On Saturday morning, we headed out to the northern Greek village of Goumenissa (see map above), which our visitor John believed was the village from which his grandfather came when he immigrated to the US in the 1920s. John had a vague list of names of potential relatives who still may live there and little else to go on, so we were in for a bit of detective work.
Again, the first step was to honor God, so our first stop in Goumenissa was to the monastery of Sts. Raphael, Nicholas, and Irene., which sits perched on the hill to the north of the town. There, we met one of the monks who showed us around the monastery and let us venerate small pieces of the saints' relics. The monastery was founded in 1992 after the saints appeared to the woman (to whom they originally revealed themselves) and told her where the monastery was be founded. There are currently 6 monks and 3 novices there. The photo above is of the large katholikon (main church) they are currently building. Despite the monastery's remote location, the monks told us they have over 100,000 pilgrims a year, due to the saints' popularity (and the many miracles they have worked) in Greece today.
Above is one of the beautiful mosaics adorning the new church. After we venerated inside the new church, this is when our day took an unusual twist. As we were coming back from the church to have a coffee with one of the monks, another monk called over to me and asked me my name. When I asked him his, we learned that he was the bishop, Metropolitan Dimitrios of Goumenissa, Axioupolis, and Polykastro. He had a coffee with us and was happy to regale us with the countless stories of the saints' miracles. As he was getting ready to go, I thought I'd tell him about John's search for his relatives on the off chance that he would be able to point us in the right direction. I was somewhat hesitant because the politics of this area are extremely tense, and John was under the impression, since his grandfather only spoke some dialect of Bulgarian (and no Greek at all), that his family belonged to the FYROM. But the bishop was immediately fascinated with the story. He recognized a variation of the last name we gave him and made a call to a local butcher with that name. The butcher referred us to his mother, whom the bishop called next. She was overjoyed to get a call from the bishop and the next thing we know we were all going down to the village to meet her at her house. It appeared we had found his family!
The bishop even accompanied us down to the village. First, we stopped at his monastery/diocesan offices, which is centered on the 200-year-old Church of the Dormition (see #2 in this post), containing the wonder-working icon of the Panagia of Goumenissa. The photo above is of all of us with the bishop. Below is a shot of one of the faded walls.
We then headed just a couple blocks over to the house of the woman with whom the bishop had spoken. Not only John, but all of us, including the bishop, were moved to discover that he had, in fact, found his relatives. The woman to the left in the photo above is the wife of John's first cousin, who, unfortunately, reposed some years ago. The telephone calls began and soon their daughter came over to meet her long-lost cousin. Then an aunt and uncle came. They all compared notes and between them they were able to piece together a good bit of the family history over the last 90 years.
The bishop called one of his deacons, who loves the history and tradition of the area, and he was excited to help facilitate the reunion. He took many of the photos here, including the one above of John with some of his family.
We then walked a few blocks away and found John's grandfather's house, which, it turns out, is one of 18 churches that are registered in Goumenissa as of important cultural heritage and thus cannot be destroyed. Above and below you can see how the original house, which dates to the 19th century, was raised up, with the help of money sent from John's grandfather in the US, to add more room for the growing family. Below is a photo of John with one of his uncles who lives at the house currently.
The bishop took leave of us, but he insisted on treating us to a wonderful, traditional lunch of local meats and foods, which we enjoyed with his deacon, Fr. Christodoulos. There, I broached the potentially explosive question: John's grandfather spoke a dialect of Bulgarian and didn't seem to know Greek. Was he--and by extension John--then Greek? "Absolutely" was the definitive reply from the Greeks present. I didn't know this, but apparently most of this area didn't speak Greek at that time, yet they fought in the Macedonian Struggle on behalf of Greece and the Ecumenical Patriarchate (as opposed to the Bulgarian Exarchate). Many of the heroes of that struggle, they said, didn't speak Greek. But their descendants, such as the ones we had just found in the village, had Greek as their mother tongue and were certainly Greek. Therefore, John was Greek!
What better way to celebrate this than with Greek food, and lots of it! Afterwards, we took a walk in the city down to the village's one parish church dedicated to St. George, where we had Vespers. We were also blessed to venerate a small relic of St. George, which was fragrant.
Here we are with the two priests of the parish, both named Fr. Christos.
And here we are outside the large parish church, which just received a grant of 4 million euros for restoration.
After Vespers, Fr. Christodoulos invited us for another coffee in the village's central square. We started talking about the wine that the region is well known for, and the next thing we knew had called one of the old local winemaking families and a man came over to give us a tour of the old winemaking facilities which were located just two blocks away. In the photo above, we're looking at the old equipment, which was used from the mid 19th century until 1986.
Finally, we managed to tear ourselves away from the incredible hospitality and make our way back home. It was a memorable day for all of us, not just John.
For more photos, click here.