Remembering the Mekhitarists—50 Years Later (Part 2)

My arrival at the Vienna Mekhitarist Monastery in 1960 was met by Archbishop Mesrop Habozian, the abbot general of the order.

Vienna Mekhitarist Order, as it appeared in 1960. In rear are American students Aram Karibian, Tom Vartabedian and kenneth Maloomian.

His intimidating presence before me with a long, white flowing beard and large cross hanging over his chest left an immediate impression.

The introduction was erroneous. He asked if I needed anything and I answered him in broken Turkish Armenian, to which he made an oral correction. I needed a shave.

From that day on, I began every morning with altar duty, serving Mass for the archbishop with my deacon’s robe and attempting to converse intelligently in Armenian. He acted as my instructor.

When he walked into the dining room, his entourage would stand in prayer. I later found out he had been a teacher in his priestly days and managed the printing shop at the vank (monastery) prior to his elevation. The twinkle in his eye remained constant and his sense of humor indeed admired.

I remember once being admonished for keeping late hours outside the big house, and even once defying a curfew. His angst was short-lived and he treated me to an unforgettable experience.

I accompanied the archbishop to the Vienna Opera House where I got to meet the great Soviet Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian. We enjoyed his “Gayane Suite” that evening and engaged in conversation later. As memory would have it, he found my visit with the Fathers an invaluable exercise toward the future welfare of youth in this country.

The next day, we met once again inside the monastery where Khachaturian saw the priests and wished them well in their work. In the months that followed, many famous Armenians walked through the doors.

One moment it was William Saroyan, the next George Mardikian, author of Song of America and the inspiration behind ANCHA, not to mention his popular restaurant Omar Khayyam in California, a popular haven for discriminating diners.

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.

Also contained in the library was a rare coin collection totaling some 4,000 pieces, under glass, dating from Dikran the Great (60 BC) to King Levon V (1375).Complementing the collections were an incredible art display featuring work from the famous Naghash family artists from the 18th century and Ayvazovsky with his oceanic scenes

Being in such erudite company, I suppose, made an impression upon this 19-year-old.

But don’t get the idea this was some joyride. My classes each day were mandatory, answering to Brother Vartan Ashkarian, a no-nonsense type, who imposed excellence upon his students. One mishap and you were grounded the next day.

Classes would run from 10 to noon, and 1-3. We were allowed to roam outside the grounds until 5 when the dinner bell sounded. From 6-8, we would gather with the priests, play tavlou, listen to the radio (no television), and engage in conversation.

From there, it was off to my room for homework and up at 6 the next morning to serve Mass for the archbishop. The routine seldom changed. On Sundays, a choir composed of Austrians would flock into church and sing the Badarak. The voices were impeccable.

That year in 1960, I had the pleasure of being surrounded by 15 priests and 3 older seminarians on the verge of being ordained. A short distance away was a village that housed younger seminarians attending school. Some would accept their vows. Most were there just for the education.

Each priest was an entity unto its own and I often wondered how a group of men, personalities diverse, could bond the way they did. And how, despite some advanced ages, they could maintain such a diligent literary pace.

Members bound themselves to four simple but permanent vows: obedience, chastity, poverty, and missionary work. The Mekhitarists have perfectly understood that good reading raises and educates, while bad reading lowers and destroys the soul.

A multi-lingual printing press was working overtime, including a periodical called “Handes Amsora,” which was circulated internationally to critical acclaim.

I had enough to do just getting through a simple Armenian grammar and making myself sound intelligent.

To be continued…

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Tom Vartabedian

Tom Vartabedian is a retired journalist with the Haverhill Gazette, where he spent 40 years as an award-winning writer and photographer. He has volunteered his services for the past 46 years as a columnist and correspondent with the Armenian Weekly, where his pet project was the publication of a special issue of the AYF Olympics each September.
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1 Comment

  1. Dear Mr. Vartabedian:
    Being an ex-Vienna Mekhitaryantsi (of the Istanbul school) I have been reading your memoirs with the greatest of interest.
    I am also one of the privileged Armenian Catholic children to have had their first communion service conducted by Abp. Habozyan in 1952 in Istanbul at the Mekhitarian Chapel.
    My mother’s family came from Erzurum and H.E. was also also Erzurumtsi (from Khodortchour, a village in Erzurum) he would visit our house every time he was in Istanbul and stay over for dinner for a good Erzurumtsi feast.
    I was a student of Father Krikoris Manyan (before he became the Abbott General) and I also recalled Father Bedros Der-Boghossian & Father Okosdinos from the photo you had included in Part II.
    I did my kindergarten and primary school years at the Istanbul Mekhitarian school and then switched to Robert College where I spent twelve years (junior high, senior high and college).
    Another interesting fact about my background is that my paternal grandparents house (where my father was born) was next door to the Mekhitarian school, my mother’s family used to rent a house from the Mekhitarian fathers (and thus over looked onto the Mekhitarian schools gardens) and I was born about 100 feet from the Mekhitarian school.
    As you can see the bonds that bind me the Vienna Mekhitarians are quite extensive and I would like to thank you very much for bringing such wonderful memories of mine also
    Rgds
    Nurhan Becidyan

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