Saint Philoumenos of Jacob's Well: The First Martyr of "Recent Times"
St. Philoumenos was a 20th century Cypriot monk who was ultimately martyred by zionist extremists for the Christian Faith at Jacob's Well in the West Bank, Palestine in 1979.
According to the memory of the local Cypriot Greek villagers, young Sophocles and his twin brother Alexander, both born into a Christ-loving family, would not drink their mother’s milk on Wednesdays and Fridays. No matter how much the parents tried, the children would resist. So they took it as a sign from the Lord, that these two boys, although born without material or social wealth were chosen for something special. While the twins were born in Nicosia, their parents were from the village of Orounta in the Morphou region near what is today Turkish occupied “Northern Cyprus.”
At the young age of 12 (or 14 according to some other sources), the boys ran away to a local monastery. This monastery was known for its strict discipline, and was located high in the mountains. The elder monks of the Stavrovouni monastery were all former Athonites and thus they brought over everything they had learned there, and this now busy monastery was experiencing a new spiritual renaissance.
Unfortunately, the boys caught tuberculosis for which they required treatment at the local hospital. While outside of the monastery the young monks were introduced to an Archimandrite from the Holy Land, who invited them to the much warmer and kinder climate of Palestine. Despite the climate and bad health, the two monks were so poor that they would use newspapers as ‘winter padding’ under their clothes and robes to help during the winter. Such asceticism was seen as borderline unacceptable in the 1950s and 60s, but despite this – the spiritual objective of asceticism persisted. Patriarch Benedict of Jerusalem even calls his Archimandrite Philoumenos “the poor forerunner”, because of his ‘unmercenary’ (Anagyroi) and poor lifestyle, akin to that of St John the Baptist as described in the New Testament Gospels.
During the Israeli ‘War for Independence’ of 1947, and conquest of Palestine, the Israeli military had the devilish idea of blowing up the Church of the Holy Apostles with their machines. This Church and Monastery stood on the coast of the Sea of Galilee and is dedicated to the 12 Apostles. St Philoumenos was the caretaker of the monastery at the time, and he would run out to block the Israeli soldiers driving their tanks towards it. The hieromonk prostrated himself in front of the machines, and by the Grace of the Lord - the Jews retreated. The Monastery remains standing to this day. Remember this story as it will be relevant again after the Saints martyrdom.
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Over the years, between 1945 and 1979 St Philoumenos would serve all around the Holy Land. He would learn to speak Arabic and Hebrew fluently, the Church services were all memorized, he would serve with diligence and piety, he would sing well in the Choir. These skills made him highly desirable, and the various Patriarchs of Jerusalem used this great holy man to throughout their jurisdiction. There were even stories of exorcisms which St Philoumenos would perform, although details are shrouded in mystery (as they should be, given the private nature of such a miraculous feat).
Despite the rigid asceticism, it is clear to outsiders that St Philoumenos has ‘money’, he is the leader of many monasteries in the newly founded state of Israel. Pilgrims are arriving from all over the post-WW2 world, the Holy Land becomes a popular location for both Western as well as Orthodox Christians. It was found out later, that any salary or donations that St Philoumenos would receive he would place into a special trust account which he would use to buy real estate from both Jews and Palestinians for the Church of Jerusalem. All purchases would be modest, but fair and legal. Theft of land, or fraud, would not cross the mind of the Archimandrite.
Following the end of the Second World War, the two brothers, now in their early 30s joined a local seminary to complete their formal education before being ordained as priests.
Alexander, the twin who was more out-going or ‘extroverted,’ took on the name Elpidios, and he would go on to serve the Orthodox Church in various jurisdictions, beginning in Jerusalem, and then Alexandria, most notably in Mozambique, in the Soviet city of Odessa, and an Orthodox hospital in Athens in 1983. His pious and energetic monastic life would end on Mt Athos, coincidentally the same location from where his original teachers came from, the elders of Stavrovouni.
Sophocles, or Philomenous as he became known in monasticism, was a lot more reserved. Sometimes this came off as shyness to some, but more than likely it was an inner humility rarely understood by persons outside of the ascetic traditions of monasticism.
St Philoumenos is finally delegated to the small, unfinished church of Jacob’s Well. The territory of Jacob’s Well is incredibly contentious. Both the Palestinian Arabs and the Jewish settlers lay claim to it, geographically it is clearly located in the West Bank on the outskirts of the city of Nablus. Several Orthodox churches were built on this Biblical location over the centuries, beginning from the pilgrimages and archaeological expeditions of St Helen and St Constantine, Equal-To-The-Apostles in the 300s AD. Of course the site is of most importance to Christian’s as it was not only built by the Patriarch St. Jacob but also is the well where Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman in the Gospels.
Letters and verbal threats are openly made to the Archimandrite. On many occasions Jewish men would walk into this small Church and laugh, mock the icons and loudly yell at St Philoumenos to take out all of these ‘Christian things’. St Philoumenos would calmly approach them, and in fluent Hebrew explain that this is an Orthodox Church, and it this land has been in the possession of Christians for many centuries now. “I will never leave the place where the Lord has placed me,” St Philoumenos would answer. These are of course examples of Christian courage, strength, meekness, and humility co-existing in synergy with an unbending will to do the Lord’s work.
On another occasion, he would find the corpse of a dog outside of the Church with a letter “If you do not leave this place, you will meet the same fate”. The ritual slaying of dogs was well established in the 20th century as a certain element of occult methodology. A disturbing example was the corpse of a dog which was left on the gravesite of Rasputin after his murder in 1916. In occultism dogs are typically associated with war and the afterlife. Tsar St. Nicholas II and his family would be martyred during the ‘Dog days’ of Summer, on the night of the 17th of July 1918. Their pet dogs, whom they were allowed to bring all the way from St Petersburg to Tobolsk and Ekaterinburg, were also killed on the same night (except the small Cocker Spaniel named Joy). These are not so much coincidences as they are breadcrumbs of a single anti-Christian group acting throughout history. Those who knew the Hieromonk personally said that in those last years and months, he would often proclaim to them in private “If it is martyrdom that awaits me, then so be it, martyrdom saves all of us”.
November 29th, 1979 was a rainy, stormy night in Neapolis. Four Jewish fanatics sneak into the monastery. They have done their research, and they know that Greek Orthodox caretaker has left to visit Jerusalem. The four men enter during the day, masquerading as visitors (pilgrims or Christians perhaps?). Hiding in the monastery gardens under the short olive trees until twilight.
It begins to pour, there is thunder. St Philoumenos hears knocking on the Church door. Every night he would serve evening services there 7-days a week. The door opens and the jews storm in; they knock the Archimandrite to the ground and drag him away into his monastic room. St Philoumenos anticipating the suffering for Christ which he is about to endure, Crosses himself, which prompts the murderers to chop off the three fingers on his right hand by which the sign of our Lord is made. The body of the Saint is abused further, they cut a Cross sign + across his face with the axe. He is then dragged out of his monastic cell, across the yard back into the Church and dropped right in front of the well. They gouge out his eyes, his legs are chopped off below the knee to prevent him from going anywhere. The suffering endured by the saint was unimaginable.
Blood stains can still be seen in that church today. Holy vessels are either broken or ‘desecrated’. Lord knows what they did inside that Church, but many icons and objects were either broken or abused. The body of the Archimandrite is then defiled further, they proceed to pour gasoline all over the body of the saint, and before leaving they throw a grenade into the Church which explodes and causes much damage but the Church does not burn down.
The four men run out of the Monastery and straight into an Israeli military patrol. They are all drenched in blood, so the officers ask them to stop, the men run, one perhaps two are shot to death. The remaining servants of Satan are taken into custody, but released under some ‘unknown’ pretext, even though they are clearly covered in blood.
The caretaker finds the body of his master, St Philoumenos and he is given a funeral worthy of a saint. All Orthodox Christians, Greek and Palestinian alike, knew that this was a rare occasion where a martyrdom happened in their midst and that they could participate in the burial of this holy man. Since this event, St Philoumenos’ relics have been found to be incorrupt. His limbs behaved as if he were simply asleep for years allowing him to be easily dressed and vested for burial. Archbishop of Qatar Makarios also recalls a pleasant, heavenly fragrance coming from his body when his relics were first uncovered in 1983. He is one of the new beacons of Orthodoxy in the small but ancient Church of Jerusalem.
The current caretaker of Jacob’s Well, successor of St Philoumenos, is Father Justin. Father Justin himself has survived 30 assaults and assassination attempts from Jewish extremists. Although injured many times, this other saint of our days is still serving in this most dangerous, yet holy of places. On one occasion, a Jewish extremist enters the monastery grounds armed with a knife and makes an attempt on the life of Father Justin. The priest was saved by his pet dogs, who warn and help subdue the criminal.
Father Justin recalls a miracle: “It was early in the morning, I was asleep in my bed, suddenly I hear the familiar voice of Father Philoumenos telling me ‘wake up, it’s time to go to Church’, I wake up, check the time and realize there is still an hour left. I lay down again, when suddenly I feel a hand on my shoulder, a familiar touch, it’s St Philoumenos and he shakes me tells me ‘hurry, wake up and go to Church – but make sure you enter through the left door’. Usually, I always enter through the righthand door. As I descend the stairs through the left door, I hear a ticking noise. There was a timed bomb near the Altar table.”
Fr Justin manages to call the police; a bomb diffuser specialist rushes in to grab the explosive device and throw it out of the Church before it explodes. It immediately goes off outside the Church. It was not luck that saved Fr Justin and the site, but the Lord, through His servant St Philoumenos.
Saint Philoumenos and his story continue to inspire the Christians of the Holy Land. His immediate successor, Fr Justin, is essentially living proof that the life lead by Christians in some areas of Israel are as difficult materially as they are spiritually. Naturally, modern events surrounding the indiscriminate killing of Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim alike, do not allow for hopeful fantasies to dwell for too long. Only the Lord knows if a lasting peace will emerge. We know that the Holy Land has always been a land of struggle and tribulation, it continues to be so today.
I will leave you with one final story from St. Philoumenos. In the aftermath of the martyrdom, Fr. Justin dedicated himself to completing the Church over Jacob’s Well and moving St. Philoumenos’ relics there someday. However in 2005, the Israeli military operating in the West Bank nearly prevented this. In 2005, while the church had almost reached its completion, it was attacked by two Israeli tanks. “At the time of the attack at 3:45 pm”, Father Justin remembers, “I was in the abbot’s quarters. Suddenly, I saw from the window a cannon shell hit the church. “Saint Jacob…, Saint Photini…,” I shouted. “I built your house from the little the poor had to give. Protect it, because before tanks I can do nothing!” However when I heard the second blast beneath the belfry next to the cross I became despondent and said: “Hey, Father Philoumenos, if you are a Saint, show me now!” and then truly, with my sinful eyes I saw the Saint with his grey cassock on top of the cross in front of the church waving his hands, as if he were sending something away. Then I realised that what he was sending away were three canon shells, which fell down without exploding and rolled onto the cobbled floor below as if they were bottles. In this way the tanks departed without achieving anything and the church was saved”.
In 2008 the church was in full completion. An elegant church, that is in keeping with the liturgical character of the pilgrimage and reigns majestically over a non-christian environment, consolidating in the area the Orthodox Christian presence ‘unto the ages of ages’. This same year St. Philoumenos’ relics were moved from the school at Holy Zion to the new Church in Neapolis built over the well and site of his martyrdom. On August 30th, his Beatitude Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos carried out the consecration rites for the church of Saint Photini and the chapel of the Saint. The consecration of the chapels, which were dedicated to Saint Philoumenos and Saint Justin the philosopher, were performed by the Metropolitan of Morphou, our beloved Neophytos, and the Metropolitan of Capitolina respectively. Today, the holy relics of the Saint are kept in a reliquary and people have the blessing and the opportunity to venerate them publicly.
Thirty years after the Saint’s martyrdom, on 29th November 2009, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, His Beatitude Theophilos, offered a great honour officially to the Saint by canonizing Saint Philoumenos, placing him among the many Saints & Martyrs of the Orthodox Church. The holy ceremony took place in the newly completed church of Saint Photini of Samaria in the presence and attendance of the Patriarch of Jerusalem and other Bishops, and also people from Cyprus, the Holy Land, Greece and many other’s from across the Orthodox world.
Men of God like Archimandrite Philoumenos, his successor Fr. Justin, and many countless other men and women continue to serve their local Church without hesitation and fear. May we all appreciate the comforts, and God-given luxuries of our local Christian communities, far from danger, and not take them for granted. As we continue to witness Zionist atrocities in the Holy Land, including the targeting of Orthodox Churches and monasteries, its is perhaps more important than ever to ask for intercessions from this glorious new Martyr of our time.
On the 29th of November, let us remember, pray, and ask Saint Philoumenos for intercession. May he continue to serve us all as an inspiration of both courage and faith.