January 18, 2015

The Venerable Ascetic Elias Panagoulakis of Kalamata

By Fr. Epiphanios Theodoropoulos

He was born in Kalamata on July 14, 1873. He never learned letters. He could just barely read and write. Until he was 30 years old he was a band instrument player, and maintained a small tavern next to the Church of Saint Nicholas. All the town rascals gathered there; he was their leader and he was an imposing figure over them all. He was easily able to threaten and beat up someone for the slightest reason.

In 1902 one of his closest friends died. Panagoulakis went to the funeral and attentively observed it. The saying of the Gospel "he has passed from death to life" (John 5:24; 1 John 3:14) shook him completely. Full of anxiety, he asked the Board Members "if another life exists" and they, being pious people, instructed him accordingly. He was already a captive of Divine Grace. Shuddering at his previous debaucheries, he went to Holy Confession (to Hieromonk Glymanos of Velanidia Monastery), confessed his sins with contrition and promised that he would thenceforth live an exemplary Christian life. Then he sold all the belongings of the tavern and covered his whole room with black curtains. He visited everyone whom he had previously treated unjustly and sought forgiveness on his knees. Then he decided to live as an ascetic.

After a short stay in Mani, he returned to Kalamata and there dwelt first in a cell next to the Chapel of Saint Anna, and shortly thereafter in another cell next to the cemetery of Kalamata, where the Old Calendarist "Hermitage of Panagoulaki" is today. There, without being tonsured a Monk, he led a life of prayer and very harsh asceticism for 15 years. He ate olive oil only on Saturdays and Sundays, while he never ate meat, fish or milk. Every Wednesday and Friday he fasted completely, eating nothing at all. He had no bed. He slept very few hours on a board on the ground. Because certain other young men decided to live with him, with the financial aid of some pious people he built a few more cells, which were very small. Their door was so narrow, to remind them of the "narrow gate" of the Gospel, that one could only enter sideways. He preached the word of the Lord to the crowds of people who flocked from the city, every Sunday and feast day. In the plain dwelling where he preached there hung a human skeleton, as a continual reminder of the vanity of worldy things. The preaching of Panagoulakis, simple and unadorned, but coming from a heart that lived in Christ, gave rebirth to a multitude of people. The sanctity of the man drew many towards him. Today's laborers of the Gospel, like Archimandrite Joel Yiannakopoulos, Archimandrite Chrysostomos Papasarantopoulos and many others, learned as children at the feet of this unlearned ascetic. The attractive power of Panagoulakis' simple words was so great that the Colonel of Kalamata forbade his soldiers to visit his Hermitage, because going there in groups and being influenced by his sermons, they refused to accept food containing olive oil during fasting days.

Having come down with a severe form of tuberculosis, Panagoulakis was forced towards the end of his life to take juices from meats, yielding to the supplications of his disciples. He fell asleep in the Lord on January 17, 1917 and was buried with the whole city accompanying him to the grave. His relics are in the aforementioned Hermitage. He left behind the reputation of a holy man. Witnesses who saw and heard for themselves, and are very trustworthy, relate circumstances which convince us that he was granted the gift of foreknowledge.

From the Religious and Ethical Encyclopedia, (vol. 9, column 1117).

Apolytikion in the Fourth Tone
An angel in the flesh, the joy of the ascetics, thou didst ever preserve the memory of death, O Venerable Elias; in poverty and fasting didst thou shine forth remarkably, proclaiming repentance by thy holy life; wherefore entreat Christ our God to save our souls.

See also: A Tour of Panagoulakis Hermitage in Kalamata

The Honorable Skull of Elias Panagoulakis

The New Ascetic Elias Panagoulakis, the Rascal Saint

The Venerable Fr. Elias Panagoulakis, the New Ascetic, was born on 14 July 1873 in Kalamata and lived in the area of Messenia. From the first years of his life little is known, but it is generally acknowledged that he was man of the world and sin. The death of a close and beloved friend was salvific, because at the funeral he heard for the first time the words of eternal life from the Gospel, "he that hears My word, and believes in Him that sent Me, has everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but will pass from death unto life" (John 5:24). Full of thoughts and deeply troubled, he asked the priest of the cemetery to explain this. Indeed, the priest spoke of the judgement, the afterlife, the punishment, repentance and the return. Becoming deeply moved and aware of his spiritual state, (according to his students he asked the priest: "And for me? For me who turned the sea into blood, is there salvation?!"), he asked to confess. The priest was not a confessor and that's why he sent him to an experienced spiritual father of Velanidia Monastery.

After the saving bath of repentance and full of zeal for works of virtue, he told his confessor: "I will do the life of Saint Anthony the Great!" Despite the fact that the spiritual father recommended him to simply be a good Christian, Elias began to look for a place in Mani for prayer and asceticism. In Mani, he lived near a chapel for a short time, working on repentance and prayer, and struggling in a superhuman fashion with fasting and vigil. However the priest of the nearby village urged him to take up his struggles in the place where he lived a sinful life, in Kalamata. He obeyed and returning to the place where he lived a sinful life, he resided on an estate of a Christian in the deserted location “Saint Anna”, in the fortress of the city. There he began new superman struggles that were inconceivable for the time, and he offered to God the fruits of repentance. In a short time the area was flooded with visitors. Dozens of people came to him (most were full of curiosity and had a mocking attitude). His fiery preaching of repentance, and above all his example, changed many people to faithful pilgrims and obedient students. This caused the owner of the estate to fear that the Church would acquired rights to his property, so he requested Fr. Elias to move elsewhere.

The discomforted ascetic (now the features of his face had been altered by fasting and a hard life) obeyed. Before he left "Saint Anna" he gave a coin (a copper nickel at the time) to a student and sent him to the Church of Presentation of the Lord in Kalamata, to chant a Supplication Service. After his return of this novice, the small gathering departed without a specific destination. After wandering, shortly after the Monastery of Saint Constantine, that was founded by the scholar Hieromonk Gerasimos Papadopoulos (1763-1844), he met with the developer Christos Tampakeas. Father Elias and his students, in reply to a question of the pious Tampakeas, recounted the events. Tampakeas proved he was pious and a friend of monastics, so he tried to help and escorted them to the estate of his friend Thomas Michalakis, (where now stands the Old Calendar Monastery of the Annunciation to the Thetokos G.O.C.), from whom he bought the estate and offered it to the ascetic.

After the settling in the new assured place, Fr. Elias descended, after he found somewhere an old robe, to the small cave that was on the property and began to exercise greater zeal in asceticism.

Inside the dark and damp cave he struggled in a superhuman fashion, imitating the great ascetics of the past. Soon his reputation exceeded the limits of the area and hundreds of people were flocking to hear his fiery preaching of repentance. Many of the visitors, fascinated by his life and personality, remained with him and became submissive and students. Among the most important of his students were: George Anagiareas (successor to the leadership of the monastery during the period 1918-1920), George Poupoulatis (later Metropolitan of the G.O.C. of Messsenia and named Chrysostomos), Peter Kalokyris (Monk Symeon), Andreas Kotsopoulos (Monk Anthony), Photios Boustos, Monk George Panagiotis Anagnostopoulos (later Archimandrite Theodoulos, founder of the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Koroni).

However, the Lord of all soon called his struggling servant to be near Him. On January 17, 1918 (the feast day of St. Anthony, whose life he wanted to emulate!), aged only 45, after a sixteen year pursuit in the hard ascetic life and full of rich spiritual fruit, the new ascetic Father Elias Panagoulakis slept the sleep of the venerable ones. He left the reputation of saint and spiritual man and was appreciated by the people of the region. His tomb is at the bottom right of the bell tower of Evangelistria’s Church of the Holy Monastery of Annunciation, his honorable skull is showcased in a small wooden box at the Chapel of the Presentation of the Lord, and next to the skull is that of his student and later the Metropolitan of Messenia Chrysostomos (+ 1956).

From the Travel Guide to the Sacred Metropolis of the G.O.C. of Messenia, 1981.