Some Roads Lead to Rhodes
On the Greek island of Rhodes, on Kathopouli Street, beyond a small stucco wall and wrought-iron gate, is a small cobblestone courtyard.
Walk across and you're standing under the A-framed façade of the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria. Look to the right and you'llsee a Franciscan monastery.
This is just one of the church's entrances. The structure presents a very different exterior around the corner, on Dragoumi Street. Here the church is set beyond a larger, treed square. It's got a walkway framed by columns and arches, and it offers a great view of its whitewashed dome and bell tower.
In fact, while Catholic to the core, from here it looks very much like the Greek Orthodox churches along the coast. You've probably seen these in 1,000 pictures, the bright white of the churches contrasted with the deep blue of the Aegean waters.
Inside, whitewashed walls bordered in local stone rise up to a vaulted ceiling. The church is filled with light as open windows near the roof let in the sunshine along with the occasional breeze.
Large marble tiles of black and white cover the center aisle. Beyond the dozen or so pews leading to the marble altar, you come to an icon of Our Lady. It is affixed to the wall, framed by a profusion of plaster cherubim above the domed tabernacle. In the image, Mary holds the Christ-child, leaning her head toward him. Beside the sacred image but included in the plaque is a small coat of arms.
This coat of arms hints at the history of the Knights of St. John Hospitaller in Rhodes. It is also the story of Mary's patronage over the island and its varied inhabitants.
The image commemorates the victory of the Knights of St. John over the Turks on the island during an attack in 1480. The knights ruled the island during the Middle Ages. During the attack, the Virgin Mary appeared in a break of the fortified city's wall. Later, a church in honor of Santa Maria della Vittoria (Our Lady of Victory) was built at that site. That church was subsequently destroyed and the image was lost.
About 40 years later, the knights lost control of the island to the Turks, and many Christians fled Rhodes. From there, the knights went to Malta where they became known as the Knights of Malta.
But it is the Franciscans who have continued bringing the sacraments to the remaining Catholics on the island all these centuries, up to the present day.
Documents show that the Franciscans were there from at least 1457, but most believe they were there well before then. Many Christians became slaves on the ships under Turkish rule. The sacraments were performed in the ships’ galleys.
It was not until 1742 that the Franciscans bought a house and laid the cornerstone for a new church, where the vestry currently stands. The image referred to as the Madonna of the Faneromeni (Greek for appeared or found) was brought to this site in 1743 when the first Mass was celebrated on Holy Thursday. Some also refer to the image as Our Lady of the Slaves, because it was the slaves who found the image sometime under the rule of the Turks.
There is another icon on the wall near the altar leading to the transept on the right. It is a copy of the icon of Our Lady of Filerimos. Tradition holds that St. Luke painted the original image, which features Mary with a somber gaze and which ended up going into exile with the knights.
Construction for the present church began in 1849. The church is cruciform by design, except a small chapel just inside the door to the left. The small chapel was recently restored and dedicated to St. Anthony. Its walls are covered with murals of the life of St. Francis’ most famous follower. Each year, the parish celebrates St. Anthony's feast with a gathering in the monastery gardens.
Although tiny in appearance from the entrance, the church and monastery extend like a paper chain unfolding in the hands of its creator — unfolding, too, like the mystery of the Church through the ages.
St. Paul Was Here
The current church is in New Town, at the northern part of the city of Rhodes. This area developed outside the Byzantine walled city, which the locals refer to as Old Town. After the Turks, the Italians were appointed as administrators by the League of Nations in 1912. That is when many of the medieval buildings were restored, including the walls of the Old Town.
Santa Maria Church is one of only three remaining Catholic churches on the island. The faith was first brought to the island by St. Paul as mentioned in Acts 21.
There are Byzantine Christian ruins on the island and elsewhere evidence that the “Latins” (as the Western Christians were called) had their own churches. The two rites co-existed from early on.
Because of its strategic position in the Mediterranean, the island was often under attack and subject to the whims of varying rulers. The island was returned to the Greeks in 1948 as were many of the medieval churches which the European knights had built. Today the inhabitants are primarily Greek and Greek-speaking.
The exterior of the Church strikes an interesting balance of Eastern and Western architecture, just like the island itself, which sits poised at the easternmost point in Greece, facing Asia Minor, as the locals often refer to Turkey.
During the summer months, tourists comprise a large portion of the Mass participants. For that reason the Mass is celebrated in Latin on Sundays and in Greek on weekdays and feast days. Mass books are provided in several languages with Latin on one side and other languages on the opposite page.
To this pilgrim, the significance of the Catholic Church being the universal Church could not have been more apparent as the Mass attendees responded in Latin or in their own vernacular.
Santa Maria della Vittoria offered me a glimpse of heaven, where Jesus reigns with all the saints at his side.
Janet Labatut Davies, a resident of New Orleans, writes from Houston.
Planning Your Visit
Sunday Mass is celebrated at 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. Daily Mass is at 6 p.m., as is the Saturday vigil. Confessors are available before and after each Mass.
Rhodes is reached by a short flight or ferry ride from Athens. To find the church coming from Mandraki Harbor along side Old Town, turn right from Alexander Diakou Street, onto Sofokli Venezelou Street. Then turn left on Ioani Kazouli Street, which runs to the Church courtyard at 45 Kathapouli St.
- November 13-19, 2005