On January 17, 2022, a deaconess of the Orthodox Church was transferred to the jurisdiction of the Church Triumphant. Maria Spyropoulou, deaconess of the missionary Church of Korea, fell asleep after an 89-year journey to earth.
Born February 6, 1933 in Greece, she studied Pedagogics in Athens (1952-54) and worked as a teacher. She studied theology and journalism in France (1963-66) and collaborated with the magazine Contacts of the Orthodox Theological Institute of Saint Sergius in Paris. She then went to Bucharest (1968-70), where she attended courses on the Romanian language and theology.
Returning to Greece, she worked on the Standing Synodal Committee and at the Inter-Orthodox Center of Athens, responsible for relations with the Church of Romania.
Ultimately, however, the European context played a small role for Maria, who already felt that mission was (as she told us) “a madness”—a stretching forth of the wings to the ends of the earth!
In the Land of the Morning Calm
On December 1, 1975, Archimandrite Sotirios Trambas (who later became Metropolitan of Korea and is now Metropolitan of Pisidia) left the parish of Holy Protection (Agia Skepi), Papagos, Athens, to embark on a surprising missionary endeavor in Seoul, South Korea. Maria Spyropoulou was one of his collaborators in the Athenian rearguard who supported the missionary resumption in Korea, where the Orthodox communities founded at the dawn of the 20th century through the missionary work of the Church of Russia had become essentially extinct. Shortly thereafter, Maria moved to Seoul and began a multi-faceted missionary endeavor that lasted nearly 25 years—until July 13, 2000, when she returned to Greece for health reasons. Even this, however, did nothing to slow her missionary work, which she continued through publications and any other way she could.
Maria Spyropoulou was a motherly apostolic presence in the newly formed Korean Church. She learned only a little Korean, but her preeminent contribution was her heartfelt communication with the Korean faithful, both women and men. She has related how the Korean women asked her to mediate for them in a very special way with their confessor Fr. Sotirios: they wanted her to be present and to hold their hands tightly! Their need stemmed from the traditional Korean sense of respect and hierarchy—a pyramidal social structure, influenced especially by Confucianism. Maria Spyropoulou’s presence, I believe, helped bring about a special incarnation of the Gospel. The local culture was adopted, but at the same time it was engrafted with a new perspective: women were called to a new candor with their male shepherd, made possible by the dynamic female example set by Maria, who played a mystagogical role. In my reading, from the perspective of the field of missiology, her impact corresponded to the impact made by female missionaries in societies with various class and gender barriers, which male missionaries struggled to broach.
Maria prepared teaching material, taught religious education, edited publications, assisted in worship and the celebration of the sacraments, and penned several articles. The springboard for all this activity was her firm conviction that what was needed was a new incarnation of the Gospel, and not simply an export of Greek or Byzantine culture. Indicative of this was her openness to the possibility of using something other than wheat bread and wine in the celebration of the Eucharist, if these materials were not part of the local culture. Conversations with her were always in-depth and wide-ranging, but she committed few of them to paper. Her activities and views are currently to a large extent unrecorded, since she herself was the one who edited the publications in which these would normally be found. In fact, she often destroyed her notes, which she thought might upset some people. Her modesty and sensitivity thus demanded that she leave herself out of stories and photographs, even though people close to her insisted that respectful reporting is something necessary for the church body and its arduous course through history.
In 2005, Fr. Sotirios, then Metropolitan of Korea, highlighted her contribution in the introduction to the two-volume publication commemorating the centennial of the Orthodox Church in Korea.
However, the crown of Maria Spyropoulou’s efforts is something that deserves special attention: the institutional role given to her by the Church, for the life of the Church itself!
“Something has now changed!”
On Sunday, September 24, 1978, the Orthodox Cathedral Church of St. Nicholas in Seoul was consecrated by then Metropolitan of New Zealand and Exarch of Korea, Dionysios Psiachas (1916-2008). During the service, Metropolitan Dionysios consecrated Maria Spyropoulou as a deaconess. The idea came from the Metropolitan himself, who was spiritually and theologically grounded, and who—from what we can tell—had already consecrated other deaconesses in his diocese. The Metropolitan, along with Fr. Sotirios and Maria, were well aware that in the tradition of the Church deaconesses were ordained (χειροτονία) and not simply consecrated (χειροθεσία), as Professor Andreas Theodorou had demonstrated beginning in 1949. Nevertheless, it seems that ordination was seen as a bridge too far for the ecclesiastical milieu of the time, with its well-known proclivity to replace the Church’s robust and dynamic tradition with a feeble traditionalism. And, unfortunately, history has witnessed to the staying power of this ailment. I will return to this after first quoting the prayer read during (and for) her laying on of hands. The prayer was composed by Dionysios in Greek (the deaconess had preserved the typewritten text in her personal archives):
“O great, wonderful, and eternal God, Who through the inexpressible descent of Your only-begotten Son and the visitation of Your Holy Spirit established Your Holy Church, Who through Your ineffable foreknowledge also called this Your servant to the diaconate in Your Holy Church—we beg and entreat You, this same Master, to send your grace from on high down upon your servant Maria and make her a Deaconess of Your One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Sanctify her with an imperishable blessing. Strengthen her so that she may blamelessly serve in Your Church for the salvation of souls and to the honor and glory of Your Holy Name and for a share in the portion of Your Elect in Your Kingdom, through the intercessions of the Most-Holy Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary, the holy Deaconesses Phoebe and Olympia, and all Your saints. For You are our God Who rests in Your saints and to You we offer up glory, to the Father and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.”
The Certificate of Tonsure, which the Metropolitan signed on the Holy Altar and gave to the deaconess (and which she also preserved in her archives), is typewritten in Greek and reads as follows:
“According to the episcopal authority given to Our Humility by the Holy Apostles for the administration of the Holy Church of Christ, during the consecration of the Holy Church of St. Nicholas in Seoul, Korea, on Sunday, September 24 of the year 1978, the most devout Maria Spyropoulou, a teacher, catechist, and coworker of the Orthodox Mission of Korea, was appointed a Deaconess of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. I bestowed this blessing to serve the holy Church, to care for the propriety of the holy churches and the proper order of women in the sacred rites, to lead works of charity and the catechism of women, offering to women being baptized every possible aid, ministering to the work of the Orthodox mission with all her might and, ultimately, performing all the ministry belonging to the Deaconesses, according to the Sacred Tradition of our Holy Orthodox Church. Whence, and to this end was the present Certificate of Tonsure composed by Our Humility and given to the most devout Deaconess Maria for proof thereof. Given on September 25, 1978, in the Cathedral Church of St. Nicholas of Seoul, Korea. The Metropolitan of New Zealand and Exarch of Korea, Dionysios.”
Two years after her consecration, Maria Spyropoulou’s name and office appeared (as was fitting) in the official “Ecclesiastical Register” of the Church of Greece, which was later renamed “Diptychs.” This is the annual publication in which the structure and staff of the Church of Greece and other local Orthodox Churches are recorded. In the volume for 1981, we find the inscription: “Deaconess-Teacher Maria Spyropoulou.” This entry is also found in the publications over the next six years, through 1987 (i.e., for seven straight years). It then disappears! Which means that the ecclesiastical obduracy tolerated this beautiful and deserving witness for just seven years, and then extinguished it for the next 13 years of the deaconess’ Korean ministry, and the next 33 years of her life! Maria knew full well that this miserly move would harm the whole case for women’s ministry, but she kept silent, sharing it only with a few people close to her. Just a few years before her repose, she began to mention it publicly, but always at the urging of her persistent friends. In short, Deaconess Maria was a person both seen and unseen, visible and invisible, semi-transparent!
At any rate, the Korean Orthodox communities embraced their deaconess with insightful joy. They sensed that the dark blue garment, with the dark blue headdress, which the deaconess wore from then on (and with which she aided in worship) signaled something essential: the Church’s desire for apostolic motherhood’s structural (and not simply incidental) integration into Its body. Maria told us of the Koreans’ joy, that “something has now changed,” and she particularly recalled the words of the elderly man Pavel, who enjoyed everyone’s respect: “You are the same, but you are different. Something changed.” Indeed, the Spirit had blown where It wished!
Twenty-two years after her tonsure, the day of Maria’s final departure from Korea came. It was July 13, 2000. The Korean community of St. Nicholas in Seoul said goodbye to her as she was: a deaconess. As a token of their love, they offered her a crystal vase, on the base of which, under a red cross, the following was engraved in Korean:
“May this serve as a token of our appreciation for the Rev. Deaconess Maria’s tireless material and spiritual contribution and sacrificial efforts for the mission of the Korean Orthodox Church over 25 years. Together with our best wishes and prayers, may you always enjoy the abundant grace of our Lord.”
I don’t believe that this gesture on the part of the Korean faithful was simply a formality, nor only an expression of love. I take it also as a request: welling up from the bowels of the missionary community, their voice cries out to those who boast about Orthodoxy, and we would do well to pay attention (Rev. 3:6). I thus take it as the faithful’s plea for the Church to constitute itself in a way that allows it to fulfill its mission. The charismata (spiritual gifts) are to take flesh and blood in ministries with real content, far from vain and empty titles. The revival of the order of deaconesses—of apostolic motherhood—as a practical function of the Body, hangs in the balance.
Deaconess Maria Spyropoulou, who bore many children, thus journeyed from the open skies of the historical incarnation of the Gospel to the eternal heaven of the Triune God. She supported, encouraged, loved, taught, cared, and became—as she noted with joy—”grandmother Maria” for the children of her spiritual children. She always strived to be transparent so that the light of Christ, which she preached in both word and action, could pass unhindered through her.
The Orthodox Church of Korea: Vol 1. In Progress, Athens: Tinos, 2005 [in Greek], pp. 9-10.
 I am grateful to Fr. Daniel (Chang Kyu) Na, pastor of the Holy Church of the Apostle Paul in Incheon, South Korea, who provided an English translation at my request.
Athanasios N. Papathanasiou is Associate Professor of Missiology, Intercultural Christian Witness and Dialogue at the Supreme Ecclesiastical Academy of Athens.
Translated from a larger publication in Greek [quarterly “Panta ta Ethni” 161 (2022), pp. 14-21] by the Rev. Dr. Gregory Edwards.
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