St. Irene Myrtidiotissa
Commemorated on November 13
Irene Demetra Pateras was born March 30, 1939, the third child of an affluent Greek shipping family from the island of Oinoussi. True to her name (”Irene” in Greek means “peace”), the girl had a serene and meek temperament, although in matters of faith she did not hesitate to stand up for her convictions. The family lived in Alexandria, where six-year-old Irene attended a Roman Catholic school. One day she was taken, against her parents’ express instructions, to church to receive Communion. When she refused, the priest tried to reassure her by saying, “It’s all right. We’re all the same.” “In that case,” Irene said, “you should come to St. Sophia’s [the Greek Orthodox Church] to commune. Then I’ll receive Communion from you.”
In 1952, after the family had moved to Athens, Irene’s father, a former sea-captain and prominent member of the community, became seriously ill. It was not until a year later that the doctors diagnosed Hodgkin’s disease. Irene loved her father, and she could not bear to see him suffer. She begged God that the illness pass to her and that her father be relieved. She reasoned that the family needed her father more than they needed her, and that he could still do good for others through his deeds.
Two weeks later, Irene developed a fever. She asked her mother, “Perhaps, I have the same illness as Papa?” Her mother assured her daughter that was not possible. Irene had always been healthy, and the family assumed she had the flu. However, after days passed and the fever grew stronger, Irene was taken to a hospital. Among Irene’s visitors was her high school principal. When her mother thanked him for the honor of his visit, he said that the honor belonged to Irene, as the school was proud to have a student of such fine character.
Irene’s illness was first diagnosed as rheumatism. She did not respond to treatment and her condition worsened. A biopsy of fluid from a gland in her neck ultimately revealed Hodgkin’s disease. Her parents were told, but decided to keep the truth from Irene. When Irene again asked if she had her father’s disease, her mother said no. The doctor at the clinic was bewildered as he had never encountered two cases of Hodgkin’s disease in the same family. Her parents ultimately decided to consult another blood specialist, but before being examined, Irene saw the diagnosis in her medical file. When her mother asked why she looked so sad, Irene replied, “It’s nothing, Mama. I am only human. It will pass.” Later, however, she confided to her sister that she was upset that she had not been told of her disease, so that she could focus her life accordingly. Irene told her that she had prayed to God to take on her father’s illness, and was surprised at how quickly God had answered her prayers. Meanwhile, her father’s pains ceased, as did the radiation treatments, and the disease miraculously remained in remission. He was profoundly affected by his daughter’s sacrifice, and grieved for her sufferings, but he accepted this development together with the rest of the family, as being for the greater glory of God.
Irene’s was a devout family, and now she became more consciously focused on her spiritual life. She read the cycle of services daily and concentrated reading the lives of the saints. Her sufferings made her even more tender-hearted towards others in their misfortune, and she consoled many through her letters and prayers. Unaware of this herself, she told her spiritual father, “I have a stone in my heart. Pray that that stone will soften, so I might acquire love.”
In 1960, Irene spent forty days at the convent of St. Menas on Aegina. The Elder Ieronymous lived in a nearby hermitage, and she had many occasions to visit him and receive his instruction and counsel. He gave her the Ascetic Homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian. When she had finished it, he asked if she had understood what she had read, and she admitted with characteristic humility and simplicity, “No.” The Elder had her re-read the book, and the next time she came to him with notes.
Returning home to a suburb of Athens, Irene moved into a basement room, which had been remodeled as a monastic cell. Although she considered the high calling of the monastic life to be beyond her capabilities, she was increasingly withdrawing from the world into a life of prayer. She asked that all her worldly clothes and accessories be given away, and wore a simple grey dress. Later, she wore only black. Eldress Matrona of Chios came to live with Irene, and her presence contributed to the monastic atmosphere that now defined Irene’s life. Her intense physical sufferings, which she bore with rare fortitude, scoured her soul, making it shine with an otherworldly tranquility and joy apparent to all who had contact with her.
Irene desired to embrace monasticism in its fullness. In late 1960, Fr. Panteleimon, now Abbot of Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Brookline, came to visit, being already well acquainted with the family and its devotion to the Church. Encouraged by her mother, Irene asked him if it would be possible for her to become a nun, in view of her inability to perform the monastic rule. Fr. Panteleimon assured her that in such cases the unmurmuring acceptance of suffering replaced prostrations and fasting. Overjoyed, Irene requested that the tonsure take place in three weeks, on October 26, the feast of St. Demetrios the Myrrhgusher, her patron saint. Her illness had progressed to such an extent that the doctors thought she might die within a matter of days. Others suggested the tonsure be performed earlier, but Irene was confident that God would grant her more time.
On the eve of the feast, Fr. Philotheos Zervakos and Fr. Panteleimon, her sponsor, came to serve the vigil in the family chapel. Irene experienced severe pains and a cough, so Fr. Philotheos told her to stay in bed and, when the time came in the service for the tonsure, they would come downstairs and perform it in her room. When, however, the vigil began, Irene quietly got out of bed and took the small elevator upstairs to a room next to the chapel, where she followed the service. Just before it came time for the tonsure, she entered the chapel and, disregarding her pain and extreme exhaustion, went around the chapel, making a full prostration before each icon. During the service, Irene’s cough subsided and, in spite of her exertions, she began to feel better. She was clothed in the angelic schema with the name Irene Myrtidiotissa.
For two weeks after her tonsure, Mother Irene felt better, and a blood test confirmed the marked improvement in her condition to the amazement of her doctors. However, on November 12, her pains began again, and she was taken to the hospital. Relatives and spiritual acquaintances kept vigil at her bedside as it became clear that her departure was imminent. Early on the morning of November 13, 1960, her mother called those in the house to come to the hospital, along with Fr. Philotheos. Everyone stood around Mother Irene’s bed in prayerful silence. The previous day she had told a friend, “If you want to see your neighbor again, come tomorrow very early, before sunrise.” Just as the sun was brightening the sky, Mother Irene went peacefully from this world to meet her Heavenly Bridegroom.
Her body was taken home where it was prepared for burial. The funeral was held that same day at the Holy Convent of St. John the Theologian in Holargos, a suburb of Athens. There was such a feeling of joy among those present that one priest wondered aloud if it wouldn’t be appropriate to chant a Resurrection service. Irene was buried in the convent cemetery, her body being placed directly into the earth without a coffin, according to the Greek monastic custom.
In 1963, three years later, in the same tradition, Mother Irene’s remains were exhumed. After Liturgy on the Feast of the Mother of God “Myrtidiotissa,” Fr. Panetleimon and other monks and clergy went with Irene’s mother to the cemetery, taking with them a box into which to transfer the bones. In digging down, however, they found her remains to be completely intact and fragrant. They were carried in a sheet to the convent, where the overjoyed nuns sang Resurrectional hymns, and then took her remains to Mother Irene’s cell. There, nuns from the convent washed and dressed them. They were appropriately laid to rest in a reliquary in a chapel of the Annunciation Convent that her family had founded on Oinoussai, the island where they had been born.
When Mother Irene had been prepared for burial, her father looked upon her serene countenance and said softly, “You closed your eyes, my child; now my pains will begin again.” He died on the Feast of St. Nicholas, December 6, 1966, three years after receiving the monastic tonsure, for which he was well prepared after living for fourteen years with the constant thought of death. After his repose, his wife, at the urging of Elder Ieronymous of Aegina, also entered the monastic life. Following the instructions of the Elder, she assumed the duties of abbess at the Convent of the Annunciation.
The idea for the establishment of a convent came in 1959 when Irene’s parents were with her at the clinic. It was constructed with astonishing rapidity. The portable icons were written by the eminent iconographer, Fotios Kontoglou, who encouraged Irene’s parents in their holy undertaking. The convent follows the Old Calendar and the ancient Typicon of St. Sava.
Just recently, the area around the blessed remains of Nun Irene Myrtidiotissa at the Annunciation Convent was found bathed in myrrh, the sweet fragrance of a life sacrificed for another.
(Condensed from The Convent of the Annunciation of the Theotokos, Oinoussai, Chios 1988, in Greek with English supplement), via www.roca.org