By John Sanidopoulos
I vividly remember sitting in my Aunt's house in Athens in 1991 trying to figure out an itinerary to travel throughout Greece and visit as many holy shrines as possible. As I was contemplating, a picture from her icon corner struck me with fascination - it depicted a very old small chapel with a bunch of trees growing on its roof and an icon of a female saint in the corner. When I asked her what church this was, she said it was the miraculous church of St. Theodora in Vasta of Southern Peloponnesos. From that moment I was determined to visit this holy shrine before departing back home to America.
When I arrived at the shrine of St. Theodora on a Sunday morning deep within the forested mountain of Vasta in Megalopolis-Arkadia at the very end of the Divine Liturgy, I was awe-struck by the wonder. Before me stood a church dating back about a thousand years with seventeen large trees growing on its roof and a river flowing underneath it. At the time the story told to me was that this was the martyrdom site of St. Theodora, who had prayed right before her martyrdom that her body become a temple, her hair trees and her blood a river of water. Interestingly there were no relics of this Saint, which added to the mystery. Later I would learn that her grave was actually on this very spot before a chapel was built. To add to the mystery, I was told that the trees on the roof were rootless and sustained by God and that the river under the church flowed from the cornerstone and watered all of the area of Messinia.
For the next ten years I had done some research on this phenomenon and acquired all the writings in Greek and English which tell of the life of St. Theodora and her mysterious church. The more I read about the Saint and her church, the more of a mystery it became. When I returned to the holy shrine in 2001 with the hope that it would now yield some clues to help put some of the pieces of the puzzle together, not surprisingly I was disappointed.
Besides various sources on the internet, I have only been able to acquire three tangible sources for the life of St. Theodora. The first is a book written by Metropolitan Theophilos Kanavos of Gortinos and Megalopolis titled The Life of Saint Theodora From Vasta Megalopolis-Arkadias; for this I have both the original 1982 edition and the newer edition from 1994. This book is based on the earliest accounts written about Saint Theodora, as well as the various oral traditions circulated by the locals of Vasta. The second book I have was written and compiled by Archimandrite Nektarios Ziombolas which contains the various Services and Canons to the Saint written by the blessed hymnographer Gerasimos Mikragiannanitis; this was published in 1987. The third source is a video I was able to purchase through Greek Video Distributors Inc that contains both a documentary and movie on the life of the Saint; this video seems to have been produced in the early 1980's but redistributed and acquired by me in 1992. These three sources, however, are contradictory in many details.
In the video and in the book by Ziombolas the story of St. Theodora is very much complementary with few contradictory details. The Synaxarion of Gerasimos Mikragiannanitis basically describes a young peasant girl by the name of Theodora who was raised in a pious and poor Orthodox family in Messinia of the ninth century. The young Theodora has a deep desire to live a life of virginity and thus decides to flee to a monastery. Her dilemma lies in the fact that there is no female monastery in the area and she knew a male monastery would never receive her. As a solution to this dilemma she disguised herself, and dressed as a male monastic she presented herself to the abbot, introducing herself as Theodore (Theodoris). Theodora becomes an exceptional monastic and fully trustworthy, taking on the labors of the male monastics without complaint and fully obedient. One day the abbot sends her on an errand because a famine has taken over; she was to go door to door to the Christian households and ask for some bread. In one household there was a young girl that was secretly pregnant, and she accuses Theodore of raping her to hide her shame. Many from the village became infuriated and rushed to the monastery to take revenge on Theodore, whom they all thought was a man. Theodora takes her sentence with meekness, and like a lamb to the slaughter she utters not a word in her own defense. She is dragged to the village of Vasta and there is killed, likely by beheading, after saying a prayer that her body becomes a temple, her hair trees, and her blood a stream of water. It is only then that the disguise is revealed, that she was a woman and not a man. The villagers mourn for their dreadful mistake and the abbot and monks of the monastery are left speechless.
Keep in mind that this is the official story written by Mikragiannanitis in the Synaxarion which is to be read during the Orthros service of September 11th. There are a few hymns that are chanted as well which speak of her monastic life. It does not appear in the Small Vespers service, but in the Great Vespers we are told she was a monastic of Panagnou Monastery.
The main problem with this account is that it resembles very closely another Saint who is celebrated on September 11th in the Orthodox Church – Saint Theodora of Alexandria. It appears that there was some confusion between the two Saints at some point, and tradition merged them together. This is not surprising, since there are no old written sources of the life of St. Theodora of Vasta and the origins of her chapel, and locals at some point must have done some research and merged the stories together with what was handed down to them from their ancestors.
Metropolitan Theophilos, however, pursues another twist to the story which he received from more "reliable sources". Instead of Theodora becoming a monastic, he writes that she became a soldier that was stationed at a monastery which required army protection for its many treasures. She does this because, according to laws of the time, citizens were required to enlist a son into the army, and if they did not have a son then they were required to pay a fee to sponsor a male volunteer. Because of the poverty of Theodora’s family, she willingly submits to enlist disguised as a man and calls herself Theodore (Theodoris). Proving herself as a soldier, she especially stood out for her virtue and character, which eventually moved the abbot of the monastery to make her a colonel in the army. However, a loose local woman who had relations with many soldiers desires Theodore and slanders him that he impregnated her, in order for him to marry her. So as not to put her family in danger for deceiving the army, she refuses the marriage and is court-martialed, where she is sentenced to death. Bringing her to the site of the present church, they execute her, to the great sadness of all, especially the abbot who sentenced her and her family whom she sacrificed her life for.
This latter account was weaved together by Metropolitan Theophilos based on much later traditions, and he does the best he can to put together a story that makes sense of it all. His biggest error is that it appears he has her executed by firing squad in his story, which is unlikely as her story takes place before guns were invented. Ultimately we are unable to separate fact from fiction, but it is only appropriate for a mysterious Saint to be connected to a mysterious church. Perhaps the church exists to keep the memory of the Saint alive, since there is no doubt that she would have been forgotten without it. When a pilgrim visits the holy shrine of St. Theodora in Vasta, one is only left to wonder and imagine, but ultimately it is a place of prayer and of miracles where God is to be glorified and skepticism vanishes.
Local legend tells us that a tragedy occurred here, but God turned this tragedy into a miracle. For the locals of Vasta, it is both a Golgotha and a Resurrection Tomb. There is none like it in the whole world. Locals celebrated the feast of St. Theodora on the Tuesday after Easter, known in the Orthodox Church as Bright Tuesday, up until 1952. It was moved to September 11th at that time because a Service did not exist to celebrate her memory with appropriate hymns, so instead they chanted the hymns to St. Theodora of Alexandria, since their lives and names were similar. It also may be at this point that traditions began to merge between St. Theodora of Alexandria and St. Theodora of Vasta. The Service to St. Theodora of Alexandria was celebrated at the shrine of St. Theodora of Vasta until 1980. It was at this time that Fr. Gerasimos Mikragiannanitis from Mount Athos was informed about St. Theodora and her wondrous church in Vasta. Amazed that such a wondrous local Saint existed for so many centuries without a Service, he took it upon himself to compose it. The information provided to him was supplied by Archimandrite Nektarios Ziombolas, who got all his information from local legend. At first three hundred copies were published and distributed to local clergy, chanters and monasteries. On September 11, 1981 the Services composed by Fr. Gerasimos Mikragiannanitis were celebrated for the first time. These consisted of Great Vespers, Matins, a Supplication Service and Megalynaria hymns incorporated into the Divine Liturgy. Since then, the shrine grew in popularity and scores of pilgrims made their way to the shrine of St. Theodora to admire the wonder. Though not officially canonized by the Church, her memory is very much kept alive by locals and pilgrims, and she is honored as a Venerable Virgin Martyr.
Included in this book is the biography of St. Theodora by Metropolitan Theophilos Kanavos of Gortinos and Megalopolis titled The Life of Saint Theodora From Vasta Megalopolis-Arkadias. I offer it here as the most reliable source based on local tradition. In the Appendix there are included comments and studies by scientists who have examined the wondrous church of Saint Theodora in Vasta.