When he founded the Mekhitarist Congregation in 1701, Mekhitar of Sebastia (1676-1749) envisioned a monastic order that would engage in educational activities. Research and scholarship became an integral part of that project, which would be continued by his disciples and successive generations of monks in both branches of the island of San Lazzaro, in Venice, and Vienna.
Rev. Mgrdich Avkerian (Jean-Baptiste Aucher, in French) would be one of the remarkable names in the generation that came to the fore after Mekhitar’s disciples. He was born in Ancyra (now Ankara), in Turkey, on November 11, 1762, in a Catholic Armenian family. His younger brother Harutiun (Pascal), also a member of the Congregation, would be famous as the Armenian teacher of Lord Byron.
In 1774 their father took young Mgrdich, then twelve, to Venice, where he entered the monastery of San Lazzaro and studied at the monastic school. Upon graduation, in 1786 he was ordained celibate priest. He taught at the monastic school for a decade and then he was sent to Constantinople as a preacher for Catholic Armenians. Back to the monastery after eight years, from 1804 until his death he would hold the positions of adviser for thirty years and of general vicar for twenty years.
Rev. Mgrdich Avkerian was also an extremely prolific scholar, linguist, and translator. He published in twelve thick volumes the monumental Complete Life and Hagiography of the Saints in the Ancient Calendar of the Armenian Church from 1810-1814. This huge work was in Classical Armenian, as well as several religious and moral tracts he published from 1809-1814. However, at least two of the latter, Good Advices (1809) and Medicine of Life, which is Spiritual Medical Book (1810), were written in Modern Armenian, which offers an important resource in the study of the history of the language.
Avkerian made an important contribution to classical scholarship, publishing two works that have only reached us through their ancient Armenian translation. The first one was fourth century historian Eusebius of Caesarea’s Chronicon, whose Armenian translation he published along with his Latin translation in 1818. This was a very valuable historical source about the ancient world, sometimes with unique information. The second was a collection of writings by Philo of Alexandria, an important source from the first century A.D. in the development of the philosophical and theological foundations of Christianity (1826). No less important for Armenian scholarship was the publication of eighth-century author Catholicos Hovhannes Odznetsi’s Discourse against Aphtartodocetians (1807). Aphtartodocetism, also known as Julianism, was a heresy rejected by the Armenian Church and formulated by Julian of Halicarnassus, who suggested that Christ’s body was always incorruptible.
The Mekhitarist monk also translated a flurry of works from Latin to Classical Armenian—krapar was still the literary language preferred by many—including texts by Seneca, Cicero, and St. Gregory the Great. Particularly important among these translations was the Armenian version of fourteenth century author Hayton the Armenian, Fleur des histories de la terre d’Orient (1842).
However, Avkerian’s arguably most celebrated work was the New Dictionary of the Armenian Language, a task that he shared with two colleagues, Rev. Kapriel Avedikian and Khachadour Surmelian. He completed the dictionary from the letter Զ to the end (that is, 30 letters) and supervised the publication in 1836-1837 after the passing of his co-authors. This dictionary, which became the standard source for Classical Armenian to this day, included an enormous amount of entries with corresponding quotations from sources both printed and manuscript. Avkerian was already aware that this dictionary was only available to a limited circle of learned people, and ten years later (1846) he published an abridged version, Pocket Dictionary of the Armenian Language, where he gave the explanations of the Classical Armenian entries in Modern Armenian.