Each year on Feb. 19, Athena's violet-crowned city honors an illustrious daughter, the Holy Martyr Philothei the Athenaia. On that day a Greek Orthodox Mother of the Church is celebrated and her relics venerated in the Cathedral of Athens. A remarkable woman who lived more than four centuries ago, Philothei is commemorated for her loyalty and sacrifices to Orthodoxy and Hellenism, for whose survival she dedicated talents, fortune and life.
About 1522, the future saint was born in Athens, then a small town at the foot of the Acropolis. Masters of the entire Greek world after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Turks ruled also the birthplace of Philothei. The only child of aristocraticaffluent parents, Syrigi and Angelos Benizelos, she was given the name Regoula. At age fourteen she married and while still in her teens was widowed. A few years later, after the death of her parents, Regoula inherited a fortune and became mistress of herself.
No longer a dependent daughter or wife, the young Athenian aristocrat was free to begin a life of her choosing. For a long time she had known what she wanted to do. Now, without delay she embarked on a life that was both God- and people-loving, philotheos and philanthropos. It lasted until her martyr's death, Feb.19, 1589.
She inaugurated her new life by turning a small church of St. Andrew the First-Called into a convent. Tonsured a nun and taking the name Philothei (God-Loving}, she became its first abbess. Inspired and guided by Philothei, the Convent of St. Andrew became quickly a spiritual and philanthropic lighthouse for the people of Athens.
The energetic and compassionate abbess used the Benizelos family fortune to provide Athens with social services which otherwise would not have existed. Philothei established schools for the young, to teach them their Greek Christian heritage. She maintained a school for girls, next to her convent. She called it the Parthenon. She founded other institutions as well: hospitals for the sick, shelters for the homeless, and homes for the elderly. No one in need was ever denied her help. In addition, the citizens of Athens looked to the fearless abbess of St. Andrew for moral support and protection against their Turkish masters.
From the beginning of her ministry, Philothei showed special concern and sensitivity for the plight of women. Always society's most vulnerable group, in Turkish ruled Athens women were the most likely to be victims of injustice and violence. At great risk to herself, over several decades, Philothei rescued women in trouble, hiding them in the dependencies of her convent, which were located outside Athens, in the countryside and on the islands of Aigina and Kea.
These activities cost Philothei her life. Although the Turks had once arrested, jailed and mistreated her, they had not broken the will of this indomitable woman. On Oct. 3, 1588, Philothei attended an all-night vigil in honor of St. Dionysios the Areopagite, the first Bishop of Athens. Turks entered the church, seized Philothei and beat her severely. The sixty-seven year old nun never recovered from the beating. Four months later, on Feb.19, 1589, Philothei the Athenaia died, martyred for Christ and for her people.
Within a decade after her death, Patriarch Matthew II of Constantinople canonized Philothei, enrolling her among the "blessed and holy women" of the Orthodox Church. Thus Philothei the Blessed martyr of Christ and our God-bearing Mother joined the large company of women recognized as Holy Mothers of our Church.
Nevertheless, our Holy Mothers are generally ignored and slighted, even in the Divine Liturgy. For example. the Liturgy ends with the prayer "Di'; evchon ton pateron emon" (through the prayers of our Fathers…). No mention of our Mothers who also intercede for us in heaven. Yet surely their intercessions are equally as valid as those of the Fathers.
The martyrdom of Philothei the Athenaia reminds us that in all truthfulness we should say "Di' evcho ton pateron kai meteron"-"Through the prayers of our Fathers and Mothers."