On the 27th of August, the Orthodox Church celebrates the Feast of St Phanourius. The life of the Saint is unknown, however, we do know that he is a martyr. According to tradition, the in the late 15th to early 16th Century the Muslims conquered Rhodes. They were known as the Hagarenes who are descendants of Hagar.
The ruler of the island wanted to rebuild the city. One day the Hagarenes approached the ruins of an old church with several icons that were badly damaged. Yet, there was one that was in perfect condition. They called the local bishop whose name was Nilus to identify the saint in the icon. The bishop immediately knew it was St Phanourius. The border of the icon depicted the story of his martyrdom and the image of St Phanourius depicted him as a Roman soldier.
The one image of St Phanourius’ martyrdom, depicts him in the midst of a flame with his hands extended out in prayer. This does suggest that although he died by flame it did not consume his body. This account is in likeness to that of St Polycarp of Smyrna of the 2nd Century. Polycarp, too, was executed by fire, yet, remained in steadfast prayer the whole time. And he was in the midst, not as burning flesh, but as bread baking or as gold and silver refined in a furnace (Martyrdom of Polycarp).
The local bishop of Rhodes asked the ruler to rebuild the church but he refused, so then he went to Constantinople where he received permission. Eventually the church was rebuilt.
Years later, there were three young deacons traveling from Crete to Kythera to be ordained to the priesthood. On the way back from their ordination they were captured at sea by the Hagarenes who brought them to Rhodes to be sold as slaves. While in Rhodes, the priests heard about St Phanourius and prayed to him to be released from their captivity.
One night St Phanourius appeared to the captors of the priests and warned them to release their captives or he would punish them. The captors did not listen and instead treated the priests more harshly. However, St Phanourius went to the priests and freed them from their shackles. The Saint warned the captors again to release them, but they did not listen. This time, however, St Phanourius blinded and paralyzed the inhabitants of the island.
Another time, St Phanourius appeared, warning the Hagarenes to release the priests or the inhabitants would never get their sight back. This time they listened and the priests were released to Crete and the inhabitants were restored their vision. For their deliverance from captivity, every year the priests commemorated the Saint. The miracle of the release of captivity of the three priests certainly sounds very similar to the account in the Book of Exodus where God delivered the Jews. The Egyptians held the Jews in bondage for 430 years.
One day, by the power of God, Moses led their release from bondage. He parted the Red Sea with Aaron’s Rod allowing the Jews to pass safely on dry land. Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord carried back the sea by a strong south wind all that night and made the sea dry ground. Thus, the waters were divided. Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea so the waters may come back upon the Egyptians, on their chariots and the riders.” So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and when the morning appeared, the sea returned to its full depth, while the Egyptians were trying to flee. But the Lord shook off the Egyptians in the midst of the sea (Ex 14:21,26-27). This great event is celebrated annually as the Jewish Passover.
The difference between the two stories is that the Egyptians, despite the several warnings by God to release the Jews, did not obey. At least the Hagarenes by the third warning of St Phanourius, abided and released the priests.
St Phanourius’ (Φανούριος) name certainly is unique and thought to have derived from the Greek word, φανερώ which means to reveal. For this, it has become a tradition in the Orthodox Church to bake a sweet cake and offer it to the Saint for health and well-being. This bread is known as Φανουρόπιτα. It is usually prepared when someone who was in search of something, found it by the intercessions of St Phanourius. This would also apply if someone was in search of another person, or when they found their spouse to marry. Whatever the circumstance, it is indeed the working of the Saint.
It is also tradition that people bake the Φανουρόπιτες for the Feast of the Saint as well. During the blessing of the Φανουρόπιτες the priest reads a prayer and either before the prayer or after, the congregation chants the Festal Apolytikion of the Saint: A heavenly song of praise is brightly sung on the earth; the hosts of the Angels keep an earthly festival now in splendor and radiant joy; from on high, they praise with hymns the sufferings and struggles; and below, the Church doth laud the heavenly glory thou foundest by thy contests and pains, O glorious Phanurius.
Although the Feast of St Phanourius does not draw as much attention as does the feasts of other saints, like St Demetrios or St Nicholas, certainly the tradition of the Φανουρόπιτα is widely popular throughout the whole year, not just for the Feast of the Saint. Furthermore, it is part of tradition that St Phanourius will help those who pray for his mother who was a sinful woman.
When we pray to St Phanourius for his intercessions before our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, let us also commemorate among the departed, his mother whose name is unknown. We all are in search of someone or something but let us also ask the intercessions of this Saint to find ourselves and reveal what is God’s plan for us.
You saved the priests from an ungodly captivity, and broke their bonds by divine power, O godly-minded one; you bravely put to shame the audacity of the tyrants, and made glad the orders of the angels, O great martyr. Therefore, we honor you, O divine warrior, glorious Phanourius (Festal Kontakion).
O Saint Phanourius, intercede for us all!
A graduate of Long Island University, College of Pharmacy, and Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, John works to share the richness and beauty of the Orthodox Faith with the wider community.
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