Church of Panagia Laodigitria or Panagia Lagoudiani in Thessaloniki
According to a byzantine legend, a miraculous incident occurred in the place where the church of Panagia Lagoudiani [Rabbit place] or Laodigitria [Virgin Mary the People Leader] is built. A hunter looking for rabbit’s hiding place, put his hands in a burrow trying to cage the small animal. However, he drew up from the hole the miraculous icon of Panagia Tricherousa [the “Virgin with Three Hands] or Oglaitissa. During the Ottoman rule, the monastery was called “Tavsan Manastir”, that is “the monastery of the rabbits”.
After this incident, a women’s monastery was built on this place and the central part of the monastery is today’s church. In the 15th century, it was the catholicon of a nunnery that was a dependency [Metochion] of Vlatadon Monastery (*) According to another theory, the church took its name after the owner, Lagoudatos [Rabbit Man], who lived in the 14th century. In any case, this historical church is a rare archaeological gem and a monument of the post-Byzantine period (1453-1800).
The origins of the name “Laodigitria” is unknown but many researchers agree on byzantine sources of the 12th century when the Metropolitan of Thessaloniki mentioned the following: “…η Πάναγνος Θεομήτωρ η παρ ημιν του οδηγείν επώνυμος” [Virgin Mary, Mother of God, lead us…” Laodigitria Theotokos, the Leader of the people, became together with Saint Demetrius, the woman patron saint of Thessaloniki.
During the Turkish occupation, the monastery was offering social work, by granting near Monastery’s properties against symbolic price for the sheltering of poor Christian families. This system was called in Turkish “Itzare”, ie. an once-off symbolic “lump” sum and with the payment of instalments of similarly symbolic sums throughout their lifetime, so that the monastery retained the legal [‘bare’] ownership of the monastery’s real property since they beneficiaries were not allowed to sell them. This measure proved valuable for homeless families in hard times since the number of lodgings/houses was more than 20.
In 1802, the church was restored and renovated (Oct 27, 1802) through the sponsorship of the merchant Ioannis Kaftangoglou and became a three-aisled basilica with wooden ceiling and matroneum [gynaeconite; an upstairs gallery on the interior of a church, originally intended to accommodate women (whence the derivation from “matron”)], following the Macedonian ecclesiastic architectural standards of that era. Its most recent ktitor [ie. the founder] was Christos Georgiou-Menexes, from the province of Agiou Phanariou (Agrafa Thessaly) and from the village Megala Vraniana, +Memory Eternal of his parents.
The church keeps a significant number of 18th and 19th-century icons, together with a miracle-working icon of the Virgin Mary. In the chapel adjacent to the southern part of the church, is located the holy water fountain, hence another name for this church, that of the Life-Springing Fountain of the Theotokos (Life-Giving Font of the Theotokos) [Ζωοδόχος Πηγή]. The church celebrates on this Feast during Bright Week and also honours Holy NeoMartyr Alexander the Dervish from Thessaloniki, Laodigitria (+ 1794).
As of today, the little city hermit will be chanting in this historic church, next to the Wonderworking Theotokos icon, an amazing blessing, honour and privilege. This was the first-ever church I visited as a young teenager, about 14 years old, for Confession, spiritual guidance and holy water, agiasma. + Father Panagiotis of blessed memory was my first priest confessor. So many memories! This church feels so much like home …. This blogpost is also beginning another blog series, that of Paleochristian and Byzantine monuments of Thessaloniki, since lots of fellow pilgrims all over the world are asking me about Thessaloniki’s churches and monasteries.
*. The Monastery of Vlatadon is located on the northern side of Ano Poli of Thessaloniki, close to the castle walls with a magnificent view to the city. This small monastery is built on the site where St Paul is believed to have preached to the Thessalonians, was founded in the mid-14th century and has been in continuous use since then. But more about this byzantine monument at another blogpost.
What a beautiful Church nestled and centred amongst the domiciles of the faithful of Thessaloniki like the Mother of God herself. The story of the rabbit reminds me a little of our own St Melangell of Wales who rescued the rabbits from the hunters. May the Holy Theotokos, the” Champion leader ” always lead us, intercede for us and deliver us from all dangers, as we cry to her “Hail, O Bride without Bridegroom.”
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