Sunday, 8 July 2012

A first visit to Edinburgh and Scotland’s Episcopalians

Edinburgh Castle, with its ancient battlements, is perched above the city on an extinct volcanic rock (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

Earlier this year, I was in Edinburgh for a conference organised by the Scottish Episcopal Church. This was my first visit to the northern capital. But this was a first in many other ways, for I had never been to Scotland before.

With its many classical buildings and its reputation as one of the historical major centres of the Enlightenment, Edinburgh became known as the “Athens of the North” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

As a boy, like others of my age, I had read the novels of Robert Louis Stevenson, such as Kidnapped, Treasure Island, The Master of Ballintrae, and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Waverley Novels of Sir Walter Scott, including Rob Roy, and the poems of Robert Burns.

The Scott Monument in East Princes Street Gardens was erected shortly after the death of Sir Water Scott (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

But it still took me sixty years to visit Scotland. And on the sidelines of the conference I enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about Edinburgh and the story of its churches.

Robert Burns (1759-1796), Scotland’s national bard, remembered in the name of a pub on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

A minority Church

The Scottish Episcopal Church (SEC), like the Church of Ireland, is not an established church and has no state role. But it has many links with Ireland, and the present Primus, Bishop David Chillingworth of St Andrews, was born in Dublin in 1951.

Although Roman soldiers may have been the earliest Christians in Scotland, the SEC traces its story to Saint Ninian and Saint Mungo in the fourth and fifth century. Saint Ninian may have been born in Galloway around 350. When he returned from Rome around 397 – 14 years before the Roman legions withdrew from Britain – he built a church at Whithorn in Galloway, and he died there in 432, the same year Saint Patrick landed in Ireland.

The last of the Romano-British bishops, Kentigern of Glasgow, died in 603. In his old age he met the elderly Saint Columba, who brought another strand of Christianity from Ireland to Iona. Saint Columba died in 597, and for about 200 years Iona was the centre of Scottish Christianity.

Scotland first became an organised kingdom in the reign of King Malcolm Canmore (1058-1093). Through the influence of his wife, Queen Margaret, the Scottish Church began to conform to church practices in England, and during the reigns of her sons –Alexander I and David I – true dioceses were created. The primacy eventually moved to St Andrews in 1474.

The Scottish Reformation

Saint Giles’ Church is the original parish church of Edinburgh ... from here John Knox launched the Scottish Reformation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The greed and corruption of the late mediaeval Church are typified by the appointment of two successive Archbishops of St Andrews in the reign of James IV (1473-1513): James Stewart, Duke of Ross and the king’s brother, was appointed in 1497 at the age of 21; he was succeeded in 1504 by the king’s 12-year-old illegitimate son, Alexander Stewart, who died at his father’s side at the Battle of Flodden in 1513.

By then, the moral life of the church was in decline, clerical celibacy was not enforced and the monasteries were houses of luxury and laxity. The disputes between Archbishop William Scheves of St Andrews and Archbishop Robert Blackadder of Glasgow were so acrimonious that Parliament intervened to restore the peace. The way had been paved for the Reformation.

The first martyr of the Reformation in Scotland was Patrick Hamilton, former Abbot of Fearne, who was burned at the stake in 1528. Meanwhile, corruption continued in the church: King James V (1513-1542), a nephew of Henry VIII of England, had five of his illegitimate sons appointed abbots or priors. As the demands for reform gathered pace, Cardinal David Beaton, Archbishop of St Andrews, was murdered in his castle in 1546.

John Knox House – a 15th century stone house with an external stairway and a classic example of the Royal Mile in its heyday – was the home of the Scottish Reformer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

John Knox, who had been a vicar in England where he declined a bishopric, came under the influence of John Calvin in Geneva before returning to Scotland in 1559. A year later, when the Treaty of Edinburgh brought civil turmoil to an end, the triumph of Knox and the extreme reformers was complete. From 1560 until his death in 1572, Knox was the minister of Saint Giles’ in Edinburgh.

The episcopacy was restored briefly in 1572, but Presbyterianism was formally established in Scotland in 1592. The titular bishops continued to sit in parliament and by 1600 new bishops, called commissioners, were being appointed. James VI became James I of England in 1603, and in 1610 the episcopacy was restored once again.

King Charles I in a memorial in Saint Mary’s Cathedral ... he first formed the Diocese of Edinburgh in 1633 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The struggle between the bishops and Presbyterianism continued, and episcopacy was abolished once more in 1638, partly in revolt against Charles I, who had imposed new canon laws, a new ordinal and a new Prayer Book. All 14 bishops were deposed and eight were excommunicated, including John Maxwell who fled to Ireland.

The Mitre Bar stands on the site of the Edinburgh house of John Spottiswood, Archbishop of St Andrews (1615-1639) ... it is said his throne lies buried beneath the bar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

A suffering Church

After the restoration of the monarchy, the Presbyterian system was abolished and the Episcopal system was restored in 1661. But only one bishop from 1637 had survived, and four new bishops were consecrated in London. Sectarian violence continued, however, and Archbishop James Sharp of St Andrews was murdered in 1679.

William of Orange tried to win over the Scottish bishops and met Bishop Alexander Rose of Edinburgh in London. But the bishops would not break their oaths to James II, and when the Church of Scotland became Presbyterian once more the bishops went underground.

For most of the 18th century, the majority of Episcopalians suffered under Penal Laws that excluded them from public office, voting or entering universities, and that limited the size of their congregations to four.

When dioceses became vacant, the bishops were forced to consecrate “non-ruling” bishops without sees. The last remaining diocesan bishop, Alexander Rose of Edinburgh, died in 1720, and the bishops formed an Episcopal College with collective oversight of the church and elected Bishop John Fullarton as their Primus inter Pares or first among equals. In time, the diocesan system was restored, but the concept of a College of Bishops with a Primus continues to this day.

In Aberdeen in 1784, the Scottish bishops consecrated Samuel Seabury of Connecticut as the first bishop in the United States. This move ensured the survival of the Anglican and Episcopalian tradition after the American War of Independence and marks the beginning of the Anglican Communion.

In 1789, the Primus, Bishop John Skinner of Aberdeen, led the Church out of its legal difficulties. The church agreed to pray for King George III and the penal laws were repealed in 1792. However, in Old Saint Paul’s Church in Edinburgh, the first prayers for a Hanoverian monarch were drowned out by groans, sighs, coughing and nose-blowing.

Meanwhile, those Episcopalians who renounced Jacobite sympathies were allowed to worship openly if they used the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England. These “qualified congregations” grew in number, and they were reunited with the Scottish bishops when the SEC accepted the 39 Articles in 1804.

The Church experienced a major revival in the 19th century and a theological college founded in Edinburgh in 1810 was the first such college in the Anglican Communion.

The Oxford Movement had lasting effects on a church that already had a high theology of sacramental life. In 1838, the surplice replaced the black gown as “the proper Sacerdotal Vestment,” religious communities were soon reintroduced, and lay people acquired a greater say in Church affairs. On the other hand, liturgical conflicts at Old Saint Paul’s led to a separate church being founded at Saint Columba’s by the Castle.

More recently, in 1993 and 1994, the SEC agreed to the ordination of women as priests. The ordination of women as bishops was approved in 2002, although no woman has yet been elected a bishop.

A 400-year-old diocese

William Forbes (1585-1634) became the first Bishop of Edinburgh but died two months after his consecration (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The Diocese of Edinburgh is one of seven in Scotland, although Edinburgh was originally part of the Archdiocese of St Andrews. When Charles I formed the Diocese of Edinburgh in 1633, William Forbes became the first bishop and Knox’s former church, Saint Giles’, became the cathedral.

When episcopacy was abolished yet again in 1637, Saint Giles’ lost its status as a cathedral, but it was restored as a cathedral when episcopacy was reintroduced in 1661. When the Church of Scotland reverted to Presbyterianism in 1688, Saint Giles’ became the “High Kirk” once again.

Old Saint Paul’s traces its story back to 1689, when Bishop Alexander Rose left Saint Giles’ Cathedral with much of the congregation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The last bishop at Saint Giles’, Bishop Alexander Rose of Edinburgh, left the cathedral in 1689 accompanied by much of his congregation, finding a new place of worship in an old wool store in Carrubber’s Close, close to the present site of Old Saint Paul’s Church.

Later Bishops of Edinburgh included Daniel Sandford (1806-1830), who was born in Dublin in 1766, and John Dowden (1886-1910), who was born in Cork in 1840.

Building a cathedral

Saint Mary’s Cathedral is Scotland’s largest cathedral and a masterpiece of Victorian Gothic architecture (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

For centuries, the SEC had no cathedrals and many churches, including Old Saint Paul’s and Saint Paul’s in York Place, served as the “pro-cathedral” in Edinburgh until Saint Mary’s Cathedral was built in Palmerston Place in the 1870s.

The sisters Barbara and Mary Walker left all their property for building a new cathedral, and Sir George Gilbert Scott was chosen as the architect.

Scott’s design was inspired by the early Gothic churches and abbeys of Scotland. The foundation stone was laid in 1874 and the cathedral was consecrated in 1879. The Chapter House was added in 1890 and the western spires in 1913-1917.

Visiting the cathedral

Sir George Gilbert Scott’s design ensures the High Altar is the centre of attention in Saint Mary’s Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The central tower and the spires can be seen for miles. But Scott’s design ensures the High Altar is the centre of attention in the cathedral. The intricate reredos has a marble relief showing the Crucified Christ flanked by the Virgin Mary and Saint John, along with Saint Margaret of Scotland and Saint Columba of Iona.

The Rood Cross over the Nave Altar, designed by Sir Robert Lorimer as a War Memorial, shows the Crucified Christ against a backdrop of Flanders poppies (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The Lorimer Rood Cross over the Nave Altar, designed as a War Memorial by Sir Robert Lorimer, shows the Crucified Christ against a backdrop of Flanders poppies. The windows include the colourful Ascension or Paolozzi Window designed by the late Sir Eduardo Paolozzi.

The Presence (1910) by AE Borthwick ... the scene is set in Saint Mary’s Cathedral

The Presence, a 1910 painting by the Edinburgh artist Captain AE Borthwick, hangs in the cathedral and has an intriguing story. It shows the Holy Communion is being administered in the distance at a crowded High Altar in the dimly-lit cathedral. In the foreground, a kneeling penitent at the west end is comforted by the presence of Christ behind her. The light emanating from Christ shows that his presence can be felt wherever it is needed and not just at the altar.

The painting was sold illegally while on exhibition in Munich in 1914 and became the centre of legal action. On its return to Scotland, Borthwick presented it to the cathedral in 1944.

A tourist at large

Forbes House, the offices of the Scottish Episcopal Church and the Theological Institute, is in Grosvenor Crescent, a short walk from Saint Mary’s Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Of course, I did all the other things a tourist should do in Edinburgh. I saw the Castle, the Old Town and Parliament Square, walked the Royal Mile, Prince’s Street and George Street and admired the classical buildings that have made this city the ‘Athens of the North.’

But a day was not enough, and I promised myself a return visit.

Patrick Comerford with Bishop Mark Strange of Moray, Ross and Caithness – geographically the largest diocese in Scotland

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay was first published in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory) in July 2012.

A Cambridge choir visits Christ Church Cathedral

The chapel of Saint Catharine’s College, Cambridge ... the choir is singing in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, this morning

Patrick Comerford

I am acting as deacon at the Cathedral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, at 11 a.m. this morning [Sunday, 8 July 2012]. The Revd Garth Bunting is presiding and the preacher is the Revd Robert Lawson.

This is the Fifth Sunday after Trinity. The Eucharist Setting this morning is the Missa Euge Bone by the Cambridge-educated composer Christopher Tye (1500-1573) and sung by the choir of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, which is visiting the cathedral this weekend.

The Communion Motet is Tantum Ergo by Thomas Aquinas, to a setting by Maurice Duruflé.

The hymns include:

Processional: ‘Awake, my soul, and with the sun,’ Thomas Ken (1637-1711);

Offertory: ‘O thou who at thy Eucharist didst pray,’ William H Turton (1856-1938);

Communion: ‘Soul of my Saviour,’ Latin, 14th century, to a setting by William Maher.

Post-Communion hymn: ‘Forth, in thy Name, O Lord, I go,’ Charles Wesley.

The readings are: Ezekiel 2: 1-5; Psalm 123; II Corinthians 12: 2-10; Mark 6: 1-13.

Choral Evensong at 3.30 p.m. is also sung by the choir of Saint Catharine’s College, Cambridge The responses and preces are by Ayleward, the Canticles from Purcell’s Evening Service in G minor and the Anthem is Purcell’s Blow up the Trumpet.


Almighty and everlasting God,
by whose Spirit the whole body of the Church
is governed and sanctified:
Hear our prayer which we offer for all your faithful people,
that in their vocation and ministry
they may serve you in holiness and truth
to the glory of your name;
through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Post Communion Prayer:

Holy and blessed God,
as you give us the body and blood of your Son,
guide us with your Holy Spirit,
that we may honour you not only with our lips
but also with our lives;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

A pilgrim’s trail around the cathedrals and churches of Rethymnon

Most churches in Rethymnon are open day by day (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

Each day last week, on the hour and on the half-hour, the bells of Rethymnon’s Cathedral chimed across the old town. Finding the cathedrals and churches of Rethymnon was an interesting pilgrimage over the past week.

Although the city is centuries old, with classical, Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman buildings around every corner, the Cathedral of the Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple is a relatively new building, and I know of no surviving remains of Rethymnon’s mediaeval cathedral, destroyed in a raid by Algerian corsairs in 1571.

The Cathedral in Mitropolis Square was rebuilt after World War II and is modelled on the Church of Evangelistria on Tinos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The Cathedral which now occupies most of Mitropolis Square was first built in 1834 on the site of an earlier church.

Inside the Cathedral of Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

But the second cathedral was badly damaged during World War II and was rebuilt as a miniature of Evangelistria, the great basilica on the island of Tinos, so that the present cathedral is refreshingly modern in appearance, both inside and outside.

The bell tower, seen from the southern porch of the Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The tall bell tower beside the cathedral was built in 1899 as a response by the Christians of Rethymnon to the building of a tall minaret beside the nearby Nerantzes Mosque. The money to build the bell tower was raised through the selling of postage stamps and a fundraising drive by the wine merchants of the town.

The simple interior of Saint Antony’s ... tucked away in a quiet corner of Mitropolis Square (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Tucked away in a quiet corner in the square, almost hidden by the awnings of the taverna next door, is the tiny, single-aisle Church of Saint Anthony. It was built in 1863 but looks much older and is decorated simply inside.

The twin stairs leading up to the entrance to the Bishop’s Palace in Mousoúrou Street, an impressive neoclassical building (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Nearby, in Mousoúrou Street, off the square, is the Bishop’s Palace, an impressive, symmetrical, palatial white neoclassical building renovated in 1900 at the expense of General Thedore de Chiostak, the commander of Russian troops in the town. Twin stairways lead to the entrance, while above there is a balcony on the upper floor.

Inside the Diocesan Church Museum behind the Bishop’s Place, in a side street beside the Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Behind it the Bishop’s Palace, the Diocesan Church Museum is open for two hours some days during the summer weeks.

Aghia Barbara ... once the church of the Russian garrison in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

From the corner of the square opposite tiny Saint Anthony’s, halfway along Aghia Barbara Street, is the Church of Aghia Barbara, just a hundred metres from the cathedral. The church was built in 1885 to replace and earlier Latin church of the same name, dating from at least 1613, and which, in turn, probably took its name from Saint Barbara’s Monastery, which once stood at the end of Arkadiou Street, on a site that later made way for the Kara Musa Pasha Mosque.

Aghia Barbara is a cruciform church with a dome. The story of the painting of the church walls appears as an incident in A Tale of the Town by Pandelis Prevelakis. From 1898 until 1907, the church was used as the garrison church for the Russian troops in the town.

Behind the church, the former Girls’ School stands on the same grounds and has long been the town library. The blue flowers on top of the white wall that is shared by the church and library drop down on the other side into the gardens of Pepi Studios, where I was staying for the past week.

The tiny Church of Saint George is tucked in behind the houses in Aghios Gheorghíou Street and Pateálrou Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Off Patriárchou Grigroíou Street, Aghios Gheorghíou Street is an almost-hidden cul-de-sac, with only a discreet sign indicating that at the end of the street, tucked into the right behind taller houses, is the tiny single-aisle Church of Saint George, squeezed in against the back of the houses on neighbouring Pateálrou Street.

The former Saint Lazarus Church, probably part of a Venetian hospice or leper hospital (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

At No 14 Patelárou Street, some guidebooks say there is a hidden fountain in a hidden chamber in a vault. However, this is not a fountain, but the piscina of the former Saint Lazarus Catholic Church.

The church is now used as a private house, but in Venetian times it may have served as the chapel of a hospice or leper hospital in the old city.

Saint Francis Church ... once the most important church in the Venetian town (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The most important church in the Venetian town was Saint Francis, which stands on Ethnikis Atistaseos Street, almost at the junction of Tseuderon Street, where I stayed for the past week.

Saint Francis is one of the few Western saints from the period after the great schism who is also revered in the Eastern Church. The church is also one of the most important examples in Crete of western European architecture, among the most important works of architecture in Rethymnon with its doorway, interiors, carvings and proportions.

During the Venetian period in Crete, many Franciscan churches were built in Crete, including Iraklion, Rethymnon, Chania and Neapolis. Petros Philargos, a friar of the Franciscan community in Iraklion who was born in Neapolis in eastern Crete, later became Pope Alexander V.

The elaborate and ornate doorway of the Church of Saint Francis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The Church of Saint Francis (Agios Frangiskos) in Rethymnon was the church of the Franciscan Friary in the town. It is a single-aisle, wooden-roof basilica. The ground floor windows and the main doorway seem to be of a later date than the main building. The elaborately – almost excessively – decorated ornate doorway is mainly Corinthian in style but includes the only example in Rethymnon of compound capitals, which are one of the five Renaissance styles.

The overlapping levels of the architrave help to date the doorway from the same time as both the doorway of Santa Maria Church and the Rimondi fountain, both only a few paces away. The keystone is notable for its large acanthus flower.

The church was used as an imaret or poorhouse during the Turkish occupation. It was used in the 1920s to provide shelter for Greek refugees from Anatolia. In more recent years it contained a number of shops, and then until 1996 it was used as an exhibition centre for the local city council. Careless and fruitless attempts at restoration work in the 1970s led to part of the building being demolished. However, recent excavations around the church unearthed some important archaeological discoveries, including the tombs of two Venetian nobles.

For a time the building belonged to the University of Crete, and the latest plans are to use the former church to house the Byzantine Museum of Rethymnon and the Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Collection of the Prefecture of Rethymnon. Meanwhile, it remains closed to the public.

The Church of Saint Anthony of Padua ... run by the Franciscan Capuchins (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The Franciscan link with Rethymnon continues with the town’s one Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Saint Anthony of Padua, which is run by the Franciscan Capuchins.

The interior of the Church of Saint Anthony of Padua (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

This small neoclassical church stands on the corner of Mesolongíou Street and Salamínas Street, behind the old port and close to the entrance to Fortezza. It was completed on 30 March 1890, although there has been a continuous albeit small Catholic presence in the town since the arrival of the Venetians in the early 13th century. The doorway is crowned by a pediment is a semi-circular Venetian window, and above this is a circular window in an opening in the centre of the tympanum.

The older church of the Capuchin Friars, beside Saint Anthony’s, is now used as a garage (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

There is an older church in the basement beside the present neoclassical church. This was used by the Capuchin Friars from about 1855 and is still in good condition. Although it is now used as a garage, it served as a church once again briefly in the 1980s while the main church was being refurbished.

The Church of the Four Martyrs ... one of the largest churches in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Immediately outside the old town, at the Porta Guora Gate, one of the largest churches in Rethymnon is the Church of the Four Martyrs, which stands in a busy square of the same name, Tessaron Martiron.

The church is a fashionable venue for baptisms and weddings at weekends. It was completed on 28 December 1975, but stands on the site of two previous churches, the first from 1905 to 1947 and the second, which was demolished in 1972.

Inside the Church of the Four Martyrs ... the northern and southern aisles are also dedicated to martyr saints (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The church stands on the place where the four martyrs of Rethymnon were executed on 28 October 1824. Throughout Greece, 28 October is a national holiday, ‘Οχι’ Day, recalling Greece’s trenchant ‘No’ to Mussolini that brought Greece into World War II on 28 October 1940. In Rethymnon, 28 October is also the day when the city recalls the Four Holy Martyrs who give their name to this church. The four were Crypto-Christians, all from the Vlatakis family and from the Melambes region, who were executed by the Turks on this spot in 1824 for standing up for their Christian faith.

For four months, Manouil, Nikolaos, Georgios and Angelis Vlatakis were held prisoner in the building at the old harbour that later housed the custom house. As they were taken to their place of execution outside the Porta Guora gate, with their hands tied up, they saw their executioner holding his sword, and heard him ask: “Will you adopt the Turkish faith?” The standard answer was a humble “Yes, my Lord.” But instead the first man in line surprised everyone with a scornful “No.” A few seconds before his head was cut off, he added: “I was born a Christian and a Christian I will die.” One by one, the others did the same. As each was executed, his dying words were “Kyrie Eleison, Lord have mercy.”

The central aisle of the church is dedicated to these four local saints. But the northern aisle is also dedicated to the Forty Holy Martyrs of Sebaste – Roman soldiers, martyred in Armenia during the reign of Licinius in AD 320. The southern aisle is dedicated to the Ten Holy Martyrs of Crete who were beheaded by Decius in 250 AD.

The Church of Our Lady of the Angels was the Angebut Ahmed Pasha Mosque for over 200 years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Another story of conversion is told in the way another church, the Church of Our Lady of the Angels, has been a church first, then a mosque, and once more a church.

In the closing days of Venetian rule, a three-aisled church was built by the Dominican friars on the corner where Nikifórou Foká Street and Arampatzoglou (Thessaloníkis) Street streets meet and it was dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene.

The Christians of Rethymnon continued to use the church in the immediate aftermath of the Turkish conquest of Crete. Then one day, as the Ottoman conqueror, Huseyin Pasha, was riding through the streets, he was enraged when he saw the congregation spilling out of the church.

He ordered that the church should be converted into a mosque and renamed, although the parishioners were given the use of a neighbouring, smaller church. The new mosque was named after Huseyin Pasha’s successor, Angebut Ahmed Pasha. A minaret was built beside the former north aisle, but the top soon fell to the ground and the minaret was known to later generations as Koutsotroúlis, “the Old Stump.”

After two and a half centuries as a mosque, local Christians took advantage of the declining fortunes of the town’s Muslims, and on the night of 3 and 4 April 1917 they staged the miraculous “discovery” of an icon of the Virgin Mary on the steps of the minaret.

The shrine of the icon inside the church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The mosque was turned back into a church, dedicated to Our Lady of the Angels, or Mikri Panaghia – to distinguish it from the cathedral, “Great Saint Mary’s.” A shrine of the icon was set up in the restored church and a new belfry was added in 1920. Sadly, the original Renaissance doorway was demolished at the same time.

Two further churches that were converted into mosques no longer function as either mosques or churches today – the Church of Aghia Sophia and the Church of Santa Maria.

The Church of Aghia Sophia or the Ibrahim Mosque was recently rescued from oblivion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

It may be that every major Greek city had a church dedicated to Aghia Sophia, the Holy Spirit as the Holy Wisdom of God. The best known are those in Constantinople and Thessaloniki. At the western end of Koronaíou Street, on the corner with Smyrnis Street and opposite two Turkish fountains, Rethymnon had its own Church of Aghia Sophia.

Inside, this is a twin-aisled building, with two pointed vaults resting on a semi-circular arch. After the Turks captured Rethymnon, the church was converted into a mosque, and a minaret was added to the building. The windows were designed to allow passers-by to glimpse people inside at prayer. The south aisle belonged to the Qadiri Sufi order, whose rites included joining hands and dancing in a circle until they fell in exhaustion.

The building never reverted to being a church, even when the Turks were expelled from Crete. For many years, it remained a humble carpenter’s workshop and was in danger of becoming part of Rethymnon’s lost heritage. But it has been restored and renovated recently and once again is using the name Aghia Sophia. Although it was closed all last week, the former church and mosque has recently hosted a harp Concert and an exhibition of maps and prints.

When the former Santa Maria Church became the Nerantze Mosque or Gazi Hussein Mosque, the domes and minaret were added (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Around another corner from my hotel, the Nerantze Mosque or Gazi Hussein Mosque, is on the corner of Ethnikis Antistaseos and Vernardou streets, and faces onto what was once the grand Venetian piazza of the old city.

In Venetian times, this was the Church of Santa Maria, and in the style of Saint Mark’s Square in Venice, it faced a large open piazza that included a clock tower, fountains and public buildings.

The former church doorway in the Santa Maria Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Santa Maria was originally built in the Venetian period as the church of an Augustinian Priory. But only the east and north side of the original building survive.

The east side has round windows, while the elaborate entrance on the north side, which provides a glimpse of the original splendour of the church, has two tall narrow windows, similar to those in the nearby Saint Francis Church, and a monumental doorway whose design may have been inspired by Roman triumphal arches. The wide entrance is flanked by a pair of columns with Corinthian capitals.

Inside the former Nerantze Mosque (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Inside the church, the floor plan is square. During the Turkish era, the original peaked and tiled Venetian roof was replaced by three small domes.

When the town fell to the Turks in 1657, the church was converted into a mosque by Gazi Huseyin Pasha, and three domes were added to the building although it retained its original elaborate entrance. This became the largest mosque in Rethymnon, and in 1890, shortly before Crete became an autonomous state, work began on building the tallest minaret in the town.

After the Turks left Crete, the mosque was reconsecrated as a church in 1925 with a dedication to Saint Nicholas. However, it was seldom if ever used as a church, and for many years housed a Music School. Now known as the Odeio, it is used for lectures, concerts and theatre performances, and is open to the public, although the minaret has been closed for restoration in recent years and is cladded in scaffolding.

The Corpus Christi Chapel, beside the Nerantze Mosque (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

To the west of the church is the shell of the Corpus Christi Chapel, with a Renaissance doorway. This small church, was built at the expense of the sisters Anna and Maria Muazzo, from a well-known Venetian family in Rethymnon whose name survives in the name of boutique hotel nearby.

When the town fell to the Turks in 1657, the Chapel of Corpus Christi was turned into a library and was also used as a madrassa or Islamic religious school.

There are three further churches on the summit of the Fortezza which overlooks the old town: Saint Nicholas, Saint Catherine and Saint Theodore.

The Venetian Cathedral of Saint Nicholas was converted into the Sultan Ibrahim Han Mosque (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The Sultan Ibrahim Han Mosque, in the middle of the Venetian Fortezza, was originally the Venetian Cathedral of Saint Nicholas or San Nicolo, built in the 1580s. It replaced an earlier cathedral down below in the old town that had been destroyed in 1571 during an attack on Rethymnon by the Pasha of Algeria, Ulu Ali Reis.

The former Episcopal Palace on the Fortezza was built in 1575 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

A new Episcopal Palace was also built on the Fortezza in 1575, and in 1583 Bishop Chiapone of Rethymnon laid the foundation stone for the new cathedral. However, it may have been too small a building for its purpose, and when the cathedral was completed in 1585 Bishop Chiapone’s successor, Bishop Carrara, refused to celebrated the mass there, claiming conditions in the cathedral were too cramped and there were no sacred vessels there.

Perhaps these were only excuses, for Bishop Carrara did not want to move up to the Fortezza, and hoped to stay living in the Bishop’s Palace in Arampatzoglou Street (Thessaloníkis Street) in the old town.

The Venetian rettore of Rethymnon, Benetto Bembo, whose official residence was opposite the new cathedral, was insistent on its use, and had alterations made to the cathedral in 1586 so that it could accommodate soldiers and residents at the Sunday Mass and so that the bishop could have no further excuses.

When Rethymnon was captured by the Turks in 1646, the cathedral was converted into an Ottoman mosque by the Sultan Ibrahim Han and was given his name.

Saint Catherine’s Church .... built beside the former cathedral in the late 19th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Close to the cathedral is the Church of Saint Catherine, which was built in the 19th century, but probably stands on the site of an earlier church with the same name.

The Church of Saint Theodore or Aghios Theodoros Trachinás ... restoration work is almost complete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The single-nave domed Church of Saint Theodore or Aghios Theodoros Trachinás was built in the late 19th century and was dedicated on 21 March 1899. However, this may have been a rebuilding programme rather than a new building project, as Venetian documents show there was a church on this site in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The new name was chosen to honour the commander of the Russian troops, General Thedore de Chiostak, who was present at the dedication. He repaid the compliment a year later when he paid for the cost of rebuilding the Bishop’s Palace near the new Greek Orthodox cathedral in the centre of the old town.

Current renovations are almost complete, and when I visited it late last week, new church furnishings were outside the church, ready to be moved in.

Ready to move in the new furniture at the Church of Saint Theodore (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

A major part of the delight of my pilgrimage around the churches and cathedrals of Rethymnon was that the bells of so many of them can be heard across the city throughout the day, and even more so that so many of them are open for visits by local people, by tourists, by the curious, and most importantly are open for prayer ... and not just on Sunday mornings.