an icon finally gets her due
Irene couldn’t take it any more.
As a girl, she had been betrothed to the Byzantine Emperor Michael III, but had instead chosen to live as a humble novitiate in Chrysovalantou Abbey, near modern-day Athens. She had lived a life of pure goodness, praising God with her every word and deed, eating only bread and water, praying for days on end without rest, ministering to the sick and needy.
She was rewarded for her faith, not only with the treasured post of Abbess of Chrysovalantou, but with superpowers. She could fly, see the future, cast out demons, and cure the sick. She died at the tragically young age of 102, but even in death her miracles could not be denied, and so she lived on as a saint of the Orthodox Church, the patron of peace and healer of the sick.
She had seen much in her 1200 years of sainthood, but what she was seeing now had finally pushed her to the edge. There was only one thing left to do: cry.
Tears for Peace
It was October 17, 1990, and almost a thousand people had gathered in Sts. Athanasios and John the Baptist Church in Chicago to celebrate a special mass for peace in the Persian Gulf.
Because of the solemnity of the occasion, the church had borrowed an icon of St. Irene Chrysovalantou, patron saint of peace, from another Greek Orthodox church. Towards the end of the mass parishioners noticed, almost off-handedly, that the icon of St. Irene was weeping. Or at least, there were two droplets of moisture on the icon, roughly near the eyes, that trailed down the portrait to the bottom of the saint’s shroud.
To the faithful, it was a miracle, and one with an easy-to-understand message: no blood for oil. As word spread over the next five days, the miracle became a minor media sensation and nearly 35,000 people from the greater Chicagoland area came to see the miraculous weeping icon.
The faithless were skeptical, of course. The 20″ x 30″ icon had been painted by a Greek monk in 1919, and had been in the United States since 1972. And yet it had not wept for any other conflict. Not for Operation Just Cause, not for Vietnam, not for Korea, not even for World War II. Why was it weeping now? Good questions to ask, but answers would have to wait.
On October 23rd, the icon returned to its home, the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Irene Chrysovalantou in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, NY. It got a little parade through the streets to welcome it home, and was installed back in its shrine: a sort of wooden throne in front of the church’s altar, where it was locked in a bulletproof glass case adorned with gold and jewels that had been donated by the faithful over the years.
By the end of that first day in Queens, nearly 1,500 people had come to see the icon. The church started holding extra services every day at 7 AM and 7 PM, staying open until 10 PM or even later to allow the faithful to see the icon. It was quite a spectacle. Long lines of the curious snaked across neighborhood sidewalks, extra floodlights illuminated the church, and loudspeakers blasted hymns to entertain the faithful and annoy neighbors.
Once visitors finally managed to make it into the darkened church, they would make their way up to the altar one at a time, duck beneath an archway of white carnations, and enter the dark alcove where the painting was held. A priest would hold up a flickering candle so that they could gaze upon the icon, and command them to kiss the glass in front of it. Prayers and donations were optional, though the faithful left plenty of both.
New York area skeptics, including the New York Area Skeptics (NYASK), naturally wanted to examine the weeping icon to see if it was a legitimate miracle and not just, say, condensation. Locals were also interested in debunking the weeping icon, if only to calm the chaos that was consuming their neighborhood. Reporters had no dog in the fight, but always knew a good fight captured the public’s attention.
They all tried to examine the weeping icon, but the church insisted any examinations would have to take place in situ. This was unacceptable to the skeptics, because not only did it limit the tools they could use, paranormal debunking 101 says that if you can’t perform under laboratory conditions you can’t perform at all. So the icon and its tears went unexamined.
The church, of course, did not doubt it was a miracle. Bishop Vikentios of Avlon had words for the skeptics who thought the tears were just condensation: “Why would the icon cry from the eyes if not the hands?” Besides, he said, the icon had wept before but no one thought the miracle worth reporting at the time, even though that case had apparently cured a 7-year-old Piscataway girl’s “roving eye.” (I’m assuming she had some sort of strabismus, because the alternative is that a 7-year-old girl had trouble keeping it in her pants.)
Bishop Vikentios stressed that St. Irene’s tears were a plea for world peace. “I don’t want to see her cry,” he said. “It means something will happen soon. I don’t know what. I want to see the tears stop.” To that end, Metropolitan Paisios sent telegrams pleading for an end to hostilities in the Persian Gulf to numerous world leaders, including George H.W. Bush, Mikhail Gorbachev, and United Nations Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar.
The controversy did nothing to slow the crowds. By the end of November 100,000 visitors had seen the icon, some of them coming from as far away as France, India, and Japan.
And then… it all just sort of ended.
On January 17th, 1991 Operation Desert Shield ended and Operation Desert Storm began. Coalition troops made mincemeat of Saddam Hussein’s forces and easily drove them out of Kuwait. The short war proved surprisingly popular, and as media interest in anti-war protests dried up, so did St. Irene’s tears. Things in Astoria slowly started to return to normal.
In May, a delegation from NYASK, led by noted skeptic Joe Nickell, were finally allowed to examine the icon of St. Irene under tightly controlled conditions. Viewing the icon with ultraviolet light revealed random rivulets that seemed to be the result of condensation. Stereo-microscopic examinations did not reveal anything out of the ordinary, tear stains or otherwise. The results were inconclusive.
The only other evidence Nickell and NYASK had to go on was a videotape of the original manifestations, which at first seemed to be too low-quality and ambiguous to be useful. But after repeat examination Nickell saw streaks that seemed to be on the icon itself and not on the glass covering it. To him, they were positioned just slightly off, and seemed to be disproportionately large, which suggested a hoax. But again, who could be sure?
And that should have been the end of the brief and strange story of the weeping icon. But of course, it wasn’t.
At approximately 1 PM on December 23rd, 1991, St. Irene Chrysovalantou Church was invaded by four armed individuals. They threatened the praying faithful, and tried to break the bulletproof glass protecting the icon of St. Irene with the butts of their pistols. When a priest came to investigate, they pistol-whipped him and demanded he produce the key to the shrine. When he refused, they broke the lock, scooped up the donated jewelry that had been hidden in a small compartment beneath the frame, wrapped the icon in a white silk cloth from the altar, and fled south on 35th street in a blue compact car.
Witnesses described the robbers as three men and a woman in their mid 20s, but could not provide good descriptions since some of them were wearing ski masks. Police initially suspected that the robbers were amateurs, tempted by the gold and jewels that decorated the icon whenever it was seen on television or in the papers, which had an estimated value of approximately $200,000.
But there were hints that this might have been the work of professionals. Priests had noticed on December 19th that their alarm system had been tampered with. The wires were repaired the next day, but the alarm itself was always turned off when the icon was on display. More tellingly, the priest who had been pistol-whipped recognized one of the robbers as a man who had visited the church several times during the preceding week.
The faithful were distraught. The Greek and American flags outside were lowered to half staff, and a black shroud was placed where the icon should have been. Bishop Vikentios pled with the burglars: “Only we need the icon back, we don’t care for the gold or the jewels. It is a holy icon, it is a miracle icon. She is the patron saint of peace. We don’t know why the Lord allowed this to happen.”
The church offered a $50,000 reward for the icon’s safe return, no questions asked. If nothing else, they wanted to have the icon back by Orthodox Christmas, on January 6th.
The police set up a 24-hour telephone hotline for citizens to call in, but all it got were dead ends and crank calls. Bishop Vikentios spent Christmas night waiting on a Queens subway platform for a caller who said he would return the icon, but only in person. The culprit turned out to be a 14-year-old boy, who bragged about it to his friends at school and was rewarded with nine charges of harassment and making false incident reports.
The church also got some unusual aid in the form of Gambino crime boss John Gotti, who ordered his capos to find and return the icon. Which seems magnanimous, though the Feds were quick to point out that Gotti was about to be tried for racketeering and was just trying to make himself look good.
(In the Teflon Don’s defense, the Mob had actually helped in similar situations. In 1952 two golden crowns were stolen from the Regina Pacis Votive Shrine in Brooklyn, and the Mafia actively participated in their recovery. When the crowns were stolen again in 1973, Don Carlo Gambino, the Boss of Bosses, had them returned in just a few days.)
In any case, Bishop Vikentios declined Gotti’s help, saying the church preferred to find the icon in a “good way.”
At 9:30 AM on December 28th, the church received a large package in the mail. It was the icon, wrapped in plain brown paper, and minus all its gold and jewels, save for a few small ones embedded in the painting itself, and some loose ones that were rolling around in the wrapper.
The church bells rang in joy. Bishop Vikentios took the package to the nearby 114th Precinct, where detectives and experts from the Metropolitan Museum of Art examined it for clues, but found almost nothing. St. Irene was returned to her church later that evening.
The weeping icon may have been back, but its theft exposed a deep divide in the community. St. Irene’s, it turns out, was not a Greek Orthodox Church. It was a Genuine Greek Orthodox Church.
To make a very long and very boring story short, in 1924 the mainstream Greek Orthodox Church decided to get with the times and finally adopt the Gregorian calendar. Dissenters, or “Old Calendarists,” broke off to form their own churches, though it should be noted that their complaints had more to do with the creeping spread of ecumenicism and secularism and the calendar change was just the straw the camel’s back. (For Catholics out there, they’re the equivalent of conservative or traditionalist Catholics who’d like to roll back the Church to before Vatican II.)
St. Irene’s was a member of one of these Old Calendarist sects, the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Genuine Orthodox Christians of North and South America.
(Quick note to schismatics out there? If you want someone to know that you’re you’re the real deal, putting the word “genuine” in your name is basically signaling the exact opposite.)
The actual Greek Orthodox Church in Queens was upset that the media was representing the Genuine Greek Orthodox Church as the mainstream of their religion and not as heretics. They started attacking St. Irene’s in the media, calling it an “outlaw church.”
One (actual) Orthodox priest spread a rumor that the ‘weeping icon’ was a fraud, that St. Irene’s leaders stored it in a refrigerator overnight and let condensation do all the work in the morning. This, at least, was provably false.
There were also rumors that the theft of the icon was an inside job, either faked as a publicity stunt to draw donations from the faithful, or just to pawn the gold and jewels for a quick infusion of ready cash. (Those jewels were now valued at $500,000 whenever they were mentioned in the media.) These rumors proved harder to debunk, but the (actual) Greek Orhodox church shied away from them, with one representative saying, “If it was staged, it was one of the most hideous crimes anyone could ever perpetrate, and I would like to think that men of God are above that.”
Other rumors, however proved to be true. Word on the street was that St. Irene’s clergy had criminal records.
In the late 1980s, the church had briefly sheltered Father Konon Lasky, a priest accused of sexually assaulting young boys, who was later extradited to Michigan and convicted.
Metropolitan Paisios certainly had a criminal record, though it was under the military dictatorship that ruled Greece during the late 1960s and early 1970s. When he applied for American citizenship he was thoroughly vetted and the government found nothing problematic in his past.
The case of Father Ieronymous Katseas, who had been pistol-whipped in the robbery, was a little different. He had worked for a brothel back in Athens, though it’s unclear in what capacity. In 1993, a New York ecclesiastical court found him guilty of slander, perjury and defamation and he was formally excommunicated… but let’s bookmark that for later.
As the months wore on, the police investigation into the theft of the icon turned up nothing. Eventually giving up hope of recovering the gold and jewels, St. Irene’s filed a claim with their insurer, Cigna, for their insured value.
Cigna denied the claim.
In the press, their lawyer, Ira Greenhill, claimed that the church’s inventory, which purported to be a contemporary record of donations, had actually been retroactively manufactured in 1990 and was therefore fraudulent. In any case, he had testimony from some of the skeptics who had seen the donated items when they had a chance to examine the icon, and they claimed it was mostly class rings and cheap jewelry, not valuable at all.
The church, of course, sued, for the $1.2 million that they now claimed the jewels were worth, plus an additional $3.6 million in punitive damages. Cigna’s counter-offer was a mere $125,000, which was much closer to the original amount that had been promoted in the press when the icon was stolen.
The battle raged in the New York courts for years. In April 1996, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of New York ruled that, while it was undoubtedly true that the inventory was not a contemporaneous record, there was no proof that it was created with a willful intent to defraud or to misrepresent material facts. It’s a decision that gets cited a lot, because astonishingly it seems to be one of the first cases that established that mens rea was required for insurance fraud. Ultimately, Cigna and the Church settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
And that should have been the end of the strange story of the weeping icon. But of course, it wasn’t.
Fool Me Twice, Shame on Me
On Sunday, September 1st, 1996, during an 11:30 AM Sunday service at Mother Portaitissa, Sts. Raphahel, Nikolaos and Irene Church in the East York suburb of Toronto, an icon of the Virgin Mary began to weep profusely, leaving a large puddle of tears at her feet. Word started to spread, and many came to see the weeping icon.
It was suspiciously good timing for the small church, which been in debt since it first opened in 1987 and owed almost $271,000 on various mortgages. The donations from the faithful and the curious were all that was keeping it afloat. To drum up more interest, Father Ieronymous Katseas called the phenomenon a genuine miracle, and a foreboding portent of something sinister. For good measure, he also added that hey, the Virgin’s tears could also heal the sick if the tears and the prophecy of doom weren’t enough to get you through the front door.
Wait. Ieronymos Katseas?
Why, yes, the exact same Ieronymous Katseas who had been involved with the weeping icon of St. Irene in Queens! Despite being excommunicated in 1993, he had wandered north of the border and settled at Mother Portaitissa, where the parishioners either didn’t know or didn’t care.
Well, at least not at first.
But as time went on, Katseas seized control of the church’s finances and day-to-day operations, freezing out the existing board of directors, who tried in vain to oust him. Archbishop Chrysostomos II of the Genuine Greek Orthodox Church confirmed that Katseas no clerical authority and even set Archimandrite Gregory of Colorado to give him the boot, to no avail.
The behind-the-scenes struggle didn’t help the Church’s finances any. But the weeping icon did! By Saturday the 7th, some 35,000 people had come to witness the weeping Madonna, and had donated over $300,000 in cash, checks, and jewelry.
The Toronto Sun smelled a rat, though, and asked if they could examine the icon. They were politely told that they could examine it at 11 PM on Tuesday the 3rd. For backup, the Sun reached out to The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims for the Paranormal (CSICOP), who sent Joe Nickell to investigate.
When Nickell and the Sun arrived at Mother Portaitissa, though, they were told they Orthodox doctrine did not allow the miracle icon to be examined in its “active phase,” whatever that is. (Archimandrate Gregory would later confirm that there was no such policy.) Nickell, though, was determined to see the icon. He left his portable investigation kit with reporters and patiently stood in line with the faithful. He was not impressed.
First, the icon wasn’t even a painting, but a photographic print. A nice, high quality print, but a print nonetheless. Now, that didn’t immediately point to a hoax, of course. A weeping photograph is just as miraculous as a weeping painting.
Second, The tears did not seem to be emanating from the icon’s eyes, but just somewhere in the vicinity of the head. Again, not neccesssarily proof of anything, I mean, the Virgin Mother is materializing tears right from heaven here, who cares if she’s off by a few millimeters?
Finally, the rivulets seemed suspiciously oily and not tear-like. That was the final straw for Nickell, who knew fraudsters commonly used oil to fake miracle tears because it was long-lasting.
Nickell’s final comments to the Sun were pretty damning. He called the situation “more carnival sideshow than miracle,” and said “It would seem to me a miracle could withstand a little skepticism.”
Astoundingly, despite public skepticism of the miracle’s legitimacy and the increasingly bitter battle between the priest and his board of directors behind the scenes, Katseas managed to hang on to power. But even though he had de facto control of the church, he did not have de jure control of the church. And, more importantly, he wasn’t making payments on the mortgage. The church was foreclosed on, and Katseas was ultimately evicted by sheriff’s deputies on August 20th 1997.
It was a bizarre situation. The church had clearly been raking in donations during the previous year. Furthermore, Katseas had been requiring visitors who wanted to view the icon to buy a votive candle, which the church had previously sold for $.50 but which he had marked up to $2.50. This should have left almost $500,000 in the church’s coffers, but instead, they were almost empty. Katseas, through his lawyer, claimed there was no proof that money had been collected from people wanting to view the icon, which was laughably false.
More importantly, with Katseas out, Joe Nickell finally had a chance to examine the icon close up. It didn’t take him long to discover that the “tears” were actually olive oil. The “puddle of tears” at the bottom of the icon had been created by dabbing the area with oily cotton balls to create residue. Archimandrite Gregory gleefully told the press, “It’s not even a good hoax.”
While his fake “weeping Virgin” in Toronto doesn’t automatically prove the “weeping icon” in Queens was a hoax, it does force you to look at the situation in a different light. St. Irene Chrysovalantou church also had its problems, problems which the weeping icon rather conveniently solved, at least for a time.
Despite the animosity in the community, St. Irene Chrysovalantou Church eventually reconciled with the mainstream Greek Orthodox Church and was reorganized as the Sacred Patriarchal and Stavropegial Orthodox Monastery of St. Irene Chrysovalantou.
Two of the key figures in the Queens miracle, Bishop Vikentios and Metropolitan Paisios, were caught up in a sex abuse scandal in 2010, and were ultimately defrocked in 2012.
Father Ieronymous Katseas disappeared. In 1999, he was removed from the list of people allowed to perform marriages in Canada.
There have been several more attempts to steal the weeping icon of St. Irene over the years, but they’ve been foiled by new alarm systems and security measures. She still sits in her shrine, praying for peace, though she hasn’t wept much in the last few decades. Not even on 9/11.
You can visit her, if you’d like. She’s on 23rd Avenue, in Queens, between 36th and 37th Street. I’m sure she’d appreciate the company.
“Teflon Don” John Gotti, who tried to intervene when the weeping icon was stolen, was the head of the Gambino crime family. In the 1950s Carlo Gambino partnered with Meyer Lansky to control gambling interests in Cuba. Meyer Lansky, of course, was a known associate of one Mr. Charles Gregory Rebozo, the subject of our last episode, “Be My Bebe.”
- Nickell, Joe. Looking for a Miracle. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1993.
- Slagle, Alton. “‘Miracle’ at church in Queens.” New York Daily News, 25 Oct 1990.
- “‘Weeping’ painting draws faithful, curious to New York church.” Great Falls Tribune, 5 Nov 1990.
- “Tears for peace: Icon weeps after prayer session.” Fort Myers News-Press, 16 Nov 1990.
- Ercolano, Patrick. “Weeping icon verdict: Evidence inconclusive.” New York Evening Sun, 21 Nov 1990.
- Lorch, Donatella. “Queens church robbed of ‘weeping’ icon.” New York Times, 24 Dec 1991.
- Dag, James. “Now, faithful weep: Church mourns lost icon.” New York Daily News, 25 Dec 1991.
- Geary, Robert. “They’ll go with God, not Gotti.” New York Daily News, 26 Dec 1991.
- Singleton, Don. “Tears of joy! ‘Weeping icon’ is mailed to church.” New York Daily News, 29 Dec 1991.
- Stanley, Alessandra. “Story of the ‘weeping icon’ divides Greek Orthodoxy.” New York Times, 01 Jan 1992.
- Singleton, Don. “Icon unmasks feud: ‘Tis the season for fighting amid pews?” New York Daily News, 5 Jan 1992.
- Hernandez, Raymond. “Rift Between Faiths Spills into Court.” New York Times, Jan 18 1993.
- Ocasio, Linda. “Church cries foul in insurance fight over weeping icon.” New York Daily News, 16 Jul 1994.
- Terrazzano, Lauren. “Hailing ‘weeping icon:’: St. Irene portrait, caught in storm, mobbed in ritual.” New York Daily News, 8 Aug 1994.
- St. Irene Chrisovalantou Greek v. Cigna Ins. Co., 641 N.Y.S.2d 352 (N.Y. App. Div. 1996)
- “‘Weeping’ picture draws crowd.” Vancouver Sun, 3 Sep 1996.
- Goldhar, Kathleen. “Church of weeping virgin headed by defrocked priest.” Toronto Star 4 Sep 1996.
- Christopoulos, George. “Priest’s 2nd miracle; $800Gs from ‘crying’ NY icon stolen.” Toronto Sun, 8 Sep 1996
- “Church brass suspicious of second weeping icon.” Ottawa Citizen, 9 Sep 1996.
- Joe Nickell, “Something to Cry About: The Case of the Weeping Icon.” Skeptical Inquirer, Volume 21, No. 2, Mar/Apr 1997
- Hendry, Luke. “A crying shame: Money vanishes; ‘miraculous’ icon revealed as a hoax.” Ottawa Citizen, 28 Aug 1997.
- “Controversial priest not a crook or charlatan: lawyer.” Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, 2 Sep 1997.
- Joe Nickell
- Sacred Patriarchal and Stavropegial Orthodox Monastery of St. Irene Chrysovalantou
- Skeptical Inquirer