Welcoming a sacred image


Over a span of centuries and an expanse of ocean comes a pilgrim, one who some faithful believe bestows blessings and works wonders.

The Panagia Skiadeni, a holy icon of the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus from the Greek island of Rhodes, has taken up temporary residence in Highlandtown.

On its first journey to this country, the highly esteemed painting will remain at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church for 10 days before being taken to a church in Hartford, Conn., and then returned to Rhodes. Baltimore and Hartford have large communities of people from Rhodes.

"We are moved spiritually to have the wonder-working icon of Panagia Skiadeni here in Greektown," the Rev. Manuel J. Burdusi told parishioners of St. Nicholas during a Great Vespers service Tuesday to receive the Panagia Skiadeni. "Cast your burdens, whatever are your worries, whatever are your illnesses, just ask God through his mother to receive them.

"In some instances, there will not be physical healing," he said. "There will be spiritual healing, in that you will come to terms with what is happening to you."

For the approximately 1,000 natives of Rhodes living in and near Baltimore - out of approximately 18,000 Greek Orthodox in the city and environs - the arrival of the icon in Baltimore is miraculous.

"I feel like I am back home at this moment," said Flora Christ, who was raised in Kattavia, a village on the west coast of Rhodes, near the monastery where the icon is kept. "She's brought a lot of miracles to a lot of people."

"My grandfather was a priest [in Rhodes]," said Evangelos Angelou, president of the Rhodian Society. "I used to go with him, because in the Greek Orthodox faith you need somebody to be the censer [incense bearer], and I was his helper."

"It means a lot to so many people," Angelou said. "It's an expression of faith. To these people, it's just like having a doctor. If they have a problem, if they have faith, in many cases, they get well."

During the hourlong vespers service, the icon was formally received with solemn chant and fragrant incense. Afterward, parishioners lined up to venerate the icon, dropping to their knees while crossing themselves and leaning forward to kiss it. Christina Rologas held onto her 6-year-old granddaughter, Anastasia Araviakis, as her lips grazed the icon before she herself leant to kiss it.

When most of the crowd left the sanctuary and went downstairs for coffee and pastries, the family of Kathy Sarigianis, a 33-year-old woman from Silver Spring with multiple sclerosis, pushed her wheelchair forward as the Rev. Isihios Thanos, the priest from Kattavia who is accompanying the icon, pronounced a blessing. He finished and gently leaned over to kiss Sarigianis on the forehead.

"Maybe there will be a miracle here tonight," said a relative, Anna Amorgeanos.

The Panagia Skiadeni is about 3 feet high, supported by a single wooden pole and resting on a white pillow. Except for the faces of the Madonna and Christ child, it is covered in silver, which was applied during the 19th century.

According to tradition, it was found by two monks watching a sunset who saw a light in the distance. After the light persisted for several nights, the monks investigated and found the icon with a votive candle flickering beside it.

The monks, it is said, determined the icon had been painted by Luke the Evangelist, author of the gospel bearing his name. They took the icon back to their hermitage and fell asleep.

Upon awakening, they discovered the icon was gone but, after searching, they found it in the ruins of a temple that was dedicated to Artemis, the Greek goddess of wild animals, chastity and childbirth. Believing this was a sign from the Virgin Mary, and possibly a message about the superiority of Christianity over paganism, the monks built a temple on that site in 1200.

Many miracles have been attributed to the icon, the first involving a mark on the Madonna's right cheek. When a Turkish governor of the region who wanted to prove that the icon was nothing more than a painting on wood thrust his knife blade into Mary's head, blood and water began to flow, and his hand became paralyzed. Tradition holds that the governor begged for forgiveness. Three days later, his hand was healed, and he and his family converted to Christianity.

Over the years, the faces of the Madonna and child have darkened considerably. Even those at the Baltimore service who had seen the icon years before in Greece thought it looked darker now. But some swore they witnessed a transformation since it arrived late Tuesday. "Definitely, when she got here, her face was so dark," said Amorgeanos. "Now, it's like her face has brightened up. ... It's just so beautiful. People have taken her to their hearts."

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