11 June 2018
The Church of Aghia Barbara or Saint Barbara, which is celebrated in modern Cretan literature, was one of the many churches I visited during my stroll through Rethymnon yesterday evening [10 June 2018].
The church is halfway along Aghia Barbara Street, just a hundred metres from the metropolis or cathedral in the centre of Rethymnon. The church was built in 1885 to replace and earlier Latin church of the same name, dating from at least 1613.
This older church, in turn, may have taken 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.
However, local lore says that a church dedicated to Saint Barbara had stood on this site from Roman times, and a church dedicated to Saint Barbara appears on this site in Venetian maps in 1613.
A rich Turk, Ali Tsitseaki, bought the church in 1833, with plans to destroy it and to replace it with shops and houses as well as bath house. However, local Christians were and angered by his plans. They protested and bought back the church for a price of 500 francs.
Once, during the Turkish era in Rethymnon, there was a sudden outbreak of plague in the town one day. It said the Christians of the town processed through Rethymnon with an icon of Saint Barbara as they prayed for an end to the plague.
The story continues that when local Muslim residents say the procession, they too joined in and began to donate oil and precious gifts in honour of Saint Barbara. From that day, the plague ceased for both Christians and Muslims in the town.
After the massacre at Arkadi in 1866, many churches, shops and buildings in Rethymnon were destroyed, but Saint Barbara’s Church survived.
The church was renovated, rebuilt, and decorated with icons, and the refurbished building was dedicated once again on 14 December 1885. A new icon of Saint Barbara was written by A Vevelaki, and the dome was painted by Bishop Ierotheos Praoudakis or Bragoudakis of Rethymnon (1882-1896) after he had fasted for two weeks.
The story of the painting of the church walls appears as an incident in A Tale of the Town by Pandelis Prevelakis, the most celebrated writer born in Rethymnon.
Aghia Barbara is unusual for its cruciform shape. It has a dome and two transepts but has no belfry or bellcote.
From 1898 until 1907, the church was used as the garrison church for the Russian troops in the town. In return, the Russians built the bell tower beside the neighbouring cathedral in 1899. The bell tower has seven bells; the biggest bell has the name of the Russian governor and commander, Theodor de Chiostak, and the other six have the names of six Russian regiments.
Behind the church, the former Girls’ School stands on the same grounds and has long been the town library.
Saint Francis of Assisi is one of the few Western saints from the period after the great schism who is also revered in the Eastern Church. Many Franciscan churches were built in Crete during the Venetian period, including churches in Iraklion, Rethymnon, Chania and Neapolis, and Petros Philargos, a friar of the Franciscan community in Iraklion who was born in Neapolis in eastern Crete, later became Pope Alexander V.
Saint Francis was popular in the Orthodox community of Crete and by the end of the 14th century was represented in Orthodox Churches throughout the Island. It is mainly due to the fictionalised biography by the Cretan writer Nikos Kazantzakis, The Poor Man of God, that Saint Francis is known throughout the world as ‘God’s Pauper.’
As I strolled through the streets of Rethymnon last night, one of the churches I visited was the Church of Saint Anthony of Padua, on the corner of Mesolongíou Street and Salamínas Street. This church is run by the Franciscan Capuchins and is the only Roman Catholic Church in Rethymnon.
After an absence of over two centuries, ‘God’s paupers’ returned to Rethymnon in 1855 when the Franciscan Capuchins built a small monastery on a corner of Mesolongíou Street.
There had been a continuous, albeit small, Catholic presence in the town since the arrival of the Venetians in the early 13th century, and by the mid-19th century the local Catholic population in Rethymnon was eager to build a new church.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Crete was established in 1874, and the first bishop was an Italian-born Franciscan Capuchin, Luigi Canavo (1827-1907), who was Bishop of Crete from 1874 to 1889.
Catholic numbers in Rethymnon increased with the arrival of Polish soldiers among the allied forces sent to Crete in the 1890s to hold the peace between the Ottoman Turks and Greek islanders demanding union with the modern Greek state.
A small neoclassical church was built on the corner of Mesolongíou Street and Salamínas Street, behind the old port and close to the entrance to Fortezza.
The new tall, slender, Church of Saint Anthony of Padua was completed on 30 March 1897. The doorway is crowned by a pediment with a semi-circular Venetian window. Above this, there is a circular window in an opening in the centre of the tympanum.
After World War II, Saint Anthony’s church was sealed for many years, and was in a hazardous state of repair. It was renovated in 1982-1988 and restored to its former glory 30 years ago with the help of local people and foreign residents, mainly from Switzerland.
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. It is now used as a garage, but it served as a church once again briefly in the 1980s while the main church was being refurbished.
The determination and passion behind the renovation and restoration of Saint Anthony’s Church was the work of a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Crete, Father Andreas Marzohl from Lucern in Switzerland.
Today, the majority of visitors to the church are the thousands of tourists who visit Rethymnon between March and November. The church is open all day, every day, for visitors the church.
Saint Anthony’s Church is the town’s only Roman Catholic Church but it continues the traditional Franciscan link with Rethymnon. In the Venetian era, the most important church in the town was Saint Francis (Aghios Frangiskos), the church of the Franciscan Friary in the town.
This church, which stands on Ethnikis Atistaseos Street, is one of the most important examples in Crete of western European architecture, with its doorway, interiors, carvings and proportions. The elaborately – almost excessively – decorated ornate doorway is mainly Corinthian in style but includes the only example in Rethymnon of compound capitals.
Saint Francis church was used as an imaret or poorhouse during the Turkish period. In the 1920s, it was used to shelter 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. Later there were plans to use the former church to house the Byzantine Museum of Rethymnon and the Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Collection of the Prefecture of Rethymnon. Today it houses the Archaeological Museum of Rethymnon.
Services are held in Saint Anthony’s Church from April to October on Saturday (7 p.m.) and Sunday (10 a.m.) and from November to March on Saturday (6 p.m.).