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On Saturday, February 16, we took the third in our series of monthly parish pilgrimages. This time, we went to two monasteries in the area of Elassona.
The kids like riding at the front of the bus and looking out the big windshield. In the photo above, Presvytera Maria, the wife of our driver Fr. Stavros, sits with Phoebe on the way to Elassona.
We left Portaria at 10:00 and arrived in Elassona shortly after noon. In the photo above, you can see the Monastery of Panagia Olympiotissa perched on the hill as we entered Elassona.
Here Benjamin and Phoebe are trying to open the doors to the monastery as we waited for the nuns to come.
This is the view just inside the gates. The monastery was founded as a men's monastery in 1296 on the hill known as Olympiotissa, in the foothills of the famous Mt. Olympus.
The inside of the katholikon is spectacular, with iconography dating from its founding, as well as renovation which occurred in 1634. This little-known monastery contains one of the most complete and best preserved fresco cycles of the late Byzantine period in all of Greece. It includes a portrait of the contemporary Byzantine Emperor Andronikus III Palaiologos, whose chrysobull of 1336 establishing the monastery as Royal still exists. There is also a sigillo (official document) from 1342 by Patriarch of Constantinople John XIV establishing the monastery as Patriarchal and Stavropegic, meaning that it belonged directly to the Patriarchate of Constantinople.
In the photo above, you can see Fr. Stavros and Fr. Gabriel, a deacon in our Metropolis and a friend from Panorama, where he attended church while studying at the theological school.
Here Pres. Pelagia is helping Phoebe light a candle near the monastery's famed icon Panagia Olympiotissa.
And here is the icon, in a special room just off the entrance to the katholikon. It is a rare icon -- very small (11 x 7 cm, surrounded by an ornamented silver frame from the 19th c.), with the Panagia standing alone without the Christ child. The exact date of the icon is not known, but it was originally located in a men's monastery in Karyas, Olympus, which was abandoned for unknown reasons in the late 1200s. The monks then took up residence in this new monastery, and brought the icon with them.
The katholikon is dedicated to the Transfiguration, so the monastery has had dual feast days probably since its inception -- both Aug. 6 and Aug. 15. Additionally, since the city was liberated from 500 years of slavery in 1912, the people have honored the Panagia's divine assistance by processing the icon from the monastery down to the Church of St. Dimitrios in the town's center every year on Oct. 5.
A view from the katholikon down to the entrance. The monastery has a traditional design, with the katholikon surrounded by rows of cells on all sides.
Here our group makes its way to the Arhontariki for a coffee. There, I was surprised to see a photo of Elder Ephraim of Arizona prominently displayed. I asked the sisters, and it turns out they are one of the sisterhoods established by Elder Ephraim in the early 1980s before he left for the United States. Outside of Mt. Athos, where his contribution is well-known, I was aware of only three women's monasteries in Greece -- Serres, Thasos, and of course Portaria. I had often seen quoted that Elder Ephraim was responsible for the founding or re-founding of 20 monasteries in Greece (including Mt. Athos, I suppose), but I never knew about any others. The gerontissa told me that there is also another women's monastery, dedicated to St. John the Forerunner, in Livadi, located about half an hour north of them on the west side of Mt. Olympus. We'll have to go there sometime.
Another surprise came when one of the nuns came up and introduced herself as an American. She is of Carpatho-Russian descent and grew up in the Pittsburgh area. She has been at this monastery the last 13 years. The gerontissa was proud to report that her Greek had progressed quite nicely, despite the fact that she had come not knowing a single word (we can relate!).