Ironically, one of the most treasured places of pilgrimage in Greece is to a saint that is not even Greek, on an island, not the mainland, and is a church, not a monastery. St John the Russian in the north of Evia has been a place many flock to for everything from cancer to travel to children’s illnesses. As a lifelong traveler to Hellas, this year I finally made it to Evia to revere the incorrupt relics of this unique saint. The Church of Agios Ioannis o Rousos, “St John the Russian” as he is called in Greece, is conveniently located less than a two-hour drive from the center of Athens. As I didn’t have my car in order, I took the KTEL. It turned out that a round trip costs under 13 Euros to get to Chalkida (less than I pay for a taxi to the Acropolis!). The connecting KTEL bus for Prokopos, the village the church is located, usually leaves within 15 to 30 minutes of the KTEL from Athens, so there is no wasting too much time. That trip will cost approximately 3 Euro and 80 each way.
On the Sunday I visited, the church (while practicing social distancing) was packed with a wide swath of people from all walks of life: an infant and his family who had just been baptized, an elderly gentlemen shuffling on his cane, a family with a girl with Down’s syndrome (St John has a special reverence for young people), several couples, a church group in the middle of attending a paraklesis service to the left of the Royal Doors. Upon entering the temple, I felt a strong pull of Grace. A spirit of calmness and centeredness descended on me and I was able to stand in front of the iconostasis and pray for a longer time than is usual with me.
The fully exposed body of the saint under the glass sarcophagus can unsettle a person not used to seeing these things. But the signs of incorruption are clear. One’s soul quickly surmises that it is in the presence of one of the Lord’s saints.
The Story of St John’s Life
It is said that Saint John was born in 1690, raised in piety and love for the Church of God. Upon attaining the age of maturity he was called to military service, and he served as a simple soldier in the army of Peter I and took part in the Russo-Turkish War. During the Prutsk Campaign of 1711 he and other soldiers were captured by the Tatars, who handed him over to the commander of the Turkish cavalry. He took his Russian captive home with him to Asia Minor, to the village of Prokopion.
He was taken as a slave and bought by this Ottoman Turk of high rank to the village of Prokopion in Asia Minor, in what is now southern Turkey. At first, his master used threats and beatings to try to convert him to Islam. But St John gently but firmly refused. He vowed to obey and honor his master’s wishes but not to deny his Christian faith. Even with repeated entreaties, he would not relinquish his faith in Christ; he only increased his zeal. It is said that John was obedient, mild-mannered, and ascetically inclined, fulfilling the orders of his master with such zeal that the other servants ridiculed him. He lived in the stable with the animals he had charge over, praying at all times, eating but a crust of bread for a week. The saint rejoiced his bed was a manger such as the one in which the Savior was born.
His gentleness eventually won him the favor of his master, for whom he became a great help. John prayed for his master and his household. Saint John brought a blessing to his master simply by living in his household. The cavalry officer became rich, and was soon one of the most powerful men in Prokopion. With time and increased prosperity, the overlord realized that it was due to his slave’s prayers that he had found fortune with God.
One miracle attributed to him during his life involved a dish of pilaf, rice with herbs. While his master was on haj, his wife who was in the middle of preparing a dish of pilaf wished that her husband could have it as it was his favorite dish. John promised to deliver it to her husband. He complied, took the dish and went to the stable to pray. It so happened that the dish disappeared and reappeared to his master far away. When the master returned, he recounted how he returned from the mosque to the home where he was staying. Although the room was locked, he found a plate of steaming pilaf on the table. Unable to explain who had brought the food, or how anyone could enter the locked room, the officer examined the plate. To his amazement, he saw his own name engraved on the copper plate. In spite of his confusion, he ate the meal with great relish.
St John died when he was just 40 on May 27, 1730. Three and a half years later the priest was miraculously informed in a dream that the relics of Saint John had remained incorrupt. Soon the relics of the saint were transferred to the church of the holy Great Martyr George and placed in a special reliquary. The new saint of God began to be glorified by countless miracles of grace, accounts of which spread to the remote cities and villages. Christian believers from various places came to Prokopion to venerate the holy relics of Saint John the Russian and they received healing through his prayers. The new saint came to be venerated not only by Orthodox Christians, but also by Armenians, and even Turks.
In 1924, an exchange of the populations of Greece and Turkey took place. Many Moslems moved out of Greece, and many Christians moved out of Turkey. The inhabitants of Prokopion, when they moved to the island of Euboia, took with them part of the relics of Saint John the Russian.
For several decades the relics were in the church of Saints Constantine and Helen at New Prokopion on Euboia, and in 1951 they were transferred into a new church dedicated to Saint John the Russian. Thousands of pilgrims flocked here from all the corners of Greece, particularly on his Feast, May 27. Saint John the Russian is widely venerated on Mount Athos, particularly in the Russian monastery of Saint Panteleimon.
Miracles After his Passing
The majority of miracles St John gets credit for happened after his death. Hundreds of miracles are attributed to him. There is a book in the church archives that details these miracles (after they are verified by eyewitnesses and an auditing authority) that you can ask to see. Some of the striking icons in the church narrate the most famous of his miracles.
The ones that correspond to some of the iconography are as follows:
-Maria Siaka, an old lady from the village of Frenaro near Ammohostos in Cyprus, receives the ability to walk after spending 18 years hunched over. She had made a “tama” to Saint John that she would give him her walking stick if she were cured. And so it was. Her cane is visible next to the icon of the saint.
– he warned some Greek school children that the roof was about to fall; they had time enough to jump underneath their desks and when the roof fell, its beams came down upon the desks without striking even one of the children.
Surprisingly, when I visited there was a pristine, well-managed guest house for pilgrims who are willing to stay the night. Liturgy takes place every morning at 7:30 am in the temple. Rooms cost 30 Euros for single, 35 for double. It can host 160 guests along with lecture halls and dining rooms. You can arrange for accommodations in advance by calling +30 2227041209, +30 2227041462 or emailing email@example.com