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4. The Congregation of Mekhitar in Venice.

In Venice took up residence with his brothers in a house adjacent to the church of San Martino while they waited for a more permanent home. He found the curate of the church of Santa Croce in the city to be the pious vardapet Khachatur Arakelian who he had once asked to lead the Congregation.

Doge Alvise Mocenigo in a
mekhitarist print.

Of the four who had remained in Modone, Fr. Emanuel and Fr. Thomas joined Mekhitar in Venice in October, having left the city shortly before the siege on the exhortation of the governor. Modone, attacked on the 2nd August, was taken in three days. The monks who had remained, Fr. Lazzaro and Fr. James and the two professed monks Brother Baptist and Brother Mark, were sold as slaves to Armenian traders who were following the army. When they arrived at Constantinople, they were bought back by their brothers Fr. Paul, Fr. John and Fr. George who then embarked with them for Venice. Mekhitar informed the Congregation of Propaganda Fide of the new situation and Cardianl Sacripante replied with words of encouragement. On 14th January 1716, he sent the Patriarch of Venice a letter in which he asks him to offer the refugees support and protection. The monks were allowed to celebrate Mass in the parishes of Venice and to collect alms to provide for their own keep.

In his search for a suitable location for his Congregation, Mekhitar was backed by the Senate, in particular by individuals he had come to know during his time in the Morea such as Angelo Emo and Sebastiano Mocenigo. Since there was a veto by the Senate on the settlement of new religious congregations in the city of Venice, it was proposed to the Abbot that he choose somewhere outside of the city. Examining the possible locations offered by the government, Mekhitar focused his attention on San Lazzaro. He visited the island in the summer of 1716, property at the time of the Mendicant Friars but only used for horticulture.

Meanwhile, certain false accusations reached Rome, made by adversaries of the new Congregation about the orthodoxy of doctrine preached by the monks sent by Mekhitar to the East. Thus, in February 1717, in the middle of sensitive negotiations for the granting of the island of San Lazzaro, Mekhitar received an injunction to recall the missionaries Fr. George and Fr. Joseph. In the face of these events, even the pious vardapet Khachatur rallied, sending and apologia of Mekhitar to the Congregation of Propaganda Fide in which he described him as “bright sun of the nation, champion of truth, shield of the Catholic faith.”

View of the city of Venice and its lagoon showing the island of San Lazzaro in the lower
corner of the right, by Benedetto Bordone (Isolario, Venice, 1528).

On 26th August 1717, the Venetian Senate, having examined the terms of the offering of the Order of Mendicant Friars, granted the island of San Lazzaro to Mekhitar and his monks in perpetuity[1]. They arrived there on 8th September, the anniversary of the foundation of the Congregation, which now had nineteen members.

The house built on the flank
of the church of St. Martino,
where Mekhitar lived with his
monks from 1715 to 1717.

The island had long been in a state of neglect and Mekhitar laid plans for a thorough renovation of existing buildings, restructuring and the construction of new buildings[2]. He intended to begin with the church, his main priority, declaring: “First, we must repair the house of God, the Church, and then build a house for ourselves, therefore we are forced to reside in a provisional dwelling”. At the end of April 1718, the provisional restoration of the existing buildings allowed the entire community to move to the island while the ground plan of the new monastery gradually began to take shape in accordance with the architectural plans drawn up by the founder himself[3].

Plate markingMekhitar’s stay in St.Martin.

With the albeit provisional settling of the new arrangements on San Lazzaro, Mekhitar was able to devote himself to the defence of the work of his missionaries. He therefore made his way to Rome with Fr. George and Fr. John and, with the backing of the Venetian Ambassador, Nicola Diedo, was received by the pope in an audience on 10th June and again a week later, returning accompanied by Cardinal Sacripante. The pope expressed his distress at the injustice of the accusations and allowed Mekhitar access to the archive of Propaganda Fide so that he could examine the documents of accusation and exculpate himself point by point. Mekhitar drew up a defence which was duly argued and documented[4].

The island of San Lazzaro in an engraving by Coronelli (1696).

On 26th September 1718, the College of Cardinals gathered to examine the verdict for four hours and fully absolved Mekhitar and his missionaries of the accusations, having decided they were unfounded. The resulting decree from the Propaganda Fide granted Mekhitar and his successors the right to send their own missionaries to the Armenian communities in the East, with the provision – required by the founder in order to prevent possible future accusations arising – that from time to time these would be examined first by the Apostolic Nunciature in Venice in order to verify that they were suitable.

Frontpage of the act, by which Venice conceded to
the Mekhitarists the possession of the island of San
Lazzaro (september 2nd, 1717 - San Lazzaro,
Archive of theMechitarist Congregation).

Before leaving Rome, Mekhitar was asked to express his opinion on the delicate question of the communicatio in sacris. To this end, he wrote a report where he stated that he believed a flexible approach to be more opportune, also in consideration of the value of representative of the Armenian Patriarchate in Constantinople, which made non-attendance of the Armenian Apostolic Church rather problematic for many people. Mekhitar managed to convince the Holy See that a conciliatory approach was opportune. Some years later, however, there would be a return to a more hard line approach, with the excommunication of non-Catholic Armenians and leading to the establishment in 1740 of the Catholic Armenian Patriarchate of Cilicia.

Drawings by hand of Mekhitar showing the
situation of the island of San Lazzaro in 1717
and his plans for the monastery to build
respectively (San Lazzaro, Archive of the
Mekhitarist Congregation).

On his return to Venice, Mekhitar visited the Sanctuary of Loreto in thanks to the Virgin Mary for the happy outcome of his mission to Rome. He arrived at San Lazzaro on 20th December 1718.

In subsequent years, the Abbot would manage to send a number of monks to the East after a rigorous training process involving practice, spiritual exercises, retreats, and they received numerous requests by communities and even the local clergy to send missionaries. As a result, many accounts reached Venice of appreciation of the work carried out by Mekhitar’s disciples and these are still in the historic archive of the Congregation on San Lazzaro.

In February 1721, there seems to have been a revival of the eastern anti-Mekhitarist faction: Cardinal Sacripante of Propaganda Fide Congregation asked Mekhitar to clarify the position of his monks with respect to the accusations arriving from Rome according to which they had taken a permissive attitude towards the attendance of Armenian apostolic churches by Catholic Armenians. The lengthy reply furnished by Mekhitar, sent on 22nd February, gave ample and detailed arguments which sufficed to put an end to the accusations.

Once the renovation work on the church on the island had finished in 1723, Mekhitar started work in 1724 on his construction plans for the new monastery, starting with the north wing. He proceeded lot by lot until the complex was completed in 1740 with the monumental library and the refectory underneath.

View of the monastic complex of San Lazzaro, projected by abbot Mekhitar and built under his direction.

[1] The island is granted in perpetuity by means of a contract which should be renewed every 20 years. In compensation, the “Confraternita dei Mendicanti” requires one mass to be celebrated every day for the benefactor Giacomo Trevisan, 8 pounds of candles on the festivity of Saint Lazarus and 4 pounds more every 40 years. The grant also requires the high altar of the church to remain consecrated to Saint Lazarus. Should the Mekhitarists decide to leave the island, ownership would go back to the Confraternity, including any reconstructions which may be introduced. If, instead, is the Headship of the Confraternity who forces the Fathers to leave the island, they are entitled to 10.000 ducat indemnification. The contract was renewed a second time in 1737 duringMekhitar’s lifetime and a third and fourth time with the successor of Mekhitar in 1757 and in 1777.At the accession of Napoleon, the fall of the Republic and the suppression of the rights of the associations, even though the Confraternity of Beggars has owned the island for more than a century, it was judged appropriate to purchase it from the Austrian authority so that property rights would be acquired for good.
[2] See, in this regard, Chap. IX, pp. 164-165.
[3] Two drawings traditionally attributed to Mekhitar and conserved in the Archive of the Congregation are respectively of: a) the situation at the time of the settlement of Mekhitar, with the boundaries of the island, the outline of the church and a colonnade leading from it to the entrance building, the upper floor of which is shown divided into ten rooms; b) the plan for the monastery showing the first floor of the complex with a layout very similar to the present one, a drawing which probably dates back to 1723, the year in which the renovation work on the church was finished.
[4] The accusations focused mainly on the law and right of the monks of the Congregation founded by Mekhitar to preach in the East, accused of ignorance simply because they had not carried out their studies at the Collegio Urbano, or accused of having vested interests in the collection of alms from the people, or even of preaching without permission and administering the sacraments without authorization. They even went so far as to claim that they were operating in open defiance of an imaginary ban by of Propaganda Fide Congregation on sending missionaries to the East, a ban which proved inexistent in the archives of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith and which the members of the community claimed that their founder had learned by divine inspiration.
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