What follows is an inspiring story about a woman named Stavrula who died on Holy Monday, 2004. As you will read below, there are only TWO people in the WHOLE WORLD who are think about her and remember her each year on Holy Monday. I am one of them, the other is mentioned in this story. Please take a few minutes to read.
When someone close to us dies, we feel sad, we cry, we mourn, we remember, we tell stories about them to keep their memory fresh in our minds. Can you imagine if someone died and no one felt sad, no one cried, no one came and no one remembered? In 2004, on Holy Monday in my last parish in Asheville, one such person died. I feel compelled to share her story because no one else in the world is talking about her today.
On Holy Monday in 2004, at 5:15 a.m., I received a called from a health care center saying that a woman named Stavroula (Stella) Anthopoulos had passed away. The person on the phone told me that not only was I listed on her chart as her priest but also as her next of kin. And then I heard the standard if you don’t want to claim her, she will be cremated and placed in an unmarked grave at a local cemetery, and completely forgotten about.
She was born in Greece. At one point she was married and was abandoned by her husband. She had a son, he too abandoned her. And she found herself living on a small pension in Asheville, North Carolina. Her money began to run out and her health took a turn downward. Because she waited too long to have cataracts removed, she lost her eyesight. With nowhere to turn, she became a ward of the state of North Carolina. She lived in a nursing home for the last seven years of her life—she was blind—she couldn’t see to read, or to walk or to watch TV. She couldn’t speak English, and so she often went days without talking to anyone. She was all alone in the world. The anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood is May 15—I have always done Liturgy on my anniversary and have always made a point of visiting someone in a hospital to mark that day each year. I was newly arrived in Asheville in 2000 and my anniversary came. I asked if anyone was in the hospital and fortunately there wasn’t anyone. A lady named Mary Pappas told me about Stavroula that she was alone in a nursing home and that only Mary was going to visit her. That day, Mary and I went to visit Stavroula.
For four years, Mary Pappas and I visited Stella faithfully at least seven or eight times a year—for Christmas, Epiphany, Holy Week, to sing Christos Anesti after Easter, for August 15th, for her nameday on September 14 (my nameday also), and every year on May 15, the anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood—after the Liturgy, I would always go and spend time with Stavroula. I could gather that she must have been a very faithful attendee at church services at some point in her life. It’s hard to know how to pray with someone who is so ill, yet is not about to die. It doesn’t seem right to pray for her to get better, or to pray for a peaceful ending either. So, we would pray for strength, and then we would sing hymns, and this would draw her out from her sometimes very withdrawn mood. She knew the words to all the hymns, which always amazed me. Even if she seemed unresponsive to our greeting, as soon as she heard singing, she would start making her cross and sing with us. Our conversations were short but memorable—I remember one time she told me she had a dream and that she saw me in the dream celebrating the Liturgy. I asked her, what did I look like, since she was blind, she’s never actually seen me. I remember one time I asked if she wanted to receive Communion, and she said she had to wash her hands first, because she was dirty, and after we washed and dried her hands, then she received Communion. Once Mary and I went to visit her and she was praying, she didn’t see us come in or hear us, and I motioned to Mary that we should be quiet and wait for her to finish her prayer. She asked in her prayer if God could send Father and Mary because she wanted to see us. We said, “Here we are Stavroula,” and she smiled and said, “That’s the quickest I’ve ever had a prayer answered.” A few months before she died, she asked me to talk to her about what heaven is like. The week before she died, I visited her for Holy Week, and she did an interesting thing. On every visit we would sing hymns from that liturgical period in the church year, and so the week before Holy Week, we sang hymns from Lent and Holy Week. She sang with us Ti Upermacho, and the hymn of Palm Sunday evening, “Behold the Bridegroom comes”, and then abruptly stopped singing as we sang the hymns of Holy Week. And at the time, we couldn’t figure out why.
Shortly after we left, she suffered a massive stroke and I was told she was going to die very soon. I thought, she stopped singing the hymns because she’s not going to be here during Holy Week, and sure enough she passed away Holy Monday morning, after we had sung the hymn of Palm Sunday night.
I’ve never cried so much at a funeral as I did when I buried Stavroula. Perhaps that is because there was no one else in the world who was crying for her, so God brought tears to my eyes. I remember doing all the arrangements for her funeral, and despite the fact that I did not pay to have her embalmed, got the least expensive casket and bought flowers from the market, it still cost me $6,000. About a month later, I mentioned to my congregation that I needed help paying off my $6,000 credit card bill from the funeral. That night, at a wedding, a guest came up to me at the reception and said that he had been in church and had heard about what I did for Stavroula. He handed me an envelope and told me to open it after I left the wedding reception. In the car, I opened the envelope and found $6,000 in cash. I went back in and asked the man his name, because I didn’t know him. He said “My name is Michael, like the Archangel, and that’s all you need to know.”
God’s sense of timing was perfect. My last year in Asheville, Holy Monday was April 5. That put her 40 day memorial on my anniversary, May 15. So I did Liturgy and still visited Stavroula. And the only empty spot in the Greek section of the cemetery happened to be next to Mary Pappas. On my last Sunday in Asheville, we dedicated her tombstone, which I designed, which reads “Behold the Bridegroom Comes, in the middle of the night, and blessed is the servant He shall find patiently waiting.”
I didn’t know this woman in her healthy life. I don’t know what she did. I’m sure she had her joys and her sorrows, her triumphs and her mistakes. What I do know is that she’s led a very difficult existence since before I got here. She couldn’t see, or watch TV, or read, she had difficulty communicating since her English wasn’t very good, she was surrounded by strangers in a strange place, and was grateful for their love and care. While we’ve all gone about our lives these last many years, she’s not been able to do much of anything, but sit and pray. And yet, she was so happy to pray, eager to meet the Lord, she filled her days by praying by herself. And she remembered so many of the hymns of our church—as her eyes lost sight of the world, and her mind began to lose much of its abilities and knowledge, her heart always remembered God. She got frustrated often, and told us, but she never lost faith. She truly was an example of what St. Paul writes about in the Epistle to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 6:10), as a person “who has nothing, yet possesses everything.”
I pray that her eyes have now been reopened to see the glory of God in heaven, and while I was fortunate to have seen her for four years, I can only hope that I one day find myself in heaven, so she can see me. May her memory be eternal!
On Holy Monday evening, we read about how Jesus chastised the leaders of the Jewish temple, who were so strict in measuring out sacrificial offerings and forgot all about love, and mercy and peace. And this is a critical lesson for us. Church is not about chanting and services—these things help us worship God. Church is not about festivals and buildings—these help us have a church where we can pray. Church is about love, mercy and peace—these are the things that bring God to people. These are the things that bring people to God.