were forced to leave their monastery as the Ottomans overran Morea, flushing out the Venetians and their allies.

The senate of the Venetian Republic offered the abbot and his displaced monks Venice’s abandoned island of San Lazzaro, once a leper colony. Until his death in 1749, Abbot Mekhitar worked tirelessly from his island monastery, introducing grammars for classical and vernacular Armenian, compiling an Armenian dictionary and composing commentaries on various books of the Bible.

Though separated from their homeland, Mekhitar’s spiritual sons, commonly called Mekhitarists, played a vital role in enlivening Armenian cultural life. From their houses in Venice and Vienna, they translated into Armenian works from the Classical era, early church writings, Renaissance literature and contemporary science and geography texts. Their endeavors, which also included the establishment of publishing houses, ensured that Armenians would not be cut off from the advancing world.

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Tags: Armenia Armenian Apostolic Church Armenian Catholic Church Catholicos Karekin II Mekhitarist