The Last Divine Liturgy in Hagia Sophia of 1919
by Anthony E. Stivaktakis
It is commonly believed that the last Divine Liturgy in Hagia Sophia in Constantinople took place on May 28, 1453. However, the last Divine Liturgy to really take place in Hagia Sophia was on the 19th of January in 1919, which was officiated by Papa Lefteris Noufrakis (1872-1941) from Rethymno, Crete. The story of this historic event is below.
Once my grandfather told me about a Cretan priest, a true lad, who in January 1919 liturgized under the thousand year old domes of Hagia Sophia!
He knew him well, because he was a military chaplain of the same Division he was in, the Division that later participated in the Asia Minor Campaign and arrived at the gates of Ankara, and drank water from the Sakarya! But alas! this cool water later turned into a hot fiery river of pain and suffering, that burned the hearts of all Greeks.
I did not pay much attention to the words of my grandfather at the time. What he told me seemed impossible, and I considered them to be the result of delirium, a remnant of those unbearable days, and the unimaginable pain my grandfather felt when he recalled the past, and heard the words Ionia, Smyrna, Pergamum, Ayvalık, Trebizond, Kerasos, Saggarios, Eskisechir, Afyonkarahisar, The City, Hagia Sophia! These words had a place in my grandfathers mind and heart, which he held most sacred and nostalgic in this life, even more sacred than his children, his grandchildren, his own life!
Dozens of times I noticed him with my childhood eyes crying – sometimes erupting into sobs and redemptive laments – offering up these holy names which he identified with the timeless history and presence of our Nation on earth. At the time I understood nothing, or almost nothing. Only a vague question dominated my soul from this special stance of my grandfather. Shortly afterwards I realized the crucial impact of these tears, these cries, in my own soul. I understand now, and I will always feel it prevail throughout my being.
My grandfather certainly was right when he said that in January 1919 Hagia Sophia liturgized! The protagonist of this shocking fact of our national life, which unfortunately many Greeks are ignorant of, was a true lad, a sprout from leventi-generating Crete, whose brave children always were a great presence in the struggles of our Nation, from ancient times (Idomeneus, Nearchus etc.) to our days (Macedonian Struggle, Drisko in Epirus, etc.). We are referring to Papa Lefteris Noufrakis from Alones in Rethymno, who served as a military chaplain in the second Greek Division, one of the two Divisions that participated in the early 1919 “allied” expeditionary force in Ukraine. This Division, on the way to Ukraine, briefly stopped in Constantinople, the City of the dreams of the Greek people, which was then under “allied domination” following the end of World War I.
A group of Greek officers, led by the brave Cretan, together with the Brigadier Frantzis, Major Liaromatis, Captain Stamatios and Lieutenant Nicholas gazed at the City and Hagia Sophia from the ship, hiding deep in their hearts their great secret, their great decision which they made the previous night, after the proposal and strong insistence of the lion-hearted Cretan Papa Lefteris Noufrakis. They were to disembark in the City and liturgize in Hagia Sophia!
All of them were skeptical when they heard Papa Lefteris propose this great enterprise. They knew that things were very difficult. Hagia Sophia was still a mosque, and surely some guards would be there, while others would be going to pray, and it wasn’t difficult for it to be filled from one moment to another. And then there were their superiors, who would not be in favor of such an action, and it would cause a storm among the “allies” for such a “provocation”. It would perhaps even create a diplomatic episode that would embarrass the Greek government and Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos. But Papa Lefteris had made his decision, and he was decisive and assertive.
“If all of you don’t come, I will go by myself! I only want one chanter. You, Constantine (Liaromatis), will you be my chanter?”
“All right, dear Father,” the Major replied, who also took the same stance, and everything was in order.
Eventually, all of them went.
The ship carrying the Division anchored in the open sea, so they boarded a boat and a Romios took them to the City, and they soon landed at the waterfront. Kosmas, the native boatman, tied the boat and led them along the shortest path to Hagia Sophia. The door was open as if it was waiting for them. The Turkish guard went to say something in his own language, but a fierce and decisive look by Brigadier Frantzis put him in his place and left him speechless. All entered with reverence and made the sign of the cross. Papa Lefteris whispered with great emotion: “I will enter into Your house, and I will venerate towards Your Holy Temple with fear….”
Progressing quickly and without procrastinating, he identified the location of the Sanctuary and the Holy Altar. Finding a small table, he put it in place, he opened his bag, and took out everything needed for the Divine Liturgy. Then he put on his stole and began:
“Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and forever, and unto the ages of ages.”
“Amen,” responded Major Liaromatis, and the Divine Liturgy at Hagia Sophia began.
“I hope God makes us worthy to complete this,” everyone thought, crossing themselves with devotion. The officers seemed to have been at a loss, everything happened so suddenly and it was unbelievable.
The Divine Liturgy proceeded as normal. After 466 entire years Hagia Sophia was liturgizing again! Papa Lefteris continued. Everything was done with sacred propriety, according to the rubrics of the Church. One could hear the “peace be with all,” the “Lord have mercy,” the “O Only-begotten Son and Word of God,” which was written by Justinian himself, who ordered and cared for the building of Hagia Sophia. The Small Entrance followed, then the “To you the Champion Leader,” the Epistle was read by Brigadier Frantzis and the Gospel Reading was done by Papa Lefteris. The duties of the sacristan were performed by Lieutenant Nicholas.
Meanwhile Hagia Sophia began to be filled with Turks. Papa Noufrakis was not daunted and continued. Others looked bemused at this fearless priest and the Turks, who until that moment were observing with silence, could not believe their eyes, because that which was taking place at that moment was truly unbelievable.
The Gospel was followed by the Cherubic Hymn by Major Liaromatis, while Papa Lefteris placed the antimension on the table, to do the Proskomidi. The Turks continued to multiply. As time passed it was tough, but also unforgettable and epic. Papa Noufrakis continued. He takes a small Holy Chalice out of his bag, a paten, a knife and a small prosphoron with a small bottle of wine. With sacred emotion and devotion he does the Proskomidi, while Liaromatis continued chanting the Cherubic Hymn. When the Proskomidi was completed, he turned to Lieutenant Nicholas and told him to light a candle so he could follow him during the Great Entrance. The young Lieutenant went ahead and lit the candle, behind him was the priest crying out: “May the Lord God remember all of us….”
Then the Supplications and the Creed followed, which was said by Frantzis. Meanwhile Hagia Sophia was full of Turks and among them were many Greeks from the City, who happened to be there at the moment the Divine Liturgy was being celebrated, and they followed along with emotion, without daring to externalize their feelings “for fear of the Jews,” that is, the Turks. Only at certain times they could not restrain their tears flowing from their eyes and not betray their care, wiping them away before they became a “fiery” river which they could not hold back.
The Liturgy meanwhile reached its most sacred point – the Anaphora. With an emotional voice Papa Lefteris said: “Your own of Your own, we offer to You, for all and through all.” All the officers knelt and the voice of Major Liaromatis could be heard chanting: “We sing to You, we bless You, we thank You, Lord, and we pray to You, our God.” After a short while the bloodless sacrifice of our Lord was completed in Hagia Sophia, after 466 entire years! This was followed by the “Axion Estin,” the “Our Father,” and the “With the fear of God, faith and love draw near,” and all the officers approached to commune from the Immaculate Mysteries. Papa Lefteris quickly said the prayers while Liaromatis chanted: “Blessed be the Name of the Lord…,” while the rest of the Holy Communion was consumed. Speaking to Lieutenant Nicholas, he said: “Gather everything quickly and put it in the bag,” then he did the Dismissal!
The Divine Liturgy in Hagia Sophia was completed. It was the dream of dozens of generations of Greeks, and it had become a reality. Papa Noufrakis and the four officers were ready to leave and return to the ship. Hagia Sophia however was full of Turks, who began to become enraged and aggressive when they realized what happened. The Greeks were in immediate danger. But they did not hesitate, and approached each other, becoming as “one body,” and they proceeded towards the exit.
The Turks were ready to attack them, when a Turkish official presented himself with others following him, saying: “Let them pass.” He said it with hatred. He wanted to paint his hands with their blood, but at that moment this is how things had to be, and it was not in the interest of their country nor necessary to kill five Roman officers in Hagia Sophia.
Do not forget that around the City were two embattled Greek Divisions and that Constantinople was essentially under the dominance of the victors of World War I, and this of course did not include the Turks.
On hearing this the Turks retreated. Papa Noufrakis and the other officers exited Hagia Sophia and headed for the waterfront, where a boat waited for them.
A husky Turk followed them, and lifting a piece of wood he rushed to hit Papa Noufrakis. He sensed that this priest was the instigator, the creator of this event. The heroic priest bent to avoid being hit, but the Turk managed to hit him on the shoulder. His body bent from the unbearable pain, but he gathered his strength, got up, and continued on his way. Meanwhile Major Liaromatis and Captain Stamatios disarmed the Turk, who was ready to give his most powerful and probably final blow to the priest.
Finally, they approach the boat. They all enter. Kosmas gathered all the ropes and begins to quickly row. Soon they boarded the Greek warship safe and victorious. Of course there followed a diplomatic incident, and the “allies” strongly protested to Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos, who was forced to reprimand Papa Lefteris Noufrakis. But secretly he contacted him and “praised and congratulated the patriot priest, who even for a short time brought Hagia Sophia to life, the most sacred dream of our Nation.”
In a few lines this was the history of the Divine Liturgy that took place after 466 years in Hagia Sophia by the heroic Papa Lefteris Noufrakis. Certainly most modern Greeks are ignorant of this. The name of the lion-hearted Cretan says nothing to our minds and hearts. But this simple priest from Alones in Rethymno lifted on his shoulders and brought to life, even for a short time, one of the most epic, most holy and most sacred dreams of the Nation.
Even though I searched I could not find anything to remind the Neo-Greeks of this heoric priest and his daring heroic act. There is no bust in his village, in the city of Rethymno, on the grounds of the Archdiocese of Crete, or in some square of the capital of Greece. No street, even the most insignificant, bears his name. No mention is made of his life and actions in the context of our local or national history. None of this has been done! Not for him!
He paid this debt without any kind of retribution. But this was for us, for us who have need of such heroic models, of powerful supports, to keep and save everything possible of our identity, of the ideals of our Nation, of our own soul.