23 April 2024

Two churches on the streets
of Rethymnon are reminders
of the popular place of
Saint George in Greek life

The large, modern Church of Saint George on Egeou Street in the eastern suburbs of Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

Today is the feast of Saint George (23 April). He may be the Patron Saint of England, but it seems that every town in Greece has a church dedicated to Saint George, and Rethymnon has at least two.

The Greek name Georgios means ‘farmer’ or ‘worker of the land’ and this feast day on 23 April marks the beginning of a season for different kinds agricultural works. In many parts of Greece, the month of April is also called Aiyorgis or Aiyorgitis.

However, Easter is late in Greece this year, with Easter Day as late as 5 May. In the church calendar in Greece, when Easter is after 23 April, and Saint George’s Day coincides with Great Lent or Holy Week, his feast day is transferred and is celebrated on Easter Monday, which is 6 May in Greece this year.

Inside the Church of Saint George on Egeou Street in suburban Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Saint George was the son of a rich and aristocratic family in Cappadocia in Asia Minor. He became an officer in the Roman army at the end of the third century and lived during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian in the early fourth century.

After his father Gerondios died, his mother Polychronia, who was originally from Lydda in Syria Palaestina, returned with George to her hometown, present-day Lod between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in Israel. The story of Saint George rescuing the princess from the dragon is set in the city of Silene in Libya.

In recent days, I have visited two churches in Rethymnon that are dedicated to Saint George: a tiny, ancient church in a hidden corner, off Patriárchou Grigroíou Street, and a large modern church in the eastern suburbs.

Inside the dome in the Church of Saint George on Egeou Street in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The large, modern Church of Saint George on Egeou Street in the eastern suburbs of Rethymnon is behind the long sandy beach, and is close to the landmark tower of the former Bio olive oil factory.

The factory closed in the 1940s, and the Bio tower stood forlorn and isolated for many decades. The area was redeveloped in the 1980s, with a mixture of hotels, apartments and small commercial units.

Saint George’s Church, facing onto an open, expansive square, serves this late 20th century mixed suburban and tourist area as the local parish church.

The fresco telling the story of Saint George, the dragon and the princess above the west door of the church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Saint George’s Church has a typical, towering dome and inside it is richly decorated with frescoes in the traditional Greek Orthodox style.

The fresco above the west door inside the church is a dramatic telling of the story of Saint George slaying the Dragon and rescuing the princess.

In the narthex of the church, there are no less than three icons of Saint George side-by-side to the left as visitors enter the church.

The tiny Church of Saint George, behind the houses in Aghios Gheorghíou Street in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Venetian records show there were three churches dedicated to Saint George in Rethymnon until the 17th century, so it is not certain which one of these churches has survived to this day as the Church of Agios Georgios of Grotta (Ιερός Ναός Αγίου Γεωργίου της Grotta).

It is said that during much of the Turkish rule in Crete, Agios Georgios was the only surviving Orthodox Church in the city. There is no cave in this area, so the name Grotta probably refers to the way this is truly a secret corner of the city.

Aghios Gheorghíou Street is an almost-hidden cul-de-sac in the narrow streets and alleyways of the old town of Rethymnon. At present, many of the houses on the narrow street are being refurbished and are covered in cladding. The casual visitor or tourist would never realise that there is such an interesting church at the very end of the street.

Inside the Church of Saint George in Rethymnon, with its small, wooden iconostasis or icon screen (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Only a discreet sign, partly hidden and shaded by potted trees on the corner, indicates that at the end of the street, tucked into a corner 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 title Ιερός Ναός in the name of the church indicates that this church was probably attached to a monastic foundation. It is a single-aisle chapel with a wooden iconostasis or icon screen.

The house next door on Aghios Gheorghíou Street recently assumed the name of ‘Bishop’s House.’ However, it is unlikely that the Bishops of Rethymnon ever lived there and the name has been lost again during recent renovations.

Looking out into the churchyard and Aghios Gheorghíou Street in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Of course, there are other churches in the Rethymnon area that are named in honour of Saint George. The one I am most familiar with is in Panormos to the east of Rethymnon.

The modern church dedicated to the Ascension and Saint George in Panormos stands above the harbour and the small, secluded sandy beach in Panormos. I visited that church again on Sunday afternoon … but more about that church on another occasion when I discuss the churches in Panormos.

Icons of Saint George in the Church of Saint George, Egeou Street (above) and the Church of Saint George, Aghios Gheorghíou Street (below) in Rethymnon (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

In later Greek telling of the story of Saint George, the dragon came to symbolise Turkey and the princess he rescues symbolised a Greece that was struggling for liberation.

The Council of Oxford in 1222 declared Saint George's Day (23 April) a public holiday in England, but his feast day only became truly popular after the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, and the Saint George cross was not used to represent England until the reign of Henry VIII.

Saint George is revered by many Muslims too, especially in the Balkan region, Turkey and parts of Lebanon and Syria. According to some Muslim traditions, Saint George is associated or confused with a Muslim saint who died multiple times. Turks have known him as Hidir Elez, and there are traditions that Hidir or Hizir was a prophet contemporary with Moses and who sometimes appears alone and sometimes with Elias-Elias or Elez.

Saint George is also the patron saint of Portugal, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Ukraine, Malta, Ethiopia, as well as Catalonia, Aragon and Moscow.

An icon of Saint George in the narthex in the Church of Saint George on Egeou Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Many right-wing politicians in England are furtively waving the flag of Saint George in a particularly nasty expression of English nationalism. They have been vocal in their responses to the way Nike has altered the flag in a new design for the England football kit, introducing purple and blue stripes. In their feigned outrage, they fail to realise how inappropriate is their use of Saint George’s flag.

Saint George was born a Greek-speaker, spent his early childhood in what we now call Turkey and his later childhood in Israel or Palestine, spent much of his military career in Egypt, the story must associated with him is set in Libya, and he was executed and buried in the Middle East.

Should Saint George come to England today, many of the politicians who play around with dangerous slogans such as ‘Stop the Boats,’ I imagine, would want to send George and the princess to Rwanda, and probably keep the Dragon in England.

Looking out onto the square in front of the Church of Saint George on Egeou Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Daily prayer in Easter 2024:
24, 23 April 2024

An icon of Saint George in the Church of Saint George on Aghios Gheorghíou Street in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

Easter is a 50-day season that continues until the Day of Pentecost. The week began with the Fourth Sunday of Easter (Easter IV), although, as I was reminded in Crete in recent days, this is still the Season of Great Lent in the Greek Orthodox Church.

Throughout this Season of Easter, my morning reflections each day include the daily Gospel reading, the prayer in the USPG prayer diary, and the prayers in the Collects and Post-Communion Prayer of the day.

I am back in Stony Stratford, after five of six days in Rethymnon on an extended weekend in Crete since last Wednesday. I caught a flight from Chania to Luton last night.

The Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today celebrates Saint George (ca 304), Patron of England. Later, this evening, I hope to take part in the annual meetings for the Parish of Saint Mary and Saint Giles in Stony Stratford. At the same time Saint George’s Day is being celebrated as patronal festival at Saint George’s Church in Wolverton, with a traditional agape meal within the Holy Communion service, starting at 7:30.

But, before this day begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, including thanks for safe travelling, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

3, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

The tiny Church of Saint George, behind the houses in Aghios Gheorghíou Street in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

John 15: 18-21 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 18 ‘If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. 19 If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you, “Servants are not greater than their master.” If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. 21 But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.’

Inside the Church of Saint George in Rethymnon, with its small, wooden iconostasis or icon screen (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Today’s Prayers (Tuesday 23 April 2024):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Living by faith is hard, and it is never the obvious path.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday with an extract taken from a sermon by the Revd Chris Parkman, Chaplain at Saint John’s Menton, and volunteer for A Rocha France at Les Courmettes.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (23 April 2024, Saint George) invites us to pray:

Let us pray for the Church of England and churches in Ethiopia and Georgia.

The Collect:

God of hosts,
who so kindled the flame of love
in the heart of your servant George
that he bore witness to the risen Lord
by his life and by his death:
give us the same faith and power of love
that we who rejoice in his triumphs
may come to share with him the fullness of the resurrection;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

God our redeemer,
whose Church was strengthened
by the blood of your martyr George:
so bind us, in life and death, to Christ’s sacrifice
that our lives, broken and offered with his,
may carry his death and proclaim his resurrection in the world;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued Tomorrow

Looking out into the churchyard and Aghios Gheorghíou Street in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org