Gerontissa Gavrilia, “the ascetic of love,” canonized by Constantinople

Istanbul, October 4, 2023

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The Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Constantinople resolved to canonize Gerontissa Gavrilia (Papayannis) at its session yesterday.

Mother Gavrilia (†1992) was a Greek Orthodox nun known for her care of the poor and sick. She is affectionately known as the “ascetic of love.”

The decision to canonize St. Gavrilia was initiated by Patriarch Bartholomew and announced by the Metropolis of Leros, Kalymnos, and Astypalea, which made the relevant appeal to the Synod, reports Romfea.

The Metropolis commissioned Metropolitan Kyrillos of Rhodes to compose the service in honor of St. Gavrilia, who reposed in Leros.


Her life from Orthodox Wiki reads:

The Gerontissa Gavrilia was born in Constantinople (Istanbul) on October 15, 1897 to Helias and Victoria Papayannis. She was the youngest of four children.

She grew up in the city until her family moved to Thessaloniki in 1923. She went to England in 1938 and stayed there throughout the Second World War. She trained as a chiropodist and physiotherapist. As a result of her services to her fellow citizens during and after the war, she was honored by the English government with the offer of citizenship, an honor she politely declined.

In 1945 she returned to Greece where she worked with the Friends Refugee Mission and the American Farm School in Thessaloniki in early post-war years. Later she opened her own therapy office in Athens until 1954. In March of that year, her mother died and the office was closed. Sister Gavrilia left Greece and traveled overland to India where she worked with the poorest of the poor, even the lepers, for five years. She worked with Baba Amte and his family who built and organized village-communities for the lepers of India. She accepted no reward for her services, trusting always in God’s providence.

In 1959, she went to the Monastery of Sts. Mary and Martha in Bethany, Palestine, to become a nun. When she arrived she asked Fr. Theodosius the chaplain for a rule of prayer. Fr. Theodosius was somewhat surprised to find that she could read liturgical Greek. Fr. Theodosius said, “The great elders that we hear about no longer exist. I certainly am not one. You came here to save your soul. If I start giving you rules, you will lose your soul and I will as well. But here is Fr. John. He will be your elder.” So for her first year in the monastery he set her to reading only the Gospels and St. John Climacus. (It should be noted that at that time ‘The Ladder’ had not been published in Modern Greek.)

She stayed in Bethany for three years. In April, 1962, word came that Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople sought to send an Orthodox monastic to Taize in France. Sister Gavrilia went by way of Taize (she spoke fluent French from childhood) to America.

By 1963 she had returned to Greece. She was tonsured to the Small Schema by St. Amphilochios (Makris) on Patmos in the Cave of St. Anthony under the Monastery of the Annunciation just before she and the nun Tomasina left again for India. Elder Amphilochios was enthusiastic about the idea of a nun who would be open to the active outreach in the world. Once in India she spent three years in Nani Tal in Uttar Pradesh where Fr. Lazarus (Moore) was the priest and where he consulted the Gerontissa in his translations of the Psalter and the Fathers. Between 1967 and 1977 she traveled in the mission field of East Africa, in Europe, including visiting old friends and spiritual fathers Lev Gillet and Sophrony of Essex. She returned again to America, and briefly to Sinai where Archbishop Damianos was attempting to reintroduce women’s monasticism.

She traveled extensively, with much concern and broad love for the people of God. Some of her spiritual children found her in Jerusalem beside the Tomb of Christ; others found her on the mission field of East Africa. In the 50s and 60s she was a spiritual guide and comfort to thousands of people all over the world. She would pray for all of them by name in her daily rule of prayer.

For years, beginning in about 1977, she lived hidden in a little apartment, the “House of the Angels” in Patissia in the midst of the noise and smog and confusion of central Athens. This modest apartment was a place of refuge for all of those who would visit her seeking a word of comfort.

In 1989 she moved to Holy Protection Hermitage on the island of Aegina, close to the shrine of St. Nektarios. There, she called the last two of her spiritual children to become monastics near her, and there she continued to receive many visitors. At the start of Great Lent in 1990 she was hospitalized for lymphatic cancer. She spent forty days in the hospital, leaving during Holy Week and receiving Holy Communion on Pascha. To the amazement of her doctors, further tests revealed the cancer had miraculously disappeared.

The Gerontissa finally withdrew to solitude. With only one nun as a companion, she moved for the final time in her life, to the island of Leros. There they established the hesychasterion of the Holy Archangels. Only in this last year of her life did she accept the Great Schema at the hands of Fr. Dionysius from Little St. Anne’s Skete on Mount Athos. He came to give her the Schema in the Chapel of the Panagia in the Kastro on the top of Leros.

Gerontissa Gavrilia passed from this world on March 28, 1992, having never built a monastery. Over the years, six of her spiritual children did become monastics, but never more than one or two were with her at a time. Only the angels could count the number of lives that God touched and changed through her. Her biography and collected writings were published in Greek in 1996, through the work of her last monastic daughter and the contribution of many, many others who held Gerontissa dear.

Anyone who knew the Gerontissa realized that God has not left us without His saints, even down to the present day. The few words recorded here scarcely suggest the clarity and love of her soul. Words are only the tools of this world; the wonder of the Gerontissa was wrapped in the mystery of the silence of the world to come.

She never sought a reputation. She never allowed anything about her to be published during her long life and only allowed her children to take photographs in her very last years. Those whom God touched through her called her Gerontissa; she never made herself anything but the nun Gavrilia.

She was humility and love incarnate.

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