The Holy Monastery of Saint Nicholas is located just 1500 meters east of Spata, but has been so much associated with the village that it is commonly thought to be in Spata. To add to the confusion, in 1957 the village of Spata, in the district of Ileia, came to be known as "Agios Nikolaos" or "Saint Nicholas". It is in one of the most beautiful locations in the area.
The History of the Monastery
Very little is known about the history of the Monastery. It has been determined that a chapel was probably established in the early 19th century on the spot where the Monastery stands today. The purpose for the building of this chapel seems to have been the discovery of the miraculous icon of Saint Nicholas. In 1875 a larger church replaced this chapel with the assistance of the priest Liaros of Aigion. It became a monastery initially as a Metochion of the Holy Monastery of the Taxiarchon in Aigion. The popularity of this sacred shrine seems to have been the result of the many miracles attributed to the icon of St. Nicholas, which eventually lead to the building up of cells for monks and rooms of hospitality for pilgrims.
The Discovery of the Miraculous Icon of Saint Nicholas
As to how the miraculous icon of Saint Nicholas was found, no one today is exactly sure. According to the oral tradition of the various villagers surrounding the Monastery, two stories emerge.
First, it is believed that a shepherd saw his goat with a wet beard in the area, however there was no drinking water in the area for this to be true. He followed his goat the next day when it wandered off and eventually came upon a spring. Above the spring was also a cave in which the icon of Saint Nicholas was found, to the shepherds amazement. Excitedly he ran to the village of Spata and informed the villagers of his find, and they followed him to the spring. They took the icon back with them to the village, but each night it would disappear only to be found once again at the spring.
Second, another tradition relates that nearby the village of Spata is a mountain named Gariza. During the summer months in the early 19th century the villagers would leave their sheep to graze there - especially those of two families: the Paulopoulos' and the Stamatopoulos' (whose ancestors still are in Spata). One quiet summer night, as the shepherds were watching the sheepfold, suddenly the sheep became frightened and scattered. Thinking that a wolf or some other predator may have scared them off, they called their dogs and began to investigate. Instead they discovered a bright light in the sky like a star go from west to east. They followed with their eyes this strange light until it reached another mountain named Ailia (or Prophet Elias). The next morning they told the other villagers about this strange phenomenon, most of whom remained skeptical of the shepherds tale. That night, when others went to investigate, they also beheld the same phenomenon. Others again beheld the same thing the next night as well. Was it a star? a meteor? a natural phenomenon? They tried to make a rational explanation, but in vain. They decided to investigate by grabbing their tools and clearing a path through the thick forest to where they approximated the light to have burned out each night. Eventually they came upon a spring and a little further on they found a small house which was falling apart that was enough for one person to live in. Inside the house they found the icon of Saint Nicholas. They reasoned that this must have been the spot where the light came. They took the icon therefore to the village so that it not remain in the forest. However, each night the icon would disappear, and they would find it every day next to the spring.
As to why the icon was found in the forest, it is up for speculation. The icon itself is very old and possibly went through the terrible time of Iconoclasm. Possibly the icon was hidden in the forest during Iconoclasm and forgotten.
The Feasts of the Monastery
The Monastery of Saint Nicholas celebrates two feast days: December 6th and May 10th. The reason it is celebrated on May 10 is because it is believed that on that day the sacred relics of Saint Nicholas reached the western shores of Peloponnisos as they were being transferred from Myra in Asia Minor to Bari in Italy (it reached Bari on May 20; the Russian and Bulgarian Church celebrate this on May 9). The Monastery also especially celebrates the feast days of the Holy Trinity the day after Pentecost, the Holy Apostles on June 29 and 30, and the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on September 14. These latter three feasts draw less crowds, but on the two feasts of Saint Nicholas it is estimated approximately 15,000 people make their pilgrimage.
On these feasts one often sees many acts of piety. Some people come barefoot, even in the winter. Others come on their knees, bloody from the rocky ground. Most come having fasted in order to receive the Holy Mysteries. People bring offerings of oil, candles and other things as a vow to Saint Nicholas. It is not uncommon that as they approach the wonder-working icon of Saint Nicholas, tears fill their eyes and deep sighs are heard by the faithful seeking the aid of the Saint for whatever problem they have. The icon itself is near the right choir of the nave at about a little child's level, so it is necessary for most people to kneel when they venerate the icon of Saint Nicholas. It is on these feast days as well that dozens of baptisms take place.
Miracles of the Wonder-Working Icon of Saint Nicholas
Innumerable are the miracles of Saint Nicholas at this holy shrine. Hundreds of healings of all sorts are reported. There are also many reports of visions of Saint Nicholas to those who have venerated at this shrine, often as a matter to discipline these people towards repentance for a particular evil they did. This shrine has also become a well-known place to bring the demon possessed, for whom there are many reported healings. The paralyzed have walked, the blind have received their sight, life-threatening illnesses have been erased. There are also reports of Saint Nicholas saving the Monastery and surrounding villages from disaster, such as in 1961 during a great fire which threatened to burn them down but was reverted by a strong wind allowing it to change opposite direction before hitting the Monastery.
One of the more interesting and original wonders performed at this Monastery has to do with the fact that hundreds of witnesses have seen animals enter the church unguided, approach the miraculous icon of Saint Nicholas, kneel with their hind legs in front of it, and some even venerate it. This is something my own uncle, Nikos Sanidopoulos of Patras, has seen and he related this story to me. It made such an impression on him, that he took me to this Monastery to drink from the Holy Spring and venerate the Holy Icon. My uncle saw a horse enter the church unguided and venerate the icon unguided. He is not a very religious man, but whenever he spoke of this miracle he would say it with powerful reverence and conviction. Besides horses, others have also seen this with goats and calfs from reports I have read. For example, it often has been the case that poor shepherds would vow to Saint Nicholas a goat to the Monastery to receive healing. When the healing was received they would bring the goat, but the goat would go ahead and lead the way to the Monastery, into the church, and to the icon, in front of which the goat would offer its veneration.
Besides the miraculous icon, the Monastery of Saint Nicholas is also widely known for its Ecclesiastical Orphanage founded in 1948. It is a beautiful orphanage in a beautiful area where the children receive a very good elementary education. It is also intertwined with the Monastery, so they receive a Christian upbringing as well. Behind the orphanage is also an old age home. Both of these ministries are fully funded by the Monastery, to which donations can be made.
The spot where the wonder-working icon was discovered.
The spring with the stair leading up to the church.
The Wonder-Working Icon of Saint Nicholas