The life of Mkhitar Sebastatsi

Mkhitar Sebastatsi was an Armenian Catholic monk, as well as prominent scholar and theologian who founded the Mekhitarist  Congregation, which has been based on San Lazzaro island near Venice since 1717. The Armenian historian Stepanos Nazarian has described him as the “second Mesrop Mashtots“.

He was born Manugh in Sebaste (now Sivas)  on 17 February 1676, the son of a prosperous merchant Peter and his wife Shahristan. His parents gave him a good education to prepare him to assume the family business. Instead, from an early age, he wanted to become a monk. Refused permission for this, he found a young companion to flee to the mountains where they might live as hermits. Quickly found by his parents he was returned home. As a result of this, the bishop who the abbot of the nearby

Monastery of Surp Nshan (Holy Cross) conferred minor orders on the boy so that he might assist at the liturgical services of the monastery. Still refused permission to enter the monastery by his parents, he began to frequent a neighboring family which consisted of a mother and her two daughters who lived a monastic form of life in their home, which they shared with an elderly priest, who then taught him about the Divine Office.

At the age of fifteen, Manugh finally received the permission he had long sought from his family and he entered the nearby monastery, where he was quickly ordained a deacon. It was at this point that he changed his name to the one he is now known by, Mekhitar (The Consoler).

After his admittance to monastic life, Mekhitar began to see that the state of monastic life was extremely low after the devastating destruction of the Armenian monasteries in previous centuries. He began to seek out a source of true learning of the spiritual life, being taken to various monasteries by several traveling religious scholars who promised to teach him what he sought if he would serve them. During this period, he came into contact with members of the Roman Catholic religious orders who were active in Armenia. Learning about Catholicism, he came to feel that Rome would be the best place to do the theological studies he had long sought. Finally, upon reaching Aleppo, he placed himself under the spiritual direction of a Jesuit priest, who gave him a letter of introduction to the Congregation of the Propaganda. He determined to set out for there, but received many setbacks of both health and the rejection of those Armenian monks and bishops along the way who rejected Western doctrines. Finally he was forced to return to his home town, walking barefoot, though he was suffering from jaundice. Slowly regaining his health there, in 1696 he was ordained a priest by the Abbot of Holy Cross Monastery.

Inspired by the idea of creating a religious  congegation of preachers dedicated to raising the educational and spiritual level of the Armenian people, based on the models of the Western Church, Mekhitar founded in 1701 in Constantinople what would become known after his death as the Mekhitarist Congregation.

Two years later, escaping persecution by the Ottoman authorities, the order moved to Modon in the Peloponnese, then known as the Morea, which was a Venetian possession. In 1715, the order moved to the Island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni at the invitation of the Venetian Republic. On September 8, 1717 Mechitar of Sebaste and his 16 pupils entered that leper colony;which due to his efforts became a monastery. Here Mechitar of Sebaste started explanatory, theological, linguistic, as well as administrative, educational, publishing, economic, monastic activities.

Due to the efforts of Mechitar of Sebaste the Congregation  became scientific cultural center.  He built a church in the island of St. Lazarus, opened a school, which he called “university”. The educational program were based on theology, anyhow, the students received interdisciplinary education. The foreigners were refused to study here, in this way Mechitar of Sebaste tried to increase the number of Armenian educated monks, who would spread enlightment among common Armenian people.  He founded a library, began to collect and study Armenian ancient manuscripts, compiled text-books. Mechitar of Sebatse published near 50 books (14 of them were written by him). Most of these books  were to preach Christian doctrine.

Mekhitar died at the monastery on 27 April 1749 and is buried in the monastery church.

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