BY: TOM VARTABEDIAN
The Mekhitarist Monastery is located in the heart of Vienna, Austria, on a street named after it.
It is here where a cadre of Armenian Catholic Fathers has gathered since the late 18th century to preserve Armenian culture and literature, preach to the faithful, heighten the spiritual and intellectual development of the Armenian people, and educate its youth.
It is here that a prominent religious order has contributed greatly toward bringing Armenians to the forefront of European thought through publications in Latin, French, German, Italian, and English.
It is here where Armenians famous and not-so-famous visit from around the world to satisfy their inhibitions, see antiquity in progress, peruse through an enormous library of books and coins, marvel over some of the greatest artwork ever presented, and tour an imposing “garden of paradise” with rich horticultural blessings.
It is here where I had the privilege of spending a year’s time while still a teenager looking for adventure. A freshman at Boston University at the time, I was at the crossroads of indecision. I had already changed my major once from chemistry to accounting, and was failing miserably.
Things weren’t going particularly well on the home front. I had broken off with a girlfriend, and could no longer tolerate my father’s luncheonette business after being weaned in it.
To put it bluntly, I needed a change in my life. It came one Sunday shortly before Christmas after serving Mass as a deacon at Holy Cross Armenian Catholic Church in Harvard Square.
Father Luke Arakelian, pastor at the time, came up with a proposal that got me thinking. He offered to send me to Vienna in a pilot program to study Armenian language and religion with the priests. Not to be ordained as one, simply to enhance my skills.
It would mean a year’s hiatus from college. Two other youth were also tapped for the venture, me being the older one. If it worked, others would follow from America.
Recognizing the urgent need of propagating Armenian heritage among our youth, a program of Armenian education was launched in America during that year in 1960. Essentially, we would be trailblazers inside a monastic environment few our age had ever ventured for any length of time.
Thus began an experience of a lifetime that introduced me to a heritage I never quite appreciated, gave me an introduction to journalism that turned into a career, and enamored me into a world of spirituality that provided a better appreciation for God and my church.
The most difficult part of the invitation was selling it to my parents. Father Luke left that to me.
“What, you’re going to a monastery and becoming a priest?” my mother groaned. “Catholic priests are celibate. They don’t marry. Does this mean I won’t see any grandchildren?”
My father was less emphatic. He was more concerned about the business and sudden shortage of help, not to mention the interruption of college studies. My mind was set. I was prepared to embark to a country I had never seen with two other boys I hardly knew, both of whom would be taking a year off from high school.
My professors wished me well. So did my friends and fellow AYFers. I had just joined the Somerville Chapter. James Tashjian, the editor of the Hairenik Weekly, took me aside with a request. He asked for a series of articles that would shed light on the religious order.
We had met through occasional AYF reports I had sent him. This would become an assignment of a lifetime—one that would provide an insatiable thirst for journalism. Would these priests even want to share their personal lives with the outside world? Who was I to suddenly barge into their home and exploit them?
The first entry in my journal came from Father Luke. It read: “Dear Thomas. I wish you the best and God’s blessings upon this educational experience. Your conduct in Vienna is most important. The impression you, Kenny [Maloomian], and Aram [Karibian] make with the Mekhitarist Fathers will decide upon the future of this program. Hopefully, others will follow you to this sacred ground.”
To let Father Luke down would have been a travesty. For seven years, I had served him faithfully each Sunday on the altar, accompanied him on trips, owed my self-esteem and integrity to the beloved cleric, and regarded him as a second “father” in my life. With my faith teetering, my senses unraveled, off I headed toward Vienna—the city of Strauss, Mozart, and a coterie of priests awaiting my arrival.
My arrival at the Vienna Mekhitarist Monastery in 1960 was met by Archbishop Mesrop Habozian, the abbot general of the order.
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.
Photostat of the first Armenian book printed in Venice in 1512 by Hagop Meghabart. Take note of the striking artwork which accompanies the text.
Vienna Mekhitarist Order, as it appeared in 1960. In rear are American students Aram Karibian, Tom Vartabedian and kenneth Maloomian.