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September 22, 2016

The Life and Veneration of Holy Martyr Phocas the Gardener of Sinope

St. Phocas the Gardener of Sinope (Feast Day - September 22)


Phocas the Martyr delighted in your grace O Word,
And in your grace he died meeting his end through the sword.

Like Saint Phocas the Bishop of Sinope a few centuries before him, so also this Saint Phocas was from Sinope in the region of Paphlagonia. He probably lived during the reign of Diocletian (284-305), and he was a gardener. He had a very small garden, and whatever it produced, he equally shared it with the poor. However, not only did the Saint cultivate the sensible garden, but also the noetic garden of the soul, that the various flowers of the holy virtues might flourish there.

Being out in the open as a genuine servant of Christ, he was denounced to the pagan governor of Sinope. The governor therefore sent his soldiers to have him arrested. When they arrived at the home of the Saint, he received the soldiers and gave them hospitality, knowing not who he was. Phocas asked the soldiers who they were and why they had come to Sinope. When they told him who they were looking for and how they intended to have him beheaded, Phocas told them he would help them find the man they sought in the morning. Meanwhile, he allowed the soldiers to rest in his home that night.

During the night as the soldiers slept, Phocas went out and dug his own grave. He prayed and made arrangements for all his possessions to be distributed to the poor after his death. In the morning, when the soldiers awoke, Phocas revealed his identity to the soldiers. The soldiers hesitated and offered to report to their commander that their search had been fruitless. Phocas refused this offer and humbly bared his neck. He was then decapitated and buried in the grave that he had dug for himself.

Soon after this, a church was built over the grave of the Saint, and produced so many miracles, that he came to be universally renowned as a wonderworker.

The Veneration of Saint Phocas

Saint Asterios, Bishop of Amasea, pronounced a panegyric for this Martyr around 400 A.D., from which we know everything about him, on his festival, in a church, probably near Amasea, which possessed a small part of his relics. In this discourse he says: "Phocas from the time of his death became a pillar and support of the churches on earth... All over the world he is considered the most prominent among the saints... He draws all men to his house; the roads are filled with persons resorting from every country to this place of prayer. The magnificent church which (at Sinope) possesses his body, is the comfort and ease of the afflicted, the health of the sick, the resource plentifully supplying the wants of the poor. If in any other place, as in this, some small portion of his relics be found, it also becomes admirable, and most desired by all Christians." He adds that the skull of Saint Phocas was kept in his beautiful church in Rome, and says, "The Romans serve Phocas in the same manner they do Peter and Paul." He bears testimony that the sailors in the Euxine, Aegean, and Adriatic seas, and in the ocean, sing hymns in his honor, and that the Martyr has often appeared at night to help those at sea in the midst of storms and preserved them; the sailors also set a portion of food daily apart for Saint Phocas on behalf of the poor, and one of them each day would buy the portion of food daily until they reached shore, and this portion of gain which they in every voyage set apart for the poor was called "the portion of Saint Phocas." He mentions that a certain king of the barbarians had sent his royal diadem set with jewels, and his rich helmet as a present to the Church of Saint Phocas, praying the Martyr to offer it to the Lord in thanksgiving for the kingdom which his Divine Majesty had bestowed upon him.

Chapel of Saint Phocas in Paros

It should be noted that Saint Phocas is considered to be the first Christian patron of sailors and mariners. The name Phocas seems to derive from the Greek word for "seal" (phoke/φώκη), the sea creature, which may explain his patronage of sailors and mariners. Let alone the fact that he lived on the coast of the Black Sea, and his church in Sinope was near the sea as well. Sinope also was a base for the Roman navy. His miracles for sailors and mariners at sea are testified from the fourth century. It was not until at least a few centuries later that he was replaced by Saint Nicholas of Myra as the patron of sailors and mariners, who also had a coastal church in Myra. Though one more often finds in Greece today churches dedicated to Saint Nicholas along coasts and at ports, today there are chapels still dedicated to Saint Phocas at similar locations (albeit they are few, though always coastal). They can be found in Tinos, Lesvos, Kos, Paros and other places. Also, at the Greek speaking town of Salento, in South Italy, there is a small village called San Foca along the coast, despite the Saint being virtually unknown to Catholics today.

Church of Saint Phocas in Sinope

The Fate of the Church of Saint Phocas in Sinope

University of Warwick archaeologist Dr. Stephen Hill uncovered on what is now a cliff top the Church of Saint Phocas in Sinope. He found that it was wrecked by two earthquakes, a flood, and a landslide - all of which happened while it was still being built. In the middle ages it likely became an opium den and after its eventual abandonment ended up being washed away by the sea.

The site was discovered when Turkey's Sinope museum found pieces of late Roman mosaic washing up Turkey's Black Sea coast, in the mid 1990's. The museum asked University of Warwick archaeologist Dr. Stephen Hill to investigate. He found, not just a mosaic, but the site of a large, previously unknown, fourth century church. The spot was believed to be the site of Saint Phocas's original grave. At the time it was built the site was in a valley bottom subject to winter melt deposits and landslides where it was perhaps unwise to build anything!

Dr. Hill and his team have managed to put in coastal defenses to stop any more of the mosaic on the site falling into the sea, but recently large ground cracks have appeared within the site suggesting that the area is still unstable, which means the church may not survive long.