Remembering the Mekhitarists—50 Years Later (Part III)

Living inside a monastery for the better part of a year with no dating privileges and no television was certainly sacrificial on my part and those around me.

The Motherhouse of the Mekhitarist Congregation in Vienna has been the center of Armenian culture and education in Austria since 1810.

As a 19-year-old, I had just finished a year at Boston University, helped reorganize the Armenian Club there, and beefed up the membership by inviting Harvard-Radcliffe and Tufts students to join the ranks. Life was good.

The social calendar was brisk. We had begun to make an impact on campus and here I was, behind monastery walls with a religious order, many of them old enough to be my grandfather. Although the Mekhitarist Fathers were multi-lingual, English was not one of their primary languages.

I could either learn German or brush up on my Armenian, which is why I was there in the first place. Being immersed made it relatively easy. Both languages were exercised inside the monastery.

There were moments when you could slide into tedium, but for the most part, you created your own environment. Vienna was a marvelous city. On many an occasion, I had a front-row seat at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, listening to the Vienna Boys’ Choir.

Being introduced to the world-famous Lipizzaner horses was yet another revelation. The many parks and fountains made an afternoon stroll all the more exhilarating. On several occasions, a weekend was spent in the Vienna woods and by the Danube with a priest or two. Leg power was the mode.

More than once, I paid a visit to Mozart’s grave and encountered other classical music buffs who cherished his many compositions. From loud speakers nestled in the ground came everything from his “Clarinet Concerto” to his “Don Giovanni Suite.”

Any apprehensions I had at being away from home and settled into an austere zone had quickly evaporated. The Fathers were amicable, pleasant, very ordinary, and entertaining. They did not appear to be among the world’s greatest scholars and historians.

Letters arrived from home with consistency. I opened one envelope and out sifted beach sand with a note: “See what you’re missing back home.”

I wrote back in Armenian. “See what you’re missing by not being here.” The intent was well taken.

Some of the best Armenian food I ever tasted was served inside the vank, diligently prepared by Austrian cooks. Sunday dinners were special and served with wine and beer. Given our age, we refrained from indulging.

An old piano was given a new lease on life by Father Gregory Heboyan, who played Armenian selections like a virtuoso, especially his version of “Sabre Dance.”

Most every priest had a specific talent that was exercised. Some of the best tavlou and chess games were instituted here and rivalries were usually heightened.

I had never been introduced to Raffi as a writer until I picked up a copy of his book The Fool, translated into English. I found the work a delightful read and wound up naming a son after him.

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.

In the years that followed, it was this education that advanced my ability to teach Armenian, serve my Christian faith, and remain loyal to the cause of humanity. Truth be told, had my parents not intervened, I may have joined the clergy, living up to my surname.

Now, five decades later, I never did get back to visit, much as I had wished, but I did communicate. Every Christmas, gifts were sent to the young seminarians. My instructor went on to become a leader of the Order. Another proceeded to become abbot general of the Motherhouse. Our paths have since crossed in a welcoming embrace.

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.

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. Hye, Tom, enjoyed this segment and looking forward to more of your ‘writings’…  I, too, visited the Mekhaterists in Vienna and too Venice… worthy of all you say and more…  worthy of visits and to know why they were in Vienna/Venice… as I’m sure you’ll tell us.   Manooshag

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