New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
With hints of Christmas and the New Year already in the air on Thanksgiving Day, waiting until February 19, the Feast day of Aghia Philothei to write about Maria Hatzimichali-Papaliou’s film, “Filothei the Athenian, the revolution of a woman,” shown at the 13th Annual New York City Greek Film Festival in October, seems a needless delay, as Philothei’s extraordinary life of philanthropy, a relatable topic for today, is inspiring for this season.
“Filothei the Athenian, the revolution of a woman” (“ΦΙΛΟΘΕΙ, Ι ΑΓHΙΑ ΤΟΝ ΑΘΙΝΟΝ”), is a vividly dramatized historial documentary on the life and revolutionary activity of Philothei Benizelou. The film depicts how Philothei defied the authority of Suleiman the Magnificent in 16th century Ottoman Greece, The most amazing example of feminine philanthropy during the hard years of the Ottoman occupation, Philothei inspired a revolution of social welfare for the enslaved Greeks of the 16th century.
Hatzimichali-Papaliou is to be commended for venturing into the rarely explored topic of feminine philanthropic activity during the Turkish occupation. Perhaps her work will encourage other such films.
Philothei was born ca.1522 in Athens, then a small town at the foot of the Acropolis ruled by the Ottomans, as was the entire Greek world after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Her affluent aristocratic parents, Syrigi and Angelos Benizelos named her Regoula. The young girl showed an early sensitivity to the wellbeing of others. Her parents gave her in marriage to a much older man when she was fourteen, and she was still in her teens when she was widowed. When Regoula inherited her parents’ fortune on their deaths, a few years later she was free to live a life of her own choosing. She embarked on a life that was both God-and people-loving, inaugurating 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. Next to it she built the first school for women in Europe, and gradually added an old-age home, and an orphanage
Philothei showed special concern for and sensitivity to the plight of women, and in Turkish-ruled Athens women were the most likely to be victims of injustice and violence. Over several decades, at great risk to herself, Philothei smuggled pregnant women out of Athens through a system of underground passages and gave them refuge from the Turks in the convent’s dependencies in the countryside and on the islands of Aigina and Kea. 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.
The Turks had once arrested, jailed and mistreated her for her activities but did not break Philothei in her cause. Until finally, on Oct. 3, 1588, as 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 tortured and beat her severely. The sixty-seven-year-old nun never recovered from her injuries. Four months later, on February 19, 1589, she died “martyred for Christ and for her people,” writes Eva Catafygiotu Topping in her article, Philothei the Athenaia, “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.”
On Feb. 19, Athens honors and celebrates the Holy Martyr Philothei. Her relics are venerated in the Cathedral of Athens.
Athens-born film producer and director, Maria Hatzimichali-Papaliou has directed many documentaries and television series which have won awards in Greece (the Academy of Athens Award) and abroad (the FIPRESCI Award and the Henry Ford Award). A Member of the Hellenic National Commission for UNESCO, she was also the Artistic Director of the International Documentary Film Festival on Disability EMOTION PICTURES (2007-2011).