The Life and Martyrdom
of the Holy Hieromartyrs Raphael and Nicholas
and Those with Them
Compiled from various sources
by Hieromonk Ambrose Agiokyprianites
The narrative we shall relate begins at a little hill, just outside the village of Therme, some 14 kilometers north of the town of Mytilene, the capital of the island of the same name (called Lesbos in ancient times). On this hill were to be found the ruined remnants of a small chapel, and the Christians of the area had the curious custom of ascending the hill on Tuesday of Bright Week, and serving the liturgy or simply praying in the ruins. No one knew why that day especially was celebrated, and there existed only a vague recollection that there had once been a monastery at that place, and that the last monks had been killed by the Turks. The whole site was covered by an olive grove that belonged to the local Turks until the exchange of the populations in 1922, when it passed into the hands of the Greek refugees from Asia Minor. In 1959, it was the property of a pious Christian by the name of Angelos Ralles; that year, encouraged by his wife, he decided to build a small chapel on the hill at the site of the old ruins.
On the first day of July the work began, and on the third, exactly in the center of the ruined church, the workman who was digging the foundations found a grave containing a human skeleton; the head was separate from the body, and the lower jaw was missing. The workman gave little significance to the discovery, and having placed the bones in a sack, continued his work. The new chapel was soon finished, and on September 8, the first liturgy was served there. During the liturgy, the workman that had found the bones and was much given to the sin of blasphemy, was joking about the skeleton; suddenly he jumped up and ran headlong down the hill, finally falling flat on the ground. When he came to himself, he explained with tears that he had seen a strange priest who had chased after him and beaten him, saying that he would remain paralyzed for three days. After these days had elapsed, he recovered and, for the first time in 27 years, went to confession and Holy Communion, and began to live an exemplary Christian life. The signs had already begun.
Many people in the neighborhood, quite independently, began to see dreams concerning the former monastery and the monks who had been martyred there. The main personage who appeared was St. Raphael, who had been archimandrite of the monastery, and whose life we will relate in detail below as he dictated it to many people. With him appeared the deacon, St. Nicholas, who repeatedly showed the place of his burial; his grave and relics were found on June 13, 1960, exactly at the spot he indicated. The saints started to appear not only in dreams, but in daylight and at night in and around the old monastery, and were seen by many pilgrims. Other persons were seen accompanying them, and they also, little by little, revealed their identities.
Beneath the floor of the new chapel there were often heard terrible groaning sounds, and it was finally decided to demolish the newly-built chapel in order to excavate beneath. Thus, on May 12, 1961, were found the graves of the mayor of the village of Therme, Basil, and the charred remains of his daughter Irene, who, though only twelve years old, had been burned to death by the Turks in an attempt to force her parents to reveal the whereabouts of the hidden Christians. Through the directions of the saints, the spring of the monastery was found, into which the dead body of St. Raphael had been hurled by the Turks. Similarly, with precise instructions from the saints, there was found a wonderful bas-relief icon of the Savior, which had been hidden by St. Raphael beneath a flagstone in the church, in order to save it from desecration by the Turks. Many miraculous cures began to be recorded, and have continued unceasingly to the present time.
The other persons who appeared with the saints were: the village teacher, Theodore, who indicated the site of his grave where his martyred remains were subsequently found; the monks Stavros and Akindynos, who had buried the bodies of the martyrs; the monk Reuben, who had received the saints when they arrived at the monastery and died before them; Ignatius, a former abbot, and several others. Finally, in February, 1962, a nun called Olympia began to appear. She revealed that, in earlier times, the monastery had been a convent, of which she was abbess; in 1235 the convent was sacked by Turkish pirates, who slaughtered the nuns and tortured her to death by driving nails into her body and head. She showed the place of her burial, and the relics were found there, together with a mass of nails, two of them driven into the head. After her martyrdom, the monastery remained in ruins for some 200 years, until shortly before the arrival of Sts. Raphael and Nicholas.
We owe a special debt of gratitude to the celebrated icon-painter Photios Kontoglou, who, with the greatest patience and reverence, collected all the materials relating to the saints, and published them as the book A Great Sign, first printed in 1962. The saints themselves appeared to several persons, telling them to note their features well and describe them to Kontoglou, so that he could paint their icon, as indeed he did; to others they appeared with information which they told them to write to Kontoglou. They even appeared to the Metropolitan of Mytilene, Iakovos, in order to dispel his doubts about the miraculous events.
But now we must set out in detail what the saints related of their lives and struggles. St. Raphael was born on the island of Ithaca around 1410; in the world his name was George Laskaridis. At the age of sixteen, he left home for Athens, where he became a monk, and having reached the canonical age, was ordained deacon and priest. From there, he was sent on ecclesiastical business to France, and there, in the town of Morlaix in Brittany, he met a young Greek layman from Thessalonika. This young man, the future St. Nicholas, St. Raphael rescued from the wiles of the world (as St. Nicholas himself recorded with gratitude) and, in due course, made him a monk. After some while in France, they returned to Athens, where Nicholas was ordained deacon. Together, they served in the church of St. Demetrius Lubadiaris, at the foot of the Acropolis.
The saints were sent to Constantinople in 1453, but hearing before they arrived that the city had fallen to the Turks, they took a boat from the Thracian coast to the island of Lesbos, which was still free from the Islamic hordes, under the domination of the Genovese. As soon as they reached the island, they sought a monastery where they could live, and were soon invited to the monastery of the Nativity of the Theotokos at Therme, where there was living only one old monk, Father Reuben.
As was mentioned earlier, the monastery, after its destruction in 1235, had been left in ruins for many years, until a pious lady named Melpomene, in gratitude for the miraculous cure of her son Akindynos, restored the monastery and dedicated her son to its service; he lived there with the saints as a layman and buried them after their sufferings. The saints passed about nine years at the monastery in peace, prayer and fasting, and soon became beloved of the local people. In the meanwhile, the aged monk Reuben reposed in the Lord.
In the spring of 1463, it seems that some local uprising occurred in Lesbos against the Turks, who by then dominated the island. They took immediate reprisals. The mayor of the village of Therme, Basil, together with his wife and daughter, and also the teacher Theodore, ran up to the monastery to warn the fathers of the danger, but were instantly arrested there by a company of Turks. It was Great Thursday, and St. Raphael had just served the last liturgy of his life. The torments of the martyrs lasted for several days. Firstly, in order to force the mayor to betray those responsible for the uprising, the Turks, together with a German mercenary named Schweitzer, tortured his twelve year-old daughter, Irene, before her parents; finally she was burned alive in a large earthenware jar. Following this, they slaughtered her parents and beheaded the teacher. Finally, in the evening of Bright Tuesday, they took St. Raphael and, tying him to a tree by his hair, severed his head from his body by cutting through his jaws with a saw. St. Nicholas, who was tied to a tree and forced to watch, died of a heart attack, seeing the fearful death of his beloved elder. The Turks threw the bodies of the saints into the spring, set fire to the monastery, and left.
Some days later, the two remaining brothers, Akindynos and Stavros, who had managed to hide from the Turks, brought the old and blind village priest to bury the bodies of the slain. St. Raphael’s body was lying in the spring, but they could not find the lower jaw, which had been severed (this was discovered in 1960 by a revelation of the saints). With tears, they buried St. Raphael’s body in the center of the ruined church, the remaining bodies outside. So it became the custom of the local Christians to go up to the site of the monastery every year on Bright Tuesday, the anniversary of the martyrdom. The custom remained, though in the course of the 500 years that elapsed until the rediscovery of the saints, the reason had been completely forgotten.
A curious feature of the discovery is the following: In Therme there stood a house “of Arif Aga,” which that aga had built many years before with materials from the ruined monastery. It was commonly regarded as “haunted” because a priest, or a priest and deacon were frequently seen censing around the house, who disappeared as soon as they were approached. The house was abandoned and fell into ruins, but the same phenomenon occurred, indeed very regularly, in the house built on the same site. The saints revealed this mystery in this way: “When the Turks burned the monastery, they took many pieces of marble, and with them Arif Aga built his house. His house has been demolished, but they put some pieces in the new one, and we are commanded by the Lord to go and cense the marble from the church.”
St. Raphael is tall, well-built, around fifty years old, with a long grey beard, large dark eyes, and a hooked nose. He appears dressed in a black rason and veil, or else bareheaded in priest’s vestments, usually blue. Sometimes, he appears also in bishop’s vestments. St. Nicholas is shorter, thin, younger, with a pallid face and short beard. He is usually dressed in deacon’s vestments, and stands before St. Raphael with the utmost respect. Most of the adults have seen them during sleep; the children have seen them while awake. It is remarkable that most of those to whom the saints appeared and revealed their history were themselves victims of the Turkish barbarity who had been expelled from their homes in Asia Minor in 1922, and had lost many of their closest relatives at that terrible time.
Following the discovery of the saints, a convent was built on the site of the monastery, which is today a great center of pilgrimage, where the relics of the saints are guarded, and many have been miraculously healed. Here we will include just one miracle from the many recounted in the book, The Miracles of St. Raphael, by Eugenia, abbess of the Convent of St. Raphael:
“My son Constantine, a pupil at the high school, had a terrible accident. Together with two other boys, he was burned when a cauldron of boiling fat exploded. There was no part of his body which was not burned, from head to foot. We rushed him to the hospital, but the doctors said he could not live, or if by any chance he did so, he would remain paralyzed.
“As soon as I heard this, I uttered from the depths of my heart: ‘St. Raphael, have pity on me and save my child. Let him live with no trace of the accident, or else let God take him tonight, so that he should suffer no more.’
“That evening as I dozed, I dreamed that I was at the harbor of Mytilene, and St. Raphael came up to me dressed in a white rason, and said, ‘Magdalene, your Costas will get well. Soon he will be home without any mark.’ That same night, my son saw St. Raphael come and peel off a black skin from him, from the crown of his head to his toes. The saint said, ‘You are completely well.’
“From that moment, he recovered rapidly, and in fifteen days he was home without any mark on him. The doctors confessed that it was a great miracle. This happened in 1969.
Magdalene Patrele, Ellwood, Australia.”
To the unbeliever, the discovery of the new-martyrs Raphael, Nicholas and Irene would seem an impossible fantasy, but to the Orthodox Christian, it gives reassurance in our faith. The saints appeared to simple, often unlettered people (like the fishermen of the Gospel), and through them, they revealed their history and the history of their monastery. They reassure us in our Orthodox piety when they wish their icon painted, they offer incense and are seen conducting the services of the Church, they tell us to venerate their relics, and work such great miracles. They reassure us that the Church Triumphant is so close to us, that we can see and hear and pray together. In our sinful times, God has given us this sign to believe and repent, as very many in Mytilene believed and repented at these miraculous events. Perhaps we may conclude with the closing prayer of Kontoglou’s book:
“Holy Martyrs, who came to us since we do not come to you; merciful messengers of our all-good God; ancient sacrifices of Orthodoxy, who flowered in the bowels of the earth that held you hidden for five hundred years, indestructible statues which again stand upright, though the demonized enemies of the Faith crushed you and hid you in the depths of the earth: we fall down and venerate you, ever-living vessels of the all-powerful God.”
Taken from Orthodox Life, Volume 32, No. 5, September-October 1982, pg. 3-10, Published by Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, New York.
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