This post has been long due, since Mikrokastro Mother of God Monastery has been my refuge and retreat since 2014, ever since I discovered it, or better ever since our Holy Lady revealed herself to me there. A most holy place, a ‘thin’ place I keep returning, especially when badly in need of spiritual nourishment, in times of trials, adversity, tribulations and temptations. This is a place where the Mother of God comforts all her children, a place where its peace invades you and the fellowship of the nuns warms you.
Part A: A brief history of the Monastery of the Mikrokastro Mother Of God
The Holy Monastery is dedicated to the Assumption of the Mother of God. According to historians, the main church of the monastery is estimated to have been founded 200-250 years ago. The iconography in the church was completed in 1797 (about 200 years ago), as is shown by the inscription that still exists on the west wall of the church.
The history of this place started with a small chapel in the nearby village of Mikrokastro, but its propitious geographical position as a passing place on the journey from Kozani to Kastoria helped the site become a place of worship. This was mainly due to the presence of the Holy Icon of the Eleoussa Mother of God on the icon screen; it is not known when or under what historical and religious circumstances this Icons was found here.
The miracle-working power of the Icon contributed to the place quickly becoming the most important place of worship in Western Macedonia. According to the inscription mentioned above, the church’s frescoes were painted by iconographers from Kopessovo in Epirus, who, despite Western influence, tried to remain loyal to the Byzantine tradition following the standards of the Konstantinos Palaiologos era. The more popular manner of the depictions does not diminish the sweetness of the facial expression or the comforting feeling instilled in the souls of the faithful.
The icon screen of the convent is one of the most beautiful in the region and was made by skilled craftsmen either from the local area or Epirus. The miracle-working Icon of the Mother of God found in and belonging to the monastery dates back to either the 12th or the 13th century according to modern methods of dating holy icons.
The plenty votive offerings to the Mother of God helped the property of the Monastery to increase, and this property was taken care of by workmen inhabiting the area. In 1820 this place of worship was characterized as a Holy Monastery for reasons of prestige because of the presence of the Holy Icon, since it never had a monastic brotherhood. It only had an Abbot appointed by the Bishop of Siatista and an administration Committee.
This Holy place played an important religious and national role supporting the nation’s struggle for independence in 1821, offering hospitality and a hiding place to revolutionaries of the independence struggle, maintaining an ammunition store, paying the salary of the village teacher, and strengthening the inhabitants’ faith so that they could resist the pressure of Islamic proselytism.
The monastery participated in the historic events of 1878, offering moral and material support, in the Macedonian struggle during the years 1904-1908, in the war of liberation in 1912, in the relief of the victims of the Asia Minor disaster, in the epic struggle of 1940-1941 and its climax, i.e. the historic Fardikampos battle in March 1943. The monastery “offered soul, blood and money” offering the sacrifice even of its priest.
After the war, the bishop of Sisani and Siatista, Iakovos Kleomvrotos, (later to become Bishop of Mytilini), a powerful personality of the clergy, realised that the Holy Monastery was a more suitable place for spiritual and social activity than mountainous Siatista.
In 1952 he founded a School of Agriculture here for the farmers’ sons of the area, which, after functioning for two years, closed and was given to the Swiss Red Cross with a view to founding a hospital for local children suffering from glandular problems. In this building a primary school was also set up. In this way, hundreds of local children were helped.
Other buildings at the same location include the boarding school of the School of Housekeeping, which was used as a guest house and later as a home for the elderly. In addition, another building was erected in which his successor – Bishop Polykarpos – founded an orphanage.
Bishop Antonios was elected in 1974, and he showed great interest in the restoration and peopling of the monasteries in the region. In 1981 the position of the Abbot fell vacant and Father Stephanos Renos took over. With the moral, spiritual and material support of the Bishop as well as the contribution of the faithful and well-known donors, Father Stephanos Renos did great renovation work and added new buildings, a guest house and chapels.
In 1993, by a presidential decree, the Holy Monastery was turned into a monastery for women, and some time later the first monastics entered the monastery.
Two noticeable customs have been preserved since the years of Turkish domination. The first is the custom of Horseriding. On the 15th August, a religious festival day, the young men from Siatista armed and riding ornate horses came to the festival to venerate the Mother of God and under the unsuspicious eyes of the Turks the leaders of the struggle talked about the issues concerning the revolution, and the hope of freedom for the enslaved Greeks was strengthened. This custom has been preserved until today and has been incorporated in the whole festive religious atmosphere.
The second custom is the carrying in procession of the icon of the Mother of God That is, apart from extraordinary events such as insect epidemics, droughts and illnesses, during which the inhabitants of the area carried the icon in procession around the area to ward off evil, the inhabitants of Siatista have been taking the same icon in procession regularly for centuries now. In all weathers and accompanied by many people of all ages, they cover a three-hour distance on foot holding the icon in their hands until they arrive in their town, where the icon is solemnly received and taken to the cathedral and a prayer is chanted. After this, the Icon is taken to every house and flat. This event witnesses the fact that neither the Mother of God’s grace nor the people’s faith have diminished.
The grace of the Mother of God has gathered peace-loving and pious women who have offered themselves to life-long service in the monastery, vowing to find salvation through the basic virtues of monastic life: obedience, chastity, lack of property, prayer, charity, and at the same time trying to achieve the moral elevation of local inhabitants.
The small sisterhood has devoted itself to a struggle for inner order, the restoration of buildings, the organization of worship, tree-planting on the land belonging to the convent, hospitality and spiritual outreach to visitors. The sisterhood sows with patience, cultivates the seeds of the virtues referred to in the Gospel with assiduity, re-baptizes the faithful in the genuine spiritual concepts of the Orthodox Church and the Holy Fathers, interprets the Gospel, comforts the sad and turns the beautiful stone-built monastery into a safe harbour, where people struggling in life can find shelter and relief.
Mikrokastro, Siatista, Greece
Tel no: +30 24650 71307
To be continued …
Part B: Lessons from the Monastery and Miracles at Mikrokastro Mother Of God to follow soon