Relic Brings Clout and Miracle Seekers to a Queens Church
The hand of St. Irene — or what worshipers believe to be the remains of it — rests on a bed of red velvet in an engraved silver box carefully balanced atop an altar pedestal in a Greek Orthodox church in Astoria, Queens.
To the untrained eye, it is nothing but a piece of bone immersed in beeswax, and some doubt it is from the saint. But to the legions of faithful who go to see it every Sunday at St. Irene Chrysovalantou Greek Orthodox Cathedral — a small church that belongs to a splinter branch of Greek orthodoxy — the hand is a holy relic, a powerful symbol that their beloved saint has followed them to their new home in America not only in spirit but also in body.
As for the church, the possession of the hand is a sign that the denomination it belongs to, the Genuine Orthodox Christian Church, is cementing its place in America, 25 years after it ventured out of the Old World and six years after a string of events, fluctuating from miraculous to scandalous, threatened to dislodge it from its niche in the heart of Astoria’s Greek community.
Since 1990, the church has been the site of a proclaimed miracle (a weeping icon of St. Irene), a theft (of the same icon, by masked men with guns), another miracle (the return of the icon by mail, though without its jeweled frame), a legal squabble (a $30 million libel suit, since settled, over suggestions that the theft was a hoax), a fraud investigation (now closed, by the Queens District Attorney’s office after an insurance company also asserted that the theft had been staged), an ongoing court fight (to get the insurance company to pay for the stolen jewels) and a clerical mess (the defrocking of a priest after it was revealed that he had worked at a brothel in Greece).
The church’s zigzagging, from the evening news to police headquarters and from there to New York courtrooms, brought notoriety and recognition to its leaders, but not the kind they craved. The events of the last six years have marred the church’s reputation and raised questions about its once low-profile leaders: Are they saints or schemers? Victims or villains?
Now comes the ”hand,” or what is said to be a piece of the saint’s right index finger. Church leaders contend that it is the only known relic from the body of St. Irene, a ninth-century abbess who preferred the austere life of a convent to marriage and whose name is Greek for peace.
”We think she will bring us good things,” said Archbishop Paisios Loulourgas, leader of the Genuine Orthodox Christians in America. ”We feel blessed and renewed by her presence among us. She will bring us peace.”
She will also bring them people, hundreds a week. On some Sundays, busloads of visitors have flocked to the church at 26-07 23d Avenue, where membership stands at 2,000. The hand will be on display every Sunday until Christmas Day, which for this denomination is celebrated on Jan. 7. After that, the priests said, it will be stored in a vault.
The surge of attention and new members represents an important step in building not only the Queens church, the nerve center of the Genuine Orthodox Christians in the United States, but also in strengthening the group’s influence among Greek immigrants, who tend to follow Greece’s official Greek Orthodox Church. Although overshadowed by the Greek Orthodox Church, which is recognized in Greece’s constitution as the state church, the Genuine Orthodox Christians have opened 22 churches in the United States. Six are in New York, two of them in Queens, where the majority of Greek immigrants in this country reside.
Some, like Michael Gamurakas, come to St. Irene’s looking for a miracle. On a recent day, he prayed in front of the icon of St. Irene and asked the saint to restore health to his 5-year-old niece.
”St. Irene is my helper,” said Mr. Gamurakas, an unemployed 51-year-old Greek immigrant. ”I know she will help me now, too.
The fascination with the icon and with the hand is part of Greek culture and religion, observers say.
”Greeks are very religious,” said Apostoli Zoupaniotis, editor for community affairs of Proini, a local Greek-language newspaper. ”They want to have holy items brought here, things that physically connect them to the saint. It’s an extension of the ties between the motherland and the community abroad.”
Harry J. Psomiades, director of Greek and Byzantine Studies at Queens College, said the relic serves a more contemporary purpose: clever marketing. Devout Greek Orthodox people, he said, ”will go there, anywhere where there is a so-called miracle, a weeping icon, a hand, whatever.”
The hand, which was given to the church by monks who had kept it since 1922, was transported from Athens in October by security guards and three bishops. It traveled on Olympic Airways in a first-class cabin, where it was revered by crew and passengers. It arrived in Astoria in a black stretch limousine. Three blocks were closed to traffic near the church, where a huge party awaited. Local officials attended the party, or, as Governor George E. Pataki did, sent letters congratulating the church on its acquisition.
It was a crowning moment for a religious group that for years has struggled to find its place in the modern world, here and in Greece.
The denomination has been at odds with Greece’s richer and more powerful Greek Orthodox Church since the early part of the century. The church split in 1924 when leaders adopted the Gregorian calendar commonly used in much of the world. Clinging to the old Julian calendar, which is 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar, a group of priests created their own sect.
The Old Calendrists, as they came to be known, founded their first church in the United States a quarter of a century ago. By then, many who had been members in Greece had switched allegiance and were attending services at mainstream Greek Orthodox churches. To lure them back, the church placed extra emphasis on parishioners’ needs, feeding the poor, offering child care and establishing senior citizen centers.
”It paid off,” Mr. Psomiades said. ”They are highly respected and much admired by their people. Their people are poor, but they give the church all they have.”
The cathedral of St. Irene gained national notoriety in 1990, on the eve of the Gulf War, when the church said its icon, a 6-by-8 inch painting of the saint, had begun to weep. Church leaders expressed fears of something ominous and they telegraphed President George Bush and other world leaders with a warning: be careful, they said, the world could be on the brink of war. Word of the so-called miracle on 23d Avenue got around. Television cameras followed.
People from all over the country visited the church to ask the saint for a miracle, leaving jewels at its feet. Church leaders arranged the jewels on the gold frame that surrounded the icon.
Then, in December of 1991, four masked and armed thieves walked into the church and, in the presence of two priests and several worshipers, ripped the icon with its jeweled frame from its pedestal. Soon after, the icon came back in the mail, undamaged but without the jewels. The thieves were never found.
By then, the church was embroiled in a controversy that would shortly end up in court. Two local Greek-language newspapers and a spokesman for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America, based in Manhattan, questioned whether the theft was staged.
St. Irene sued the Greek Orthodox church and the two newspapers for libel, seeking $30 million in damages. Still, an insurance company, Cigna, refused to pay the $1.2 million the church claimed as the value of the jewels, and instead asked the District Attorney’s office to initiate a fraud investigation. That inquiry was later closed for lack of evidence.
Last year, as part of an out-of-court settlement, the newspapers and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese retracted their previous comments. St. Irene’s took Cigna to court, where the dispute still simmers.
In the midst of the legal conflicts, the Genuine Orthodox Church was informed that one of the two priests who had witnessed the theft of the icon, Father Ieronimos Katseas, had once worked in an Athens brothel. He was promptly excommunicated.
The icon of St. Irene, and now the hand, continue to be a magnet for jewels left by congregants. Genuine Orthodox officials said they appraise the jewels every year and periodically sell pieces of lesser value to finance church projects. More expensive pieces, they said, are kept in a vault.
Mr. Psomiades said he doubted that the hand once belonged to St. Irene. He also said he did not believe the icon ever wept.
”On the other hand, some people do believe in miracles,” he said. ”And if you believe in miracles I suppose anything can be true.”
Correction: December 31, 1996, Tuesday An article on Dec. 23 about St. Irene Chrysovalantou Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Astoria, Queens, which recently acquired a relic venerated as part of the hand of St. Irene, referred incorrectly to the disposition of a lawsuit filed by the church against two local Greek-language newspapers, which had suggested that the theft of an icon from the church in 1991 may have been a hoax. While one paper printed a retraction as part of a settlement, a judge dismissed the suit against the second paper; they did not both print retractions.