Remembering the Mekhitarists—50 Years Later (Part 6)

The day is September 1 at the place Vienna, Austria.  Throughout the city, church bells are ringing. It is not a Viennese custom, nor an Austrian.

In addition to books, manuscripts, and periodicals, the enormous Mekhitarist library also contains over 4,000 coins kept in showcases as well as an imposing art collection.

Instead, it is the day when the Mekhitarists parade throughout the streets of this wondrous city, paying homage to their founder (Abbot Mekhitar) and the actual day of the founding in 1701. September 1 is a golden anniversary for these Catholic priests and they willingly share it with the population.

Much like any parade, people are lined up along the sidewalks laying witness to a slice of Armenian lore. The Mekhitarist march is as traditional to Vienna as the world-famous Vienna choir boys and the baroque castles with their majestic gardens.

I was more than a bystander this day. Because I was a student, I was invited to join the procession with my altar garments, snapping the incensor toward Archbishop Mesrop Habozian, who was as revered in Vienna as any religious leader of his time.

Not any procession, mind you, but of the Holy Sacrament where the archbishop carried the monstrance, or jajanche as it’s called in Armenian. Simply put, the monstrance contains the sacred host.

Check out these numbers. An estimated 5,000 people looked on as 500 participants made their mile-long trek dressed in their vestments. One could very easily equate this to Lourdes.

As the archbishop passed by, people bowed their heads gracefully in prayer as the bells kept pealing.

Halfway through the procession, the archbishop stopped in front of a church where an altar had been prepared. Holy Communion was administered. After blessing his faithful, the march resumed.

From start to finish, a powerful band was accompanying the prayers and songs of thousands. Later, the musicians were invited to the Mekhitarist gardens where they played the most famous Viennese marches while people sang and danced. It was a glorious day for all.

Struck by an insatiable curiosity, the Viennese are enamored by this congregation of holy priests, calling them the Armenians of Vienna. Many without an ounce of Armenian blood turn out Sundays to sing in the choir. Many speak the language fluently, taking the liberty to learn Armenian.

My stay there coincided with a doctoral thesis being written by Jimmy Tashjian, then-editor of the Hairenik Weekly and Armenian Review. Tashjian was finishing his studies at Harvard University in 1960 on the origin and development of the Armenian community in America and needed photostats of the title pages from the first Armenian book ever printed in Amsterdam.

In Tashjian’s letter, which I’ve kept the past 50 years, he writes, “This is vitally important toward developing the advent of Armenians to America by way of Europe.”

Tashjian was also looking for material reflecting the earliest activities of Armenians throughout Europe, such as old maps and documents which were ultimately copied and furnished to the editor. It turned out that Tashjian did use a lot of the Mekhitarist archives toward his thesis for which he was ultimately thankful.

Soon after that, an editorial appeared in the pages of the Hairenik Weekly reflecting the nature of Mekhitarist scholarships totaling $400 each that were to be presented to five students wishing to study abroad at a Mekhitarist school.

The scholarships would be in the name of Archbishop Mesrop Habozian, the abbot general, in an effort to develop young leaders entrenched in their ancestral lineage.

My daily cores at the monastery, coupled with my educational priorities, was payment enough. All other expenses except for travel were absorbed by the monastery and church. Kenny Maloomian and Aram Karibian wound up furthering their studies at a Mekhitarist school in Lebanon while I remained at the vank.

It wasn’t long after my arrival that in addition to receiving Armenian lessons, I was recruited to teach English to the priests and seminarians. My final day with the Mekhitarists was filled with deep sentiment.

I was given a beautiful picture of Mount Ararat, painted by one of the Fathers, which hangs today in my home, as well as an ornate chalice cloth that was gifted to Father Luke Arakelian, pastor of Holy Cross Church in Harvard Square.

As for my gift to Archbishop Habozian, I had shown him a seven-part series I had done on his monastery that delighted him considerably. But the best gift of all was an article I had prepared and published in Armenian that proved much like a final exam. I had passed the ultimate test.

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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