Orthodox monastery of Prophet Elias in Santorini, Greece
Monastic HistoryThe Holy Patriarchal Stavropegion Monastery of Prophet Elias is located on the hill of the homonymous mountain, on an altitude of 567 m., 3 km away from the village Pyrgos of the municipality of Kalliste, on the southeastern part of the island of Santorini.
The foundation of the monastery
According to the founder’s letter (6 March 1711), signed by the bishop of Thera Zacharias Gyzis, the Monastery was founded in 1711. The founders are the brothers Gabriel and Ioakeim, the sons of Antonios Belonias and Aikaterini Sigala the daughter of Ioannis, from the village Pyrgos. Priest-monks and vicars, they secluded themselves and established the monastery using land belonging to their family. Two chapels already existed there, devoted to the Prophet Elias and the Ypapanti (Presentation) of Christ.
According to dedicatory documents and purchase titles kept in the Monastery’s records, the prophet Elias chapel initially belonged to Konstantinos Pragiotis and was later transferred to the hierodeacon Parthenios Sigalas, a relative of the owners, who rebuilt the second chapel of the Ypapanti. Parthenios Sigalas granted this space to the brothers Gabriel and Joakim.
According to the founder’s inscription of the bishop Zacharias, the Belonias brothers were authorized to “build a single male monastery to serve God”. That is why, the bishop continues “I give this temple with the chapel that hosts our Virgin of Ypapanti to the saint priestmonk Gabriel Belonias and to his blood brothers and their attendance, in order to make it a monastery for men and a shelter for all Christians…” The founder’s letter of the archbishop Zacharias Gyzis is also validated with the signature of Agapios Gyzis, the representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Santorini, holding the title of the dear to God archbishop of Sotiroupolis.
The establishment of the Monastery and its declaration as Stavropegion
In order to build the monastery, Gabriel and Ioakeim started seeking financial help, nevertheless in vain, because of the general financial difficulties of Greece at that time. The effort to raise the necessary funds was then turned towards the thriving community of people from Thera in Konstantinople. The monk Gabriel traveled to Konstantinople, carrying special references by the bishop Zacharias Gyzis and other worthy people of Thera, where he found a positive response. At the same time, the priest-monk made sure that the newly founded monastery consolidated its rights as a patriarchal stavropegion (a monastery directly under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate).
In Konstantinople, he first met with the archimandrite (great dean) Azarias, son of N. Sigalas, teacher of the Great School of the Nation and preacher of the patriarchal temple, who mediated to the Patriarch Kyrillos II΄. The Patriarch composed a special patriarchal sigillion (decree) (May 1712), that he gave to Gabriel, according to which the Monastery is validated as a Patriarchal Stavropegion. The stavropegial rights were renewed by Gregory V, in 1798.
The Monastery as a Patriarchal Exarchate
The capacity of the monastery from mid 18th to mid 19th century varied between 15 and 20 monks, an especially large number compared to the rest of the monasteries in Greece at the time, with the exception of course of the monasteries of Athos. As a result of that growth, along with the reliability of the monastery towards the Patriarchate, the abbot was advanced to the dignity of a Patriarchal Exarch (representative of the Patriarchate with full authority).
The Patriarchal Exarch of the monasteries was responsible for safeguarding the regular order of the monasteries of his region and for the cashing of the “regular” debts to the Patriarch. He toured around the monasteries of his jurisdiction and in the presence of each high priest “he supervised the exact and clear account of income and annual expenditure of each monastery through the registered records of gear and real estate…”..
The everyday life of the monks
Initially, the monastery was organized as an idiorrythmic one (self-regulating form of monastic life). When the number of the monks increased, it became coenobitic (communal form of monastic life), and this form was retained until the middle of the 18th century. After that, the monastery became idiorrythmic again until 1998, when the contemporary fraternity was manned. Until 1850, the number of the monks varied between 10 to 20 and sometimes more, according to the monastery’s records. Joseph Dekigalas who made a census in Thera, recorded 15 monks (Γενικc Στατιστικc τÉς Νήσου Θήρας, ^Eρμούπολις 1850, 16). This number was sustained from 1850 until almost 1870, as minutes from the abbot and consultants elections testify. However, the number decreased constantly from 1880 onwards. In 1918, we know that the monks were 9, from the records of the then Ministry of Religious Affairs. Today there are only 3 monks living in the monastery. Special care was taken for the organization of the daily and spiritual life of the monks. As early as in the founder’s inscription of the bishop Zacharias, the following rules were established:
a) the monks were obliged to lead a humble, honest, virtuous, prudent, peaceful and untempted life, without disputes and conflicts, to love each other, as one soul in different bodies, and not to boast to a brother of the monastery.
b) the brothers of the monastery were not allowed to concede their property after the tonsure, unless with the permission of the superior and for the purpose of spiritual benefit.
c) the monks were not allowed to possess the offerings of the faithful.
e) the monks were given the right to travel throughout the region, according to the institution of “zeteia” (alms begging missions).
f) the monks had the obligation of organizing an annual fair to celebrate the memory of the saint.
g) entry to the monastery was forbidden to women (avaton).
The avaton of the monastery
The “avaton” (exclusion of women) was established since the monastery was founded. Entrance to women was only allowed in special occasions, as for example in the case of sickness of a monk and the need to be nursed by a relative. Sick or poor women that sought help in the monastery could only go as far as the windmill, at the spot “Alogomylos”. The most virtuous monk of all abided there, who also had the task of the miller.
The “avaton” was sustained until the 19th c., when the validity of this rule weakened. Today, women are allowed to enter in the Katholikon (main church) and the Archontariki (reception hall).
The contribution of the Monastery
The monastery of Prophet Elias developed remarkable activity and contributed to the growth of the local community by promoting Greek culture, participating in national issues and doing charity. In a letter of thanks dated 5th of March 1849, addressed to the monastery by the Eparchate of Thera, we read: “…we thereby take the opportunity to express our praise, Reverend, for the benevolent attitude towards charitable institutions, that will be rewarded in good time”.
The contribution to education
The Patriarchal and Stavropegial School of Martinou
One of the most important charitable works of the monastery was the foundation of a Greek school in the region of Martinou, at a small distance from Pyrgos. The region is known up to this day as “Schools”. Its founding was arranged for October 1799. The construction, on monastic land, started in 1803 and was completed in 1806. The abbot Paisios, appreciating the importance of this big project, disposed huge amounts of money for its completion. The Patriarchate blessed this new project of the monastery by publishing a relevant decree (patriarchal sigillion). This sigillion establishes the primary administrative and educational principals of the school in a detailed way, demonstrating the particular care of the Patriarchate. A second sigillion arranges that “the school will be forever named and acknowledged as Patriarchal and Stavropegial (under the juridiction of the patriarchate)”. The Greek school of Martinou operated for more than 40 years, until 1845, and contributed to the development of Greek education and spiritual revival. Today, after its maintenance and restoration by the monastery in the 70s, the building is the only witness of its existence.
The Greek-Orthodox School of Thera
The educational work of the Monastery also comprises the establishment of a new Greek-Orthodox School in Thera in 1831. The school was built with the provision and funding of the monastery.
The activity of the monastery outside the island
The educational activity of the monastery was not limited to the regional level, as research in its archive shows.
We suggestively note:
a) An annual contribution of 300 drachmas to the Pastoral School of Syros. (Receipt no.32of the Committee of Pastoral Schools dated 17/7/1857 and document no. 31-36/15-4-1859 of the Metropolis of Syros and Tenos, during the years of Metropolite Daniel).
b) On its own initiative, the monastery sent scholars to Rizareios School. (Documentno.248/25-2-1849 of the monastery, addressed to the Metropolite of Cyclades. The document is signed by the abbot Ierotheos Venetsanos and his counselors).
c) For the establishment of “Filekpedeutiki Etaireia” the monastery offered a monthly contribution of 18 drachmas for a number of years (document no. 115/16-8-1839, signed by the Metropolite Zacharias). It has to be noted that the mission of this educational establishment was to promote the basic education of the people. This educational establishment still exists until this day.
d) With the circular letter (egkyklios) no. 1/26-4-1839 of the Metropolite Zacharias Kyriakou (of Andros), addressed to the “councils of the holy monasteries maintained by this episcopate…”, referring to fundraising for the Greek University and the Public Library we read: “… we invite each one of you to contribute generously not only from the monastery’s bursaries but also from your own savings… for the Greek University and the Public Library…”.
The second “egkyklios” of the Metropolite (no. 772/16-5-1839) refers to the same thing. The monastery, with the document no. 64/22-5-1839, is the first institute to offer the amount of 50 drachmas as the first instalment for this purpose.
The social contribution of the monastery
Besides the significant educational contribution, the monastery developed important charitable and socially beneficial activities. It welcomed and nursed the poor and the sick. The operation of the Leprosarium of Thera, that was founded before 1839, was supported largely by the annual financial contribution of the monastery for the continuous needs of the patients and other costs. Part of the monastery’s land was vested in 1956, after the big earthquake, for the needs of the victims. The Village Kamari was built exclusively on monastic land. With regular contributions, the monastery supported financially the Katzellaria (300 grosia), the Resident Commissionary of the Islands (200-400 grosia). It also offered money “for the Christian citizens of England that suffered in India, because England did good to our nation in many ways during this sacred fight…” as noted in the document no. 137/4-11-1857.
The contribution to the nation
In 1787, a time when Russia was in war with the Ottoman Empire, the monastery of Prophet Elias equipped a sailboat of the type “polaka” under the name of “Hagios Georgios”. The ship traveled with the “flag of the monastery and an icon of the prophet Elias”.
“…our sacred monastery, that is honored by the name of the prophet Elias, bought a sailboat, to travel both in the White and in the Black Sea and elsewhere, to various destinations…we bought this sailboat, named after Hagios Georgios, and we appointed a captain named Antonios Danezis along with 15 comrades, giving to him the flag of our monastery and an icon of our prophet Elias and this humble patent of ours…signed by ourselves and sealed with the seal of our holy monastery for indication and safety.
Santorini, 30 March 1787
Neophytos, superior of the Holy Stavropegial Monastery of the Prophet Elias and his brothers in God…
(Gennadeios Library, K 24,8)
During the fight for freedom of 1821 the Monastery offered every possible help, physically and spiritually. This great contribution is substantiated in many documents of the time, which are today kept in the Monastery’s records as well as in the National Archives.
In 1822, 16 monks, led by the abbot and other dignitaries of Thera, wrote to Alexandros Ypsilantis to declare their intention to take part in the rebellion.
The Monastery as a place of exile
In mid 19th century, the monastery also served as a place of exile for clergymen. The distance of the island from the mainland of Greece, along with the difficulty of communication in general, kept personalities that disturbed the status quo isolated.
Theophilos Kairis lived in exile in the monastery from 1840 to 1842. He was a clergyman and philosopher from Andros, who was expelled to Skiathos, to the monastery of Evaggelismos (Annunciation), before going to trial for his beliefs “… in order for him to take the time to repent and to return to the right path from which he deviated…”. After that, because of illness, he is transferred with a royal decree, to Santorini. The exile rules were settled:
a) He should reside in a private, aired and sunny cell with pension and every other care, b) He should take care of his personal safety and salvation, c) The monks are allowed to visit him only “for consolation but they are not allowed to discuss religious stuff with him”, d) Visitors to the monastery are not allowed to meet him, e) His relatives can only visit him with the written permission of the Commander of Thera. (doc. 461/ 4-4-1840).
The monk Christophoros Papoulakos from Kalavryta, at the age of 50, decided to preach the divine word to save people from sin. However, his acts caused upheaval and it was judged that they violated the Penal Code. He was sent to trial in 1852 and was exiled in the monastery. The exile rules were also settled and similar to those of Kairis. During his staying in the monastery he continued to talk about “the benefit of the soul”, causing more strict rules of exile upon himself, until the year 1854 when he was transferred to Andros, to the Monastery of Panachrantos.
Dionysios Epifaniadis, a monk and literate from Skiathos. He was a counselor of the patriarch Gregorios VI and was later famous for his activity in Small Monastery of Konistria in Skiathos. In 1852 he was arrested for his beliefs and sent to exile to the Monastery of Prophet Elias, where he stayed for 10 years.
Less important personalities must have been expelled to the monastery, like Akakios Koutsis from Spetses, in 1875.
The prophet’s fair and other festivals
On July 20th, the saint’s day, the monastery is a pilgrim site for the whole island. In the afternoon, a crowd of pilgrims comes to take part in the Big Esperinos (evening prayer). After that, a vigil is made and early in the morning an episcopal Divine Liturgy, by the Metropolite of Thera. After the mass, the icon of the prophet is carried around. At the end, bread and cheese is handed out. In the past, the pilgrims were offered legumes or fish, cheese and barley bread. The founders memorial is made in the afternoon. The icon of the prophet is also taken out and carried around in times of drought. In the litany the monks of the monastery take part, the holy clergy and a crowd of people, escorting the saint, who set the clouds during the times of Achaav with one word, so that he sends the rain to the dry and waterless Thera. Other important feasts of the monastery are the Evening Prayer of Love on Easter Sunday, the feast of Hagios Nektarios on December 4, as well as the feasts of the chapels and the metochia. Apart from the festive officiations though, the everyday mass is the heart of the monastic life of the community.