Our Lady and the Founding of Modern Greece

Here’s another famous story I’ve never heard before!

In the early 1820’s, Greece was trying to break away from the Ottoman Empire and various European powers, and become an independent nation again. (We don’t hear much about this, except Byron’s involvement in the fight.)

In 1821 in Tinos, a gardener started having dreams that Mary wanted him to go dig up an ancient icon of her, which was buried in a local landowner’s field. He dug around a bit and found nothing. Then in 1822, a Greek Orthodox nun named Sister Pelayia (Pelagia) also had dreams, on three consecutive Sundays in July, also asking her to dig up the icon in that same field. Sister Pelayia told her Mother Superior, who told the local bishop, who decided they needed to scale this thing up and dig up the whole field.

So he got together all the people who wanted to participate, and they started digging in September. They found the remains of an old basilica dedicated to St. John the Evangelist, which the Muslims had burned down in the 10th century — but still no icon. Enthusiasm waned. But they got back to it after Christmas, and on January 31, 1823, a guy named Dimitris Vlassis found the icon. (With a pickaxe, by splitting it apart. Luckily it was an Annunciation, and the pickaxe miraculously hit right between the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary looking up from her Bible, thus doing no damage to the actual pictures.)

This page in Greek has pictures of the jewelled icon cover that protects it from the light, and a drawing of what the actual icon looks like underneath. I guess it’s too fragile for photography, as I don’t find anything better. The icon is apparently from early Christian times, and is in a more naturalistic Greek/Roman painting style, instead of in the stylized icon style that developed later. Here’s a page with a picture of an icon of Pelayia holding the icon of the Panagia Evangelistria.

Anyway, the icon was responsible for several healings right on the spot, so people concluded that this was it! A new church was built on the site of the old, and people still travel to it from all over Greece and the world.

The Greeks also took it as a sign of divine approbation of their revolution. The icon is known as the Panayia Evangelistria (All-Holy Lady of the Good News), and under this title, the Virgin Mary is the patron saint of modern Greece. The visionary nun Sister Pelayia is a saint of the Greek Orthodox Church.

But sadly, there’s more!

August the 15th (Feast of the Dormition/Assumption) is one of the four big festivals at Tinos, and many boats and Greek Navy vessels anchor in the harbor. In 1940, an Italian submarine took advantage of this and torpedoed the destroyer Elli without warning, while Greece was neutral. This act brought Greece into the war on the side of the Allies. The bones of the Elli‘s crew are buried in a mausoleum in the basilica’s crypt.

So there you go. It is amazing what we never hear about.

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