In Search of Roots: Sts. Constantine and Helen Monastery in Chios
By Catherine Tsounis
“In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage- to know who we are and where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning. No matter what our attainments in life, there is still a vacuum, emptiness, and the most disquieting loneliness. ” ― Alex Haley.
At a lecture before college students ten years ago, Apostoli Zoupaniotis said “Keep your Greek alive by visiting Greece.” To my surprise, all these ideas made an impression on our daughter, Despina. She went in search of her roots the middle of August in Chios, accompanied by her Italian/German/Catholic friend, Susan Achtziger.
Argyro of Sunrise Tours became my personal friend in 2007, when she arranged my 2 day Tour of Western Anatolia’s coast. She aided me in purchasing books in Greek that continue to aid me in my research. I called Argyro a week before their arrival. Within hours, all the staff put together a package. They helped both tourists see the island of Chios. This was during the height of the Masticha Fire Emergency. Sunrise Tours of Chios with administrators Argyro, Eleni, Eleftheria and the entire staff made this a reality. From August 17th through 21st, Chios was their home base. When Despina and Susan landed in Chios, Sunrise Tours helped them visit immediately Ieron Parthenon Sts. Constantine and Helen Monastery in Cambos and afterwards the Mavra Volia a beach. The round trip taxi fare to the monastery was fifty euros.
The monastery is located on the hills of Cambos, overlooking Tseme (Cesme) on the shores of Asia Minor. A tourist has a ten minute ride from Chios City on the winding hill of Francovouni past hotels and villas. The monastery’s isolation makes travel difficult. Expensive departure arrangements with the taxi cab driver must be made in advance.
The conservative religious tradition in prayer, fasting, monastic solitude and faith healing has remained in the memory of Chian immigrants for generations. This memory is part of our family tradition. My grandmother, Despina Gagas Pappas (Papantonakis), had friends who became nuns after the 1922 Asia Minor Catastrophe. Her friends, the sisters, would refer to her as “our person, Despina of Kato Panagia” (modern day Cliftic). Sts. Constantine and Helen monastery is part of our family heritage.
She came to pray at the monastery in 1954 and visit her old neighbors from Tseme, Turkey. During their time of troubles in the 1950’s (their refusal to switch from the Julian to Gregorian calendar), Mrs. Pappas mobilized the Greek community of Astoria. She began a neighborhood project to send clothing, aspirins and medical supplies. Icons, wooden crosses, oil paintings small and over four feet long and oversized tablecloths were purchased from the monastery. The economic relief effort helped. The Chian Bishop reversed his decision. The monastery reopened. Today, the memory of Mrs. Pappas and others, who aided the nuns in their “time of troubles’, are remembered every Sunday in a memorial service.
Through the years, I would write to Mother Superior Paraskevi, a former educator, excellent administrator and religious leader. The Reverend Mother has helped to create a breathtaking monastery. She mentioned Tseme the moment I saw her several years ago in late May. “Pahoumios, the monk who founded our monastery during the early 1900’s, was constantly being interrogated by Turkish authorities over the imposing walls he was building,” she said. “This was pre-1912, before the liberation of Chios. The Turks in control did not trust Pakoumios, who was an austere, religious monk. They believed he was building an edifice to reclaim Tseme for Greece. Through constant mistreatment and harassment by Turkish authorities, the devoted monk developed cancer and died. He was a mentor of St. Nektarios.”
Sts. Constantine and Helen monastery is one of two monastic orders founded by Pahoumios, a monk from Jerusalem, who was from the village of Elata, Chios. Two masterpieces on Chian monasticism were written by Antonios N. Harokopos. “O Gerontas Pahomios: Founder of the Holy Monastery of The Holy Fathers of Chios, 1839-1905” was published in Athens in 2003. “O Osios Pahomios” (The Holy Pahomios) was written in 2006 describing the development of the monasteries of The Holy Fathers and Ieron Parthenon St. Constantine and Helen. Both books are written in Greek with actual correspondence of the monk Pahomios. In 1992, upon the celebration of Chios’ 90th Anniversary of freedom from the Ottoman Turkish Empire, international Byzantine History scholar, presented the Panchiaki Korais Society with a recognition award from the Academy of Athens. The following information is from Mr. Harokopos books.
The monk Pahomios was from the village of Elata of an agrarian family. He went to Constantinople in when he was 17 years old. He sold lemons. He was involved in an event with his friends that resulted in his being imprisoned. Being in a Turkish prison, especially for a Christian, was virtually a death sentence. Pahomios deep religious faith and subsequent events in his life that were totally miraculous resulted in his gaining his freedom. He became a monk. He lived in the religious community of St. Savas. He travelled to Chios with one purpose: to begin monastic orders for men and women. Unfortunately, the monk encountered many difficulties, for this was the Chios of 1900, a time of unrest and the reign of the dying Ottoman Empire.
Before establishing the first Monastic community of the “Agioi Pateres” (Holy Fathers), Pahoumios spent a long period of time in religious reverence in a cave on the Provatios mountain. He lived in the same bare mountainous abode as three other famous Chian religious figures: Nicetas, John and Joseph. Upon the conclusion of his spiritual contemplation, he established a simple, but elegant Byzantine monastery of the “Agioi Pateres” or “The Holy Fathers.” It is on a hilltop overlooking the famous Byzantine monastery of “Nea Moni”. Today, four monks live in the solitude of the forests of this natural setting.
Pahoumios established his second order for women, the Ieron Parthenon Sts. Constantine and Helen. His initiative was energetic. Turkish authorities harassed the dedicated monk. In the words of one nun: “They tortured him and threatened to massacre the Chians, if he didn’t stop the building of the Ieron Parthenon.” The two primary obstacles were the location from a military standpoint and lack of permission from the sultan to build. Metropolitan Deliyannis attested to the honest character of Pahomios. The holy monk Andronikos, Pahoumios’ successor, wrote that he was driven to create Ieron Parthenon because of the terrible condition of the nuns of Chios. In 1898, he bought the site that had the ruins of the Church Sts. Constantine and Helen. The challenges he encountered were physical labor, economic and problems with the civil leadership. Devout Christians made donations. His numerous contacts helped him create the monastery. He never saw the completion of his project.
The monk Andronikos conducted the opening ceremonies with Metropolitan Ieronymos on May 30, 1910. The monastery became a reality and gained a following of ten nuns. During the Asia Minor Catastrophe of 1922, Chios was flooded with refugees from neighboring Tseme (modern Cesme), Young women, of middle and upper class Hellenic society in Anatolia, suffered culture shock upon being cast on the shores of an island whose inhabitants viewed them as Turks and not as fellow Hellenes. Penniless, without a dowry and any chance of a successful marriage, they embraced the monastic, sheltered life of the Ieron Parthenon. Some of these survivors were Marianne and Salome, friends of my family.
The monastery follows the Old Calendar (refers to any Orthodox Christian or any Orthodox Church body which uses the historic Julian calendar). They celebrate major holidays at a later time than the followers of the modern, Gregorian calendar. They create religious and natural art works, sewing and weaving of cloth and creations of tablecloths in the past. There is a central church dedicated to the memory of Sts. Constantine and Helen in the courtyard.
Three chapels exist. Mother Superior Paraskevi created the two chapels of “The Birth of the Holy Prodromos (John the Baptist) and “Ta Isothia tis Theotokou (The Presentation of the Virgin Mary). The third chapel is dedicated to St. Pahomios. Beautiful gardens, traditional wells and folk art create a spiritual, peaceful environment. An art studio, cafeteria and living quarters of the sisters are other structures. The following persons were Mother Superiors of Ieron Parthenon: Theofano Makroutsi, founder, 1900-1945; Efpraxia Mela, 1945-49; Semni Takianou, 1949-53; Theoktisti Ntabou, 1953-71 and the present Mother superior Paraskevi Mpontozi from 1971. The financial basis of the monastery is from the handiworks of the sisters and donations.
“My grandmother, Kiriaki Samiotakis, spent all her mornings at church and the Monastery of St. Constantine and Helen in Combos,” said Kiriaki Papamihalakis of Limani Meston, Restaurant on the seashore of Mesta. “Her daughter, Evangelia Samiotakis, became a nun at 17 years old at the monastery. Her new name as a nun was Athanasia. She died at 40 years old because she refused to see a doctor when she was sick. She would say it was in God’s hands, if she became well. My mother was born in Cambos and father from Mesta. Young and old worked the family business together. My father’s families, the Samiotakis, were from Tseme in Asia Minor.” Throughout my travels along Chios’ coastline, Tseme was mentioned as well as seen. “We are having an icon made in honor of the nun Athanasia (Evangelia) at St. Constantine and Helen,” she explained. “Our families are from Chios and Asia Minor. We have a generational tie to the monastery dating from the first persecution in 1915 and the Asia Minor catastrophe in 1922.” The austere wooden exterior of the monastery betrays the elegant Byzantine architecture of the interior. At the entrance, a sign states: ”The Moni (Monastery is closed daily from 1-4 p.m. On Sundays and holidays, it stays open from 12 noon till sunset. Men (underlined) are not allowed. Women must dress respectably.” In a previous visit, I was told men were allowed in for emergency repairs on the monastery’s masonry work. Shiny, immaculate masonry adorn the courtyard, chapel and living quarters of the nuns. Mother Superior is one of the few sisters allowed to speak to visitors. The Order does not allow communication among its members with persons of the outside world. They fast throughout the year and eat one meal a day.
“Nea Moni is a Unesco World Heritage site,” said Despina. “But I was impressed with
Sts. Constantine and Helen Monastery. We really enjoyed our time here.” The grounds are cared by the sisters with limited outside help. Photographs of the sisters are not allowed. They wear traditional, monastic garments of black, totally covering themselves except for hands and face. Despina and Susan were greeted warmly by Mother Superior (Igoumeni) Paraskevi. “So you are Despina Pappas’ great granddaughter and Katerina’s daughter!” she said. They were given a tour of the Folk Art Studio. The painting of the “Navagos”, or drowning woman in a shipwreck who is saved from the turbulent sea by the Cross, hangs in our home in Queens. “Oil paintings showing life in Chios and religious symbolism were impressive. Many of the art works are present in our home and that of our relatives, the late Skellas family of Queens. I am astonished seeing the oil paintings and realizing they are part of my life at home. A copy of a studio oil painting, showing a cross with flowers, was lost in the fire of my grandparent’s home.” Despina bought a replica. The writing says “The Cross: Friend of all, Ieron Parthenon Agiou Konstantinou 2007.” Mother Superior let me know “they were treated as their own.”
On August 17th, Mother Superior Paraskevi, called me during Despina’s visit, which coincided with my late Father, George’s, birthday and that of my friend, Stavroula Raia. “We have shown her the monastery sites. Now they are going to have refreshments in our dining hall. She tells me tomorrow, they are visiting Tseme where your grandmother Despina came from.” The loucoumades refreshment made special for the tourists by Mother Superior deeply moved them.
Tseme (Cesme) is the nostalgic place where more than 50% of Chios City’s (Chora) citizens are descended and see from their shores. Modern Cesme is a province that is part of the prefecture of Izmir (Smyrna). Prefecture is similar to the states of New York or New Jersey. A county such as Queens, Nassau, Suffolk are considered provinces.
“When one approaches Chora (Chios City) by boat, one sees a coast of well-kept multiple dwellings,” writes Antonis Iordanoglou in his book, Chios: Unresearched, 2003 Road ekdosis, Athens. “It is an icon that does not represent the mythical origin of the city when Minoan wineries brought wine cultivation……The first inhabitants of Chora chose to build their city in this side of the island for communication reasons with the shores of Asia Minor and closeness to Oinousses. Because the distance is slight, the Chians had interaction with their Mikrasiatic neighbors….then battles took place between them….especially with the Erythraians (persons from the peninsula opposite Chios City) who according to Pausanias were Cretan who later mixed with the Ionian inhabitants.”
“The sisters have arthritis,” said Despina. “They showed me their hands and explained they do not take medicine. ‘We will go and pray and we will get better they said.’ Faith healing works for them. They have an active life, forgetting their aches through prayers”
Mother Superior was impressed with Susan’s interest. She attempted to convert Susan to Greek Orthodoxy. A devout Catholic, Susan said she “was sure she was not going to convert.” Her respect for the Greek Orthodox tradition impressed Mother Superior Paraskevi, who gave her a beautiful folk art cross made of black yarn.
Despina was the fourth generation of my family to have contact with Ieron Parthenon St. Constantine and Helen monastery. She acted as a translator to Susan Achtziger, her 4th generation American friend. “I am amazed by the hospitality of Mother Superior Paraskevi and the sisters and the Greek people,” said Susan. “Everyone who meets you says ‘let’s eat’ and treats you as a friend. I have not seen this anywhere. I also understand better the handicap children I serve, as a speech pathologist, by being in a non-English environment. But, I learned a few words such as Efharisto.” This was not a show to tourists. Hospitality and graciousness to all visitors is the authentic image of Greece missing in the U.S. media.
Photo 1 – Ieron Parthenon Sts. Constantine and Helen Monastery in Cambos, Chios, with chapel of St. Pahomios in background, sisters’ living quarters on the left and Cathedral on right. Photos by Despina Siolas and Susan Achtziger.
Photo 2 – Despina Siolas went in search of her roots at Ieron Parthenon Chios with her 4th generation American Susan Achtziger.