Remembering the Mekhitarists—50 years later (Part IV)

Should you visit the Mekhitarist Sisterhouse in Venice, you might be surprised to find a bust of Lord Byron at the entrance. 
Located on the island of San Lazzaro, it’s quite an imposing structure dedicated to one of the greatest Romantic poets in English literature.
So what was Byron doing in a place like this?
He came here in 1816 to study Armenian. He didn’t intend to establish himself permanently there or anywhere else in Italy. It doesn’t seem his restless spirit permitted him to make any definite long-range plans. 
Byron came to the monastery for a visit, intrigued by the scholarly monks, and wound up staying there nearly three years.
Not only did he master Armenian and befriend the Armenian Catholic priests, but wrote not one, but two acclaimed grammars—one in Armenian and the other English.
The Armenian studies and two publications brought Byron into close association with the whole monastery. He became a true friend of the congregation and, in particular, Father Paschal Aucher, his Armenian teacher.
He also took lessons from the monk Avergian who had translated his famous poem, “Paradise Lost.” 
There is a small library there known as Lord Byron’s Room, which we visited two summers ago during a trip to the Mediterranean with the Armenian Relief Society (ARS). Surprisingly, there were fewer than 10 priests on the island, giving one the impression of a depleting congregation.
The story of Byron’s life in Greece, his profound love and admiration of the Hellenes, has been told many times in English literature. Less is known of his life among the Armenians.
Byron had this to say in an article compiled by Ladis Kristof for the Armenian Review: “I go every morning to study Armenian language with the priests. If you ask me my reason for studying this remote language, I can only answer that it is Oriental and difficult and employs me a difficult way of thinking.”
The Armenian language became a welcoming, novel, and challenging field of activity for the poet. He went on to add, “My mind needed something harder to crack. These men are the priesthood of an oppressed and noble nation. The neatness, comfort, gentleness, and unaffected devotion are virtues of these brethren. Whatever be their destiny, their country must be one of the most interesting in the globe and their language only requires to be more studied to become more attractive.”
In several letters to his friends, he mentions that his mornings were taken up with Armenian studies. 
Byron wasn’t the only prominent writer to discover the Mekhitarists. It is related that Franz Werfel visited the motherhouse in Vienna back in 1929 and consulted first with the abbot general and then with Father Thomas Kachazn, a Musa Daghtsi born in Yoghoun-Olouk.
The priests furnished him with some oral information and a number of printed materials from their library. However, for reasons of prudence, the Mekhitarists requested Werfel not to mention them in connection with his novel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh for fear of Turkish reprisals.
The scrutiny of these priests became revered throughout the world, whether they came under the influence of the Mekhitarists or indirectly.
Few leaders of the Catholic Church were closer to the Holy Cross Church in Harvard Square and its pastor, Father Luke Arakelian, than Richard Cardinal Cushing, spiritual leader of the Archdiocese of Greater Boston.
He often celebrated Mass here and invited the Armenian Catholic faithful to his front. Cardinal Cushing had this to say: “In all their devotion to the national heritage of Armenia, the Mekhitarists are properly hailed by Armenian patriots as the saviors of their race. They have cultivated a constructive, wholesome Armenian national pride.”
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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