04 September 2019

The church in Kassiopi
that stands on the site
of a temple to Zeus

The Church of the Panagia Kassopitra or the Virgin of Kassopitra stands on the site of the Temple of Zeus Kassios, which gives the town of Kassiopi its name (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

The village of Kassiopi (Κασσιόπη), 38 km north of Corfu town, was once a traditional fishing village, but in recent decades it has become one of the many summer resorts on the affluent north-east coast of the island and a popular destination for tourists, particularly from Britain and Italy.

The small, former fishing harbour is romantic and picturesque, lined with tavernas and bars. At the top of the street leading from the harbour, the town square is surrounded by tavernas, cafés, travel agencies, restaurants and shops.

The town has been heavily developed, and hotels and villas now extending far beyond the town. But this is not any other modern holiday resort, for Kassiopi has a history that dates back 22 centuries to Classical and pre-Roman times.

The Church of the Panagia Kassopitra dates from the fifth century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The town is said to have been founded in the Hellenistic period during the reign of Pyrrhus, King of Epirus in the 3rd century BC, as a supply post during his war with Rome. The victory of Pyrrhus came at such a cost to the Epirots that it has given us the phrase ‘Pyrrhic Victory.’

Corfu was conquered by the Romans of the island in 230 BC, and successive Roman emperors, including the Emperor Nero, came to Corfu the island to visit the Temple of Cassius or Kassios Zeus (Κάσσιος Ζευς). The cult of Cassius Zeus was centred on Mount Cassius in northern Syria, between Antioch and the sea, across the Orontes from Seleucia, and in turn the temple and its cult gave Kassiopi its name.

The small headland north of Kassiopi is dominated by Kassiopi Castle, a Byzantine fortress that was fortified further by the Venetians.

The fortress survived successive sieges by the Ottoman Turks in the 16th century, and parts of the fortress walls can be seen today from the coastal roads around the headland that also perfect views of the Albanian mountains and coastline.

The church made Kassiopi a centre of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

But the most interesting site I visited in Kassiopi earlier this week is the Church of the Panagia Kassopitra or the Virgin of Kassopitra, which dates back to the fifth century, when the ruined Temple of Kassios Zeus was converted into a church by Saint Iasonas and Saint Sosipatros.

This beautiful church is near the main street of Kassiopi, the harbour and the castle. In the Middle Ages, this was one of the most famous churches on the island. It is mentioned by Latin travellers in the Middle Ages, indicating it was known beyond Corfu as a place of pilgrimage.

The church once held the relics of Saint Donatos the Wonderworker, the Patron of Paramythia. These relics were later moved to Venice, although a small part of them were returned to Paramythia.

However, the church of Panagia Kassopitra has had a chequered past, and it was burned badly by the Ottoman Turks during the siege of Corfu in 1537.

The most important treasure in the church is the Icon of the Panagia Kassopitra (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The church was restored and rebuilt by the Venetians between 1590 and 1591 with the unusual provision of two altars to accommodate the liturgical needs of the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic people of the town.

The church has inscriptions bearing the dates 1590, 1670 and 1832.

The most important treasure in the church is the Icon of the Panagia Kassopitra or the Virgin of Kassopitra, said to be miraculous and revered as the protector of mariners.

Each year on 8 May the church commemorates a miracle said to have taken place in 1530 when the Panagia healed a blind man. Special liturgical commemorations also take place on 15 August, the Feast of the Dormition.

Byzantine frescoes from the 11th or 12th century have been rediscovered on the walls of the church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Much of the church was believed to have been destroyed, but during restoration work in the 1990s parts of Byzantine frescoes dating from the 11th or 12th century were rediscovered on the walls of the church.

The main road runs through the edge of the town, but in an effort to remove much of the commercial traffic from the town centre a loop takes buses as far as the village square, about 230 metres from the harbour, and there is a car and coach park at the top of the town.

This makes the centre of the old town almost traffic free, and Angelo’s Bar was a pleasant place to sit in shade in the mid-afternoon, sipping a glass of cool white wine, watching life go by in the Square.

The harbour of the former fishing village at Kassiopi (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

How Corfu’s Parliament
became an Anglican church
150 years ago in 1869

The Ionian Parliament building in Corfu became Holy Trinity Anglican Church 150 years ago in 1869 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

When I am in Greece, normally attend the local Greek Orthodox Church on a Sunday, and Athens is the only part of Greece where I have intentionally sought out an Anglican church.

However, Corfu has its own Anglican church, Holy Trinity Church, at 21 L. Mavili Street, beside the former House of the Ionian Parliament, which served for many decades as the Anglican church in the city.

There has been an Anglican presence in Corfu since 1814 Corfu, when Corfu and the other Ionian Islands became a British Protectorate.

The High Commissioner, the administrators, and the soldiers and sailors based in Corfu, required a place of worship, and a chapel was built in the Doric style in the Old Fortress and was named Saint George.

Saint George’s remained the garrison church until 1864, when Corfu and the other Ionian Islands were incorporated into the modern Greek state. The Greek parliament in Athens wanted to turn the old fortress into a military base, and Saint George’s became an Orthodox church. Indeed, this was the church where Prince Philip, later the Duke of Edinburgh, was baptised according to the rites of the Greek Orthodox Church in 1921.

Saint George’s Church remained an Anglican church and the garrison church in Corfu until 1864 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Meanwhile, it was accepted that the British community in Corfu needed an alternative place of worship.

The Greek government offered the former Ionian Parliament building, which was no longer needed as an assembly chamber. A Corfiot architect, John Chronis, designed the Ionian Parliament building in 1855 in a neo-classical style with a Doric portico. It replaced an older building used by the Ionian Assembly that had been destroyed by fire in 1852.

This conditional gift was ratified in Greek law by an Act of Parliament in 1869, and the building was given to the ‘British community of Kerkyra (Corfu) of the Anglican faith so long as it might serve as a house of worship of the said persuasion.’

The deed of consecration was signed in 1870. The Ionian Parliament became Holy Trinity Church and the premises to the rear became the parsonage or residence of the Anglican chaplain.

Holy Trinity Church was in a unique position because it belonged not to the British Government nor any church body, but solely and entirely to the Anglican community in Corfu.

The church flourished from 1869, with a permanent resident chaplain until 1940, and for 71 years the church served the island’s many British residents.

With the outbreak of World War II, most British residents left Corfu, and the Commonwealth and Continental Church Society (now ICS) was appointed trustee of the church.

The church was bombed and gutted during World War II, leaving only parts of the outside walls. Although the parsonage to the rear suffered considerable exterior damage from the bombs, it was used to provide shelter for the Maltese community, whose presence prevented pilfering during the war.

They carried out emergency repairs and salvaged what they could from the derelict church. Some of the Maltese were members of the Britannia Association, which held their meetings there regularly until the 1980s.

However, the British community had still not returned to Corfu by 1950, the Mayor of Corfu took advantage of this situation and asked for the derelict church to be handed over to the Municipality of Corfu in order to restore it. Although this was not legal, the then Bishop of Gibraltar and the British Embassy in Athens consented, and the restoration of the building was completed in 1962.

The residence at the back of the former church was recovered for Anglican worship and reopened in 1971 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Later, through negotiations, the residence part of the building was retained, repaired and served many uses as the British Vice Consulate, a community centre for the Roman Catholic Maltese, a place of worship for Anglicans and storage rooms for numerous packing cases belonging to the British Council.

While he was the British Vice Consul, Major John Forte set about bringing some order to this situation. He began getting rid of the packing cases, and posted a notice that Holy Trinity was open daily during the week for public worship from 9 until 1. Chaplain’s visits at the time were infrequent, but by the end of 1970 ICS decided to provide ministry on a more permanent basis.

The consulate had to move and the living quarters became a home for a permanent chaplain. The downstairs rooms that had once been servant’s quarters became living accommodation for seasonal chaplains.

On Easter Day 1971, Holy Trinity Church Corfu reopened on a permanent basis for the first time in 31 years. Major Forte became the churchwarden and remained until 1975.

Major John Forte is known for reviving the game of cricket in Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Major Forte, who died in 2012, is also known for reviving the game of cricket in Corfu after World War II and for helping to prevent L Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, from setting up a university on Corfu in 1968.

Margaret Woodley, who succeeded Major Forte as churchwarden in 1975, was made MBE in 1999 ‘for services to Holy Trinity Corfu’. She died in London in 2013.

Today, Holy Trinity has a vital congregation that continues to reach out to residents and visitors alike in Corfu.

Holy Trinity Church maintains an Anglican presence and outreach in the heart of Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)