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On the 17th of January, a day our Church honors the feast of St. Anthony the Great, it was also the day that the New Martyr George, at the age of 30 in 1838 came to a martyr’s death by hanging in the city of Ioannina. The gallows were set up in the busy Ioannina square of “Kormanio”, which is opposite the great Castle entrance (pictured below). The square now bears the New Martyr’s name.
The New Martyr George was one of the last victims of the forced recruitment of Christian boys by the Ottomans (they were known as Janissaries). This happened when he was 12 years old. Nevertheless, he was able to preserve his Christian faith untainted; a faith for which he was martyred despite the Turkish environs of Ioannina considering him to be a Turk and employing him in the Turkish army as a horse groom, with the name “Infidel (Giaour) Hasan”.
The New Martyr George, who was modest in his ways, always wore the traditional long foustanela of his village and an embroidered waistcoat, with which he is depicted in icons.
A new phase in his life started in October 1836, when he decided to get engaged and then marry on the feast of St. Demetrios a Christian girl from Ioannina, Eleni. They had a son together, born in December 1837, who was baptized in keeping with Christian tradition on the 7th January 1838, giving him the name John in honor of St. John the Baptist whose feast day it was.
All this, of course, provoked his persecution and eventually his death by martyrdom. Despite being tortured by the Turks to make him deny his Christian faith, the saint confessed with courage: “I was never a Turk, I was always a Christian.” He even said this at the gallows, which he faced with composure and bravery.
His last words are typical. When his Turkish tormentors asked him “What are you?” before pulling up the gallows, George asked that his hands be untied. He made the sign of the cross and said, “I am a Christian and I shall die a Christian, I bow before my Christ and my Lady Theotokos.” Then, turning to the Christians who stood there he said, “Forgive me brethren, and God will forgive you.”
The body of the Saint hung on the gallows for three days, without, however, decaying; an incident that made even the Turks believe in his holiness and allowed him to be buried with the greatest honor. One Turkish woman, while his body was hanging, had even taken one of his socks and ran to place it on another sick Turkish woman, and she was immediately healed.
George, the New Martyr, was officially recognized as a saint on the 19th of September 1839 by the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Constantinople under Patriarch Gregorios and eleven synodical bishops. In the end the Patriarchate asked that secretly the celebration of the Saint be on the 17th of January which also honors Saint Anthony so that it didn’t look to the Turks that a new day of celebration had been set for the Martyr. However, he had already been accepted as a saint by the Christians of the area from the time of his death. Not only that, but according to some witnesses many Muslims who lived in the area of Ioannina also recognized his holiness.
Many biographies and services were written for the New Martyr George, amongst them the one by the monk Gerasimos Mikragiannanitis, which mentions amongst other things:
“This distinguished New Martyr of Christ, George, was the son of devout and virtuous parents, Constantine and Vasiliki, from a certain village of the province of Grevena, commonly called “Tsourchli” now called “St. George”. His father, a poor man, obtaining life’s necessities by farming, who had George and brought him up in piety, could not educate him because of poverty. With no experience of formal learning, nevertheless, he was orphaned of his parents at a young age and he lived with his brothers for a time. In these circumstances, he moved to Ioannina, where he earned his living as a waged worker, with simple manners, modest decency, gentle and kind, and not absent from marveling at the house of the Lord in his season.”
The first icon of the Saint was made on 30 January 1838, only a few days after his Martyrdom, commissioned by the Hieromonk Chrysanthos Lainos, who is mentioned as his spiritual father and guide. In this icon the saint is depicted in his traditional clothes, holding a Cross in his right hand and in his left a palm branch and a scroll with the petition: “Do not separate me from the glory of Your martyrs, my sweetest Jesus, because I am consumed by Your love, but also strengthened by Your great mercy, O Christ.”
On October 26, 1971 his relics were exhumed and placed in the newly built Church of St. George the New Martyr. Fr. Mitrophanes, a monk from the Holy Mountain and native of Epirus who composed a service to the saint, was at the translation of the relics and was given a small portion by the bishop. A year later, Fr. Mitrophanes told the bishop that he had seen New Martyr George appear during the vigil on Mount Athos for the saint’s feast day and the relic began to give off a wonderful fragrance.
New Martyr George’s widow, Elena, married again and had other children. Their son John fathered a son whom he named George and who later became a monk. John also had a second child, who settled in Mytilini, returning in 1934 to sell the family home to the local diocese. The house was made into a chapel-museum, and is open daily. It is held in such reverence that during World War 2 local Orthodox Christians kept all-night vigils there, praying for the protection of the city. The museum contains a display of the saint’s belongings, which include a watch, a red feast-day vest, leggings, and a small decorated box.
Apolytikion in Plagal of the First Tone
Let us praise George, Christ’s Martyr, Ioannina’s boast and protector. For he contested steadfastly and conquered the enemy in power of the spirit. He now intercedes unceasingly that our souls may find mercy.
Kontakion in the Fourth Tone
O George, the city of Ioannina rejoices that through thy contest it possesses the treasure of thy relics.
by John Sanidopoulos
Apolytikion of Saint George the New Martyr of Ioannina