ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Mary’s Land In Greece

An island in the Cyclades is revered for its miracles.

In the circle of Aegean islands called the Cyclades, southeast of Athens, lies an island known as Tinos. It is mostly rugged and mountainous, its land carefully terraced with large stone fences because there is no level ground. At the foot of its dark mountains nestle beautiful white villages, with lovely blue domed churches and blue bell towers. Many of the villages are Catholic.

Modern Greeks claim that because of the events of the past two centuries, Tinos is sacred to Megalohori – the All-Gracious, the Virgin Mary. History does indeed reveal that Christianity has deep roots on this island where there are forty villages and over a thousand chapels.

In 1207, when Greece was called Byzantium and the Orthodox Church was as powerful as the State, the Fourth Crusade brought Westerners to Greek lands and waters. Tinos came under the domination of two Venetian brothers of the noble family of Ghiza. Though the Greeks have usually assimilated other nationalities instead of being assimilated by them, resistance to the Venetians and their Faith seems to have been less vigorous in the Cyclades than it was on the mainland. The people of Tinos gave their allegiance to their Venetian overlords, and most became Catholic. The Catholic influence that began in the thirteenth century is still felt in the Cyclades today.

When the Ottomans invaded Greece in the fifteenth century, Tinos remained firmly aligned with the Venetians and resisted numerous invasions by the Turks. Worn out at last, she succumbed in the eighteenth century, later than any of the other Aegean islands.

Tinos still holds reminders of the Ottoman occupation, and one of them is the secret school in the Greek Orthodox Convent of the Holy Trinity. The Turks generally allowed freedom of education to the Greeks, but when insurrections occurred, the angry Turks would close the schools. At these times, the only education available to Greek children took place in the secret schools of the churches and monasteries. Covertly, sometimes at night, the children found their way to hidden rooms to be taught by the priests. A nursery rhyme that is still popular recalls the days of the secret schools:

My little moon, light the way for me to walk, to go to school, to learn my letters and the things of God.

The priests who taught in these schools had little formal education themselves, but they passed on the traditions of the nation as well as the Christian Faith. Thus they preserved the national consciousness even in the midst of great danger.

On March 25, 1821, the Feast of the Annunciation, a Greek monk raised the banner of the Virgin as the first Greek flag on the mainland. Two days later, Tinos did the same. The war of Independence had begun.

At the same time, according to island tradition, an old man named Polyzoes had a dream. A glorious lady in white appeared to him and said, “Go to the field of Antonios Doxaras which is outside the city, dig, and find my icon; there build a church. I will help you.”

Polyzoes told the priest and the townspeople of his dream, but no one took him seriously. Some even laughed. Finally two men tried to follow his instructions, but gave up in fear of the Turks. The owner of the field found some stones which were later identified as part of an ancient church. But nothing more was done.

Then in 1822, an Orthodox nun named Pelagia had a series of visions. Again it was a glorious lady of great sweetness who appeared. Three times she asked Pelagia to go to a prominent town official and instruct him to dig the field of Doxaras, find the icon and build the church. Pelagia, convinced that the lady was the Blessed Virgin, ran to her Mother Superior, who sent her to Father Gabriel, the local priest. Father Gabriel knew Pelagia to be a holy woman, and was deeply moved. He summoned the people and asked them to begin digging. They found more stones and an ancient, deep, dried-up spring, but no icon.

Money ran out and the work was stopped.

When Pelagia had another vision she returned to Father Gabriel. Again he summoned the people, and this time they decided to build a new church on the foundation of the old one. The priest came to bless the cornerstone. When he asked for water, he was told there was none, but a little boy suddenly ran up, crying, “The spring is full, the spring is full!” The ancient spring was indeed overflowing.

The building of the new church was undertaken with renewed fervor. One day in 1823, when the church was nearly completed, a worker swung his axe into the earth and felt it hit wood. He picked up two pieces, one half-burned, the other still showing traces of color. On one side was the Virgin; on the other was the Angel Gabriel. It was the icon.

From that moment, Tinos was no longer obscure. News of the discovery traveled to the rest of the Greeks, who were struggling through the first hard months of the long war of Independence after 400 years of Turkish occupation. The people of the mainland took heart, seeing the discovery as a sign that they would win the war.

A much larger, more splendid church – to be called Evangelistria, or the Church of the Annunciation – was begun above the completed smaller one. Whenever the funds donated by the Greeks ran out, the people waited for a miracle. They were not disappointed.

Once, amazingly, it was a Turkish officer who came to the rescue. The man had been paralyzed, and at the suggestion of his Greek doctor, he and his servants slept in the church for two months. (Long periods of lying-in were frequent.) When the officer suddenly regained his ability to move, he jumped for joy and kissed the icon. He promised 500 piasters annually in gratitude, and he kept his word until his death.

As the fame of the sacred icon grew, so did the stories of miraculous cures attributed to it. Many are not documented, but some are. To the people of Tinos, none of this is surprising. They simply say that the land of Greece is under the special protection of the Virgin. When the end of Turkish domination finally came, the Tinians made it known to all that it was the Virgin who saved her people. No Greek argued the point.

Thousands of pilgrims began to flock to the Church of the Annunciation. Tinos, known for centuries as a Catholic stronghold, took on new importance for the Orthodox as well. Gradually, the Catholic population declined. But reminders of the Catholic influence and heritage still exist on the island, and Orthodox and Catholic inhabitants live in harmony as they have since the days of the seafaring Venetians.

At the island town of Xynara, at the foot of a strangely-shaped peak, there is a complex of medieval buildings where a Jesuit school and monastery once flourished. Only four priests remain now, but the monastery recalls the time when Venice, known for her religious tolerance, won over these independent island people and was in turn won by them. Nearby is the convent of the devoted and hard-working Ursuline nuns, who still run a school for island girls. The school receives funds from the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

Although the bishop of the Tinian Catholics now resides on the island of Syros, the Greek Orthodox still refer to Xynara as “the seat of the Catholic bishop,” and they claim that at least three-fourths of the island’s population of 8,000 is Catholic.

On feast days, especially the Annunciation and the Dormition, Tinos still welcomes crowds of pilgrims and tourists to the Church of Evangelistria. Looking more like a palace than a church, it is resplendent with white marble and surrounded by mosaiccovered courtyards. Even the tree trunks nearby are painted white, and a festive feeling fills the air.

Inside the church, the sanctuary is hung with treasures of silver and gold, and with replicas of parts of the body or of rescued ships. They are offerings of gratitude for cures. The icon itself is covered with diamonds and pearls given by grateful pilgrims. At night it is hidden inside a column, but during the day it is placed where thousands of the faithful may kiss it reverently. As they do so, a deacon constantly wipes the protective glass covering of the icon with a cloth soaked in alcohol.

Outside the church, thousands crowd the Boulevard of the Megalohari. Many men and women climb the steps of the church barefoot or on their knees to fulfill a promise they have made to the Virgin. The doors open at seven in the morning and do not close until dark. All during the day, the chants of the priests are heard as the liturgy is celebrated and people come and go.

The first half of the month of August is a sacred time for the Greeks, who flock to Tinos for the celebration of the Dormition of the Virgin. According to custom, the faithful bring their sick and maimed to the island in hundreds of little boats, caiques and other sailing vessels.

The harbor is like a palette on which an explosion of color is dabbed continually.

Those who are fortunate enough to arrive early lie in the church on the night of August 14th. On the morning of the 15th, the icon is carried to the thousands who line the streets of the town, especially on the long promenade by the sea.

In times past, pilgrims coming to the island for the Feast of the Dormition used to arrive with cooking pans, food and mattresses. Today the arrangements are more sophisticated, but the simplicity of faith remains the same.

Hundreds of Greek shrines claim to have miraculous icons, and stories of cures abound, but Tinos continues to be the most sought after. Some worry lest the shrine, like many other places of pilgrimage, lose its aura of holiness because of commercialization. But in spite of the inevitable distractions that come with popularity, Tinos preserves its tradition of faith. The suffering and the troubled come in hope and humility, and they are comforted. The mystery and the wonder of Tinos live on.

Katerina K. Whitley, a native of Greece, now lives in North Carolina. She is working on a book about Greece during World War II.

Get to know us and stay informed about the impact your support makes.

Nous constatons que votre préférence linguistique est le français.
Voudriez-vous être redirigé sur notre site de langue française?

Oui! Je veux y accéder.

Hemos notado que su idioma preferido es español. ¿Le gustaría ver la página de Asociación Católica para el Bienestar del Cercano Oriente en español?

Vee página en español