Monday, 26 October 2020

A saint’s icon from Crete
brings my mind back to
a church in Thessaloniki

Saint Dimitrios of Thessaloniki … a new icon by Alexandra Kaouki of Rethymnon

Patrick Comerford

I was posting preaching and liturgical resources this morning on another forum for next Sunday, which is All Saints’ Day (1November 2020), and later in the day was working on my Sunday sermon. As I thought about the saints that have been influential in my own spiritual growth and life, I was reminded that today in Greece is the feast day of Saint Dimitrios of Thessaloniki (Άγιος Δημήτριος της Θεσσαλονίκης), one of the most popular saints and martyrs in the Greek Orthodox Church.

I was reminded of the popularity of Saint Dimitrios throughout Greece this morning by a new icon of the saint by my friend Alexandra Kaouki, the icon-writer with a studio in Rethymnon in Crete.

I have missed a number of planned visits to Greece this year because of the pandemic lockdown. But seeing her icon this morning brought me back not only to her studio below the Fortezza in Rethymnon but also to my many recent visits to Thessaloniki. The most famous church in the city is the Church of Aghios Dimitrios, named after the martyred Roman soldier who is the city’s patron saint and whose feast day is today (26 October).

The church was first built as a small oratory shortly after the year 313 on the ruins of a Roman bath and on the site of the saint’s martyrdom ten years earlier on the orders of the Emperor Galerius.

A new church was built on the same site in the fifth century. This was a large, three-aisled basilica, but was burnt down in 634. Soon after, the present five-aisled basilica was built on the site, and it remains the largest church in Greece.

The Church of Aghios Dimitrios often serves as the de facto cathedral of Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Byzantine sources record that the city’s patron, Saint Demetrios, was also venerated in the Church of the Panagia Acheiropoietos (Παναγία Ἀχειροποίητος) is a fifth-century Byzantine church in the city centre, at Aghias Sofias Street, opposite Makedonomachon square, a short distance to the north of Egnatia Street.

The Church of Aghios Dimitrios became a mosque in 1493, but it was restored to Christian worship in 1912. It was destroyed by fire again in 1917, but restoration work began immediately after the catastrophe of 1917.

Very few fragments of sculptures, mosaics or frescoes survived the fire of 1917, but those that have survived are representative of the successive phases of the church’s history.

Items that survived the 1917 fire and others that came to light during recent excavations include:

● The fountain of the holy water and holy oil associated with the cult of Saint Dimitrios.
● Architectural sculptures, including columns and parapets, from the first architectural phase of the church in the fifth century.
● Corinthian-style capitals from the first architectural phase of the church.
● Two small fifth century pillars from the sanctuary.
● The restored ambo (pulpit) of the church; it dates from the sixth century, and in the seventh century was placed in the wall where it is now exhibited.
● Fragments of middle Byzantine sarcophagi.
● Fragments of icons of the Virgin Mary from the 11th and 12th century relief decoration of the church.
● Fragments of a 13th century ciborium.
● Decorative fragments from a 14th century burial monument.
● A mosaic votive inscription from the decoration of the church destroyed by the 1917 fire.

Today, the church often functions as the de facto cathedral of Thessaloniki.

The crypt under the sanctuary and the transept is said to be the place where the saint was martyred, and has been an archaeological site since it was discovered in 1918.

The remains of Saint Dimitrios were returned from Italy in 1980 and are part of the exhibition open to the public, with items that survived the 1917 fire and others that came to light during recent excavations:

Inside the Church of Saint Dimitrios … rebuilt after the catastrophic fire in 1917 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

‘House of God, Gate of
Heaven’: Saint James’s Church
in Cappagh, Co Limerick

Saint James’s Church, Cappagh, Co Limerick … built in 1839 and rebuilt in 1986-1987 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

Saint James’s Church is one of the few public facilities in the village of Cappagh in West Limerick, about 5 km south-east of Askeaton. Cappagh is the third smallest parish in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Limerick.

Cappagh has no public house, post office or shop, one of the few villages in Co Limerick without any of these amenities.

Cappagh was part of the old tuath of Nantenan, in the territory of Uí Fidgeinte, from the fourth century on. Cappagh takes its name from An Ceapach, meaning ‘the tillage plot.’

Saint James’s Church was built in Cappagh in 1839 to replace an older church damaged by a storm. The church was extensively renovated in 1986 and officially reopened on 15 February 1987.

A mass house was used in the parish during penal times. However, almost nothing remains of this now, and the one remaining wall is virtually indistinguishable from the boundary wall of a field, covered by ivy and briars.

Samuel Lewis described the church as a large plain thatched edifice in 1837, built on Cappagh Hill to replace the 18th-century mass house in Ballymorrisheen. He noted Cappagh was on the road from Adare to Shanagolden, with 694 inhabitants.

The earlier church was blown down on the ‘Night of the Big Wind’ on 6 January 1839. That year, Father Jeremiah Halpin acquired the site for a new church and designed and took charge of the building, which was completed within a year and dedicated to Saint James.

The Latin-inscribed foundation stone now lies in the churchyard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The foundation stone that once stood over the front door is now placed at the side. The inscription in Latin reads:

Hanc Capellam Sto Jacobo
Apostolo dedicatum fieri
Fecit Rev J Halpin PP
Joanne Ryan DD Episcopo
Anno Domini 1839


For many years, this church had only a mud floor and no seating.

A parochial house was built in 1849 by Lord Southwell for the parish priest, Father Richard Mulcahy.

While the church was being rebuilt in 1986, Mass was celebrated in the community hall for six months during the work. The church was officially reopened on 15 February 1987 with Bishop Jeremiah Newman concelebrating Mass with 11 priests.

A plaque lists all of the donors to the church, including Father Robert Somers PP, who donated the church altar and chancel. He had been an invalid for some years and when he died in 1871 at the age of 48, he was buried in the church. P and J Hayes donated the Altar rails, and Kennedy James Hayes donated the baptistery.

‘House of God, Gate of Heaven’ … the porch window at Saint James’s Church, Cappagh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The church has double buttresses on the corners of the nave and the chancel. The porch is a modern addition, with a window depicting Saint James and inscribed ‘House of God, Gate of Heaven.’

The three-light, round-headed window above the altar, framed by a tall pointed arch, depicts Saint William, the Sacred Heart, and Saint Michael. This window was donated by the White family of Nantenan in memory of William White who died in the Boer War on 12 March 1901. The White family coat of arms is depicted on this window, with the motto A Deo Fortuna et Honor.

The front window was donated by Mary A McDonnell, and Emily White donated the chancel window.

Senator Michael O’Dea donated the stained-glass windows on either side of the nave. The window on the right is in memory of his only son Bernard, who died on 8 December 1916. This window depicts Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, a Cistercian monastery and writer’s tools, common symbols of Saint Bernard.

The window on the left is in memory of Michael O’Dea’s mother, Lucy, who died on 25 June 1902. This window depicts Saint Lucy, who was martyred by the Emperor Diocletian in the fourth century. Images in the window include a dish with two eyes, s a symbol of Saint Lucy.

The side altar with a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes was donated by Mrs White of Nantenan in1877. The side altar of Saint Joseph was donated by Thomas and Margaret Hayes of Callow in 1883, who also donated the Stations of the Cross.

The Celtic cross marking the grave of the White family of Nantenan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Two parish priests are buried within the church: Father Richard Mulcahy and Father Robert Somers. Four parish priests are buried in the church grounds: Father Patrick Woulfe, Father David Barry, Father William Boyce, and Father P Fitzgerald.

Patrick Woulfe, who was parish priest in 1926-1934, was the author of an influential study of Irish surnames, Sloinnte Gael is Gadhaill. David Barry was a regular contributor to the church history journal, Irish Ecclesiastical Record.

Other priests associated with the parish include Father ‘Patch’ Carroll, who was vice-president of Notre Dame University in Indiana and a prolific author whose writings include plays, poetry, memoirs and novels.

The other noticeable grave in the churchyard is that of the White family of Nantenan, with a large Celtic cross bearing the names of John P White (1840-1982), who is buried at Saint John’s Limerick, his wife Emily (MacMahon) White (1840-1906), Captain JJ White (1863-1940) and Lieut-Col MWH White (1908-1997) of the 9th Gurkha Rifle.

Saint James’s Church, Cappagh, has double buttresses on the corners of the nave and the chancel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)