Philothei the Athenaia is not only one of Athens’ favorite daughters but remains to this day one of the most revered champion of women’s rights. She holds a special place in many hearts for her unparalleled service to the poor, the elderly, the down trodden. I hold her in high regard because of her unfailing support of the rights of all women, but especially the abused women, even the most despised, prostitutes and unwed mothers.
Living during the height of the Ottoman occupation of Athens, when restrictions on women were harshest and when notions of female roles most curbed by Muslim ideology, Philothei opened with her own personal funds what I would term houses of mercy. A widow only three years after marriage at 14 to a young Athenian aristocrat, lucky for her as the marriage was luckless and unhappy from the beginning, Philothei at 17 put her foot down and refused to marry a second time. As she was the only child late in life to noble parents on both sides (her mother was a Palaiologos and her father a Venizelos), her decision not to marry but dedicate herself as a nun came as a real blow. Both her parents died in 1549 , leaving her at 27 with a large fortune.
From that time onwards, she erected more than one charitable institution starting with the convent of St Andrew the first Called where in1551 she was tonsured a nun with the name Philothei. This convent became a haven for the enslaved people of Athens that at that time was a forgotten backwaters town of four thousand people. She was one of the first women to start a school for girls during a time when education was restricted to males, a school she called The Parthenon, serving not only upper class girls but the very poor as well. She went on to build a hospital, an orphanage, a home for the aged, and a homeless shelter. (She by herself erected more charitable institutions in her lifetime than the entire city of Athens had in a hundred.) One of her properties in the country she made into a rest stop for weary travelers.
More than just a philanthropic institution, the spiritual center St Philothei founded in the heart of Athens became a center for human rights, especially women’s rights. Greek girls, slaves to Turkish owners, flocked there for sanctuary. She offered dowries to many poor women who might not otherwise have gotten married or had no parents. She gave girls skilled trades and learning in order to become financially independent of their families. She sheltered frightened refugees in the convent and then passed them on in her own underground railroad of sorts to her dependency on the island of Kea. Operating under the most oppressive regimes which severely punished females with regards to crimes of honor, St Philothei at great personal cost and danger to herself, harbored wayward girls, prostitutes, and unwed mothers.
So powerful was her reputation as a defender of women that it traveled beyond the Greek community into the Turkish. Legend has it that three Turkish women who fled to St Philothei for refuge never left her but were converted into Orthodoxy and became nuns in her convent!
It was perhaps this encroachment of her influence beyond her own people into the ruling one that got her in trouble with the authorities. Her philanthropic and humanitarian endeavors started to arouse suspicion from the Turkish authorities. Here was a woman from the Greek aristocracy creating a series of powerful institutions that came indirect opposition to Muslim ways of thinking about women, and besides she was strengthening the Greek struggle to preserve its ethnic identity and becoming a source of inspiration and pride for this minority. By 1582 St Philothei had become a real threat to the establishment. This is when the period of her martyrdom began. Some time that year, the Turkish police entered the convent terrorizing the nuns, looting and destroying the convent and brutally beating the by now 60 year old abbess and putting her in jail.
Never discouraged, Philothei managed to borrow money for her release from jail and after organizing a funding campaign to the Greeks of the diaspora including the Doge of Venice, she restored the convent. However, the attacks on her person did not end there.
On the night of October 2nd, 1588, while the nuns were holding all-night vigil for another Athenian favorite son, St Dionysus the Aeropagite, the first bishop of Athens, Turkish soldiers broke in beat St Philothei until she was half dead and left her tied to a pole outside the convent to die. Her nuns untied her body but the blows had been too much for the now 67 year old woman. She died a few months later on February 19, 1589 in her country residency amid the olive trees and the rugged landscape of Attica that she so loved.
She was proclaimed a saint within a decade of her passing. Today her precious relics are guarded in a crypt in the central Cathedral of Athens, when every year on her feast day February 19, they are brought out and venerated.
I hold her in very high regard for the causes she struggled for are still burning issues today in the 21st century. There is more slavery today, especially sexual slavery, than in previous centuries. Women are still combating restrictive notions of female roles handed down via extremist Muslim dogma ( i.e. witness the shooting of the young woman trying to educate girls in Afghanistan, the brutal rape and murder of the young college girl on a public bus in New Delhi, the upsurge of domestic violence in Greece and around the world due to the stresses of #Covid and the lockdown (calls to domestic violence hotlines have increased by 300% in UK and NYC.)
St Phiothei pray for us and grant us the strength to champion the rights of women, the poor, the oppressed, the elderly, the tired. And help us never forget the beauty in our Orthodox legacy and our Greek heritage.