A Lighthouse in a Turbulent Sea

text by Peg Maron
photos by Armineh Johannes

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In 1717 an Armenian abbot and 20 fellow monks stepped onto a tiny island in the lagoon of Venice. The island, San Lazzaro, was a gift from the city of Venice. The monks, or vartabeds, as they call themselves, were members of a newly established order, the Congregation of Mekhitarist Fathers.

Their visionary founder, Mekhitar Bedrosian of Sepastia (or Sivas, as it is now called), had established the order in 1701 to meet the spiritual, moral and intellectual needs of the Armenian people. Like the monks of the Middle Ages, the vartabeds (Armenian for “Reverend Doctor”) were destined to help preserve a culture that might otherwise have been lost.

Armenia’s Christian roots run deep. Tradition holds that the country had been evangelized in apostolic times by Sts. Bartholomew and Thaddeus. Historical evidence confirms that St. Gregory the Illuminator, after years of persecution, succeeded in converting King Tiridates III around 300 A.D. The King proclaimed Christianity the official religion of the state, making Armenia the first Christian nation.

About 50 years after the Council of Chalcedon (451), the Armenian Church broke from full communion with the universal church. Economic, political, cultural and linguistic factors contributed to the schism.

So the matter stood until the 12th century, when the Crusaders, passing through the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia (in present-day Turkey and Lebanon) as they traveled to the Holy Land, re-established contact with the Armenian Church. An alliance between the Crusaders and the Armenian king encouraged a union between the Armenian and Latin churches, in Cilicia, in 1198. This union deteriorated in the late 14th century.

Another decree of reunion of the Armenian and Latin churches, published at the Council of Florence in 1439, was not widely accepted. Nevertheless, the document provided the framework for the establishment of the Armenian Catholic Church, which Pope Benedict XIV erected in 1742 with the creation of a Lebanese-based Armenian Catholic patriarch whose authority extended to Armenian Catholics in the southern provinces of the Ottoman Empire.

Historically oft-invaded, Armenia was, from the beginning of the 16th century, the object of contention between the Ottoman and Persian empires – war and persecution were sweeping away an ancient, venerable culture. It was into this environment that Mekhitar Bedrosian was born in 1676.

Greatly disturbed by the trials of his afflicted nation, Mekhitar, a simple friar, decided at the age of 20 to gather a group of men who would dedicate themselves to the preservation of the Armenian cultural patrimony. With this goal in mind, he traveled to Constantinople, where, in 1701, he founded a fellowship of nine disciples. This was the nucleus of the Mekhitarist community.

Persecuted in Constantinople, Mekhitar and his companions fled, first to Morea (a town in present-day Greece) in 1703, then to Venice in 1715. Befriended by the Doge, the monks reached their final destination, San Lazzaro Island, on 8 September 1717. Mekhitar himself conceived the design of the monastery and supervised its construction.

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Tags: Armenia Monastery Art Mekhitarist