Date: Mon Jul 18 1994 00:06:00
From: Tad Cook
Subj: Weeping Icon
Questions of Belief Arise Once Again Over `Weeping Icon'
Insurer, for One, Has No Faith In Large Claim for Jewels Removed
By FRED R. BLEAKLEY
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
NEW YORK - Church bells tolled in mourning for days over the Greek-
American community in Astoria, Queens, after a band of armed thieves
stole the jewel-encrusted "weeping icon" of St. Irene Chrysovalantou
two years ago. Keep the gold and gems, Bishop Vikentios Malamatenios,
dean of St. Irene's Church, implored the thieves in dozens of media
interviews. Just return the icon.
Five days later, the 6-by-8-inch wooden picture, stripped of its
jewels, came back by registered mail. New York City Mayor David
Dinkins joined the procession of joy in the streets of Astoria.
But now it may be crying time again at St. irene's. The church has
filed a $1.2 million insurance claim for 12,000 stolen jewels, which,
it said, had been donated by parishioners. That claim is being
challenged by Cigna Insurance Co., which told a New York state court
in Queens last month that St. Irene's proof of loss is a "fake and a
The church contends it has suffered a huge loss, and says there has
been a big misunderstanding about the proof it submitted to the
Controversy has swirled before around the icon and St. Irene's,
a splinter sect of the Greek Orthodox Church that cleaves to a
mystical Greek liturgy, sixth-century Byzantine dirges and the old
Julian calendar. It isn't that anyone questions the devotion of Bishop
Vikentios, 41, and Archbishop Paisios Loulourgas, 49, the two bearded
prelates who founded the church in 1972. But some people here wonder
whether they have applied an excess of zeal to the developmental side
of their calling.
The two men undoubtedly have a flair for it. Bishop Vikentios claims
that in 22 years the domain of the archbishop has grown to 22 churches
in North and South America, with membership totaling 150,000. During
services at St. Irene's, the bishop's rich singing voice, amplified by
loudspeaker, can be heard on 23rd Avenue. Until a few years ago, the
archbishop had a Saturday-afternoon radio show.
In 1988 the two men caused a stir by drawing thousands of worshipers
to St. Irene's to welcome what many thought was a famous icon from
Greece. The church bought a large-print ad in the local Greek press
"Announcing the Miracle-Bearing Icon `Axion Esti' in New York." But in
smaller print the ad said: "The icon, which millions of Greeks
venerated in Salonica and Athens, starting March 6, will be in
Astoria, in an accurate copy, which was painted at Mount Athos." When
it arrived, the icon was held aloft by two priests sitting on the roof
of a white stretch limousine.
The weeping icon of St. Irene Chrysovalantou, an eighth-century
noblewoman who chose a nunnery over marriage to a king, was painted by
a Greek monk in 1919 and brought to Queens when the church was
founded. It wasn't then famous for weeping, but miracles soon began to
be attributed to it. Surrounding the icon now in an enclosure the size
of a telephone booth are several pairs of crutches, a number of
inhaler attachments used by former asthma sufferers, and dangling
tamatas - silver, credit-card-sized emblems signifying bodily ailments
for which a divine cure is sought.
The weeping icon - St. Irene's itself, calls it that on postcards -
arrived from Greece with 302 jewels already attached to it.
Parishioners in the new world continued the tradition of donating
jewels for the icon, either in thanks or in supplication.
Praying for Peace
The icon was on loan to a sister church in Chicago when, on Oct. 17,
1990, at the end of a prayer service calling for peace in the Persian
Gulf, it was perceived by hundreds of worshipers to weep. The icon was
returned to St. Irene's, where it continued to weep for several
months, the bishop says. The faithful and the curious lined up around
the block to get a look, and ugly rumors soon began to fly. Had the
icon spent time in a refrigerator, causing condensation to occur? Had
it been daubed with Mazola oil, as a weeping Virgin Mary statue in New
Orleans allegedly once was?
Bishop Vikentios denies that he or anyone else tampered with the icon,
and volunteers that the New York Area Skeptics club tested it with "a
laser light" as weeping occurred. What did they conclude? "They said
it was a phenomenon", recalls the bishop.
Not exactly, say members of the club, who examined the icon in early
1991. Steve Okulewicz, a Skeptic who is a corporate geologist, says
the group found "smudges" radiating from the eyes that could have
given the appearance of tears when flickering candles were held up to
the icon in the darkened church. "We were all in agreement that the
"tears" were somehow applied to the painting and that we were not
witnessing any sort of `miracle,' he wrote in a report at the time.
And the jewels? Bishop Vikentios says there were 12,000 of them,
donated over the course of 20 years: wedding bands, gemstones, gold
coins, watches and other items. Some were secured to the border
around the icon, and many more filled a hidden space behind the frame,
he says. All of them, the bishop says, were of high value. "We know
that because several members of our church council work in jewelry
stores," says the bishop. Donated items of lesser value, he says, were
set aside and auctioned off on the feast of St. Irene each August.
Here again, the Skeptics have doubts. Mr. Okulewicz says that at the
time of his examination, less than a year before the theft, the icon
had only about 100 pieces of jewelry surrounding it, none hidden
behind the frame. Having worked previously in the mineral-sciences
department of the American Museum of Natural History, Mr. Okulewicz
says he recognized most of the so-called gems as glass or synthetic
materials that "didn't have true fire or brilliance
of real diamonds and minerals."
Another Skeptic who examined the icon, Jeff Corey, a C.W. Post
College professor of experimental psychology adds: "It looked
tacky, lots of class rings, costume jewelry and stuff you get at
Coney Island when you operate that little derrick kind of game.
Taken at Gunpoint
On December 23, 1991, the icon was taken from the church at gunpoint
by four robbers. It was returned Dec. 28. Two days after that, the
U.S. arm of the mainstream Greek Orthodox Church, which has been at
odds with St. Irene's for years, issued a press release implying that
the theft might have been an artful hoax. St. Irene's is suing for
The bishop and archbishop continue to maintain that a cache of
valuable jewels was present at the time of the theft. They submitted a
translation of a detailed log of jewelry donations to Cigna, the
insurance company, with a request for $1.2 million in reimbursement.
When Cigna's claims adjuster first saw the actual ledger at St.
Irene's a month after the theft, he was immediately suspicious: It
smelled new and wasn't at all dog-eared for a supposedly 20-year-old
book. He called in the New York law firm of Ira J. Greenhill to
investigate the claim on Cigna s behalf.
The Greenhill firm requested that a forensics expert be allowed to
take samples of the ledger. St. Irene's balked, but after considerable
negotiation it did allow photographs. That was enough. Through court
data showing the merger date of the two publishing companies listed
inside the ledger and a signed affidavit from the manufacturer, Cigna
proved that the ledger couldn't have been manufactured before June
It was all a big misunderstanding, Bishop Vikentios now says. He
explains that in his desire to make things orderly for the insurance
claim, he copied the year-by-year entries from separate scraps of
paper into the ledger after the theft. The bishop "didn't need" the
original evidence anymore, so he burned it. All of which he neglected
to tell the archbishop, who was representing the church in its
dealings with Cigna. That is why the archbishop believed that the
ledger was old, and swore to it in legal hearings on the insurance
claim, both men say.
Cigna has filed a motion to have the insurance claim dismissed. The
church's lawyers say they intend to pursue the claim in court. Says
Bishop Vikentios, "`His eminence and myself have faith in God that
everything concerning the robbery of the miraculous icon of St. Irene
will end with God's will being done, for both the church and the
Christian Orthodox religion.