Talk:Mother of God of the Sign

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the Russian Orthodox Church of the Protection of the Theotokos in Cabramatta, NSW has in its possession a miracle-working icon – a copy of the Abalak icon “Of the Sign” whose feast day is celebrated on 27 November / 10 December.

This miraculous icon is named after the Siberian village of Abalak in the Diocese of Tobolsk, a village in which a monastery was founded in 1783. Abalak is 26 versts from Tobolsk a major town northeast from Moscow. During the reign of Tsar Mikhail Fyodorovitch, and during the episcopacy of Archbishop Nektary of Tobolsk, a widow named Maria lived alone in the Abalak country churchyard. In 1636, fifty years after Tobolsk was established, that widow, lightly dozing in her shack, had a vision in which she saw the Image of the Most-holy Theotokos “Of the Sign” suspended in the air; depicted on the right was Holy Hierarch St Nicholas the Wonder-worker, and on the left, the Venerable St Mary of Egypt. She heard a voice order her to announce this vision to the people, and to tell them that they should build a new church, dedicated to the Sign Icon of the Most-holy Theotokos, to the right of the old Church of the Holy Transfiguration in the Abalak church yard. The new church, dedicated to the Sign Icon that is in ancient Novgorod, was to have two side chapels – one to St Nicholas, and the other, to St Mary of Egypt. Maria awoke, but was too timid to dare tell anyone about the vision. The vision was repeated four times.

The fourth vision was quite a significant one, and Maria could no longer keep it secret. She was on her way from Abalak to Tobolsk, when, going up the hill toward the town, she suddenly stopped as if in a fog. Before her there appeared something like a pillar of clouds, and on the pillar was the image “Of the Sign” of the Mother of God and the image of St Mary of Egypt. St Nicholas, as if alive, was standing on the ground, and angrily said to her, “Why are you slow to announce your visions and to relate the commands to the people?” After that, the widow began to tell every one of her visions and she related them to Archbishop Nektary before everyone in the Cathedral. Everyone believed the pious widow’s accounts. After submitting her to an exhaustive inquiry, the Archbishop blessed the residents of Abalak to construct the church; many of the residents of Tobolsk participated in that work. By God’s providence, a patronal icon was prepared for that church.

For many years, a certain peasant named Euphemy had lain paralyzed. It happened that a certain Paul, an indigent who received support from Euphemy, came by and said to him, “Euphemy! A church is being built at God’s direction in Abalak; it is dedicated to the Sign Icon of the Theotokos, to St Nicholas, and to St Mary of Egypt. Make a vow to have a patronal icon painted for that church. Perhaps, in return for your faith and diligence, the Lord will forgive you and will free you from your illness.” Euphemy heeded him as if he were the Angel of the Lord, and the same day vowed to prepare an icon “Of the Sign” of the Mother of God, with St Nicholas and St Mary of Egypt at either side. The Lord heard his prayers, and in the afternoon of the same day, he regained the use of the right side of his body. The next day, Euphemy dispatched a request to His Eminence Nektary for permission to paint a patronal icon for the new church in Abalak. Upon receiving a hierarchical blessing, he ordered the painting of an icon by the then most accomplished artist in Siberia – Protodeacon Matthew of the Tobolsk Cathedral. All the time that the icon was being painted, Euphemy prayed; each day he became stronger. Finally, feeling himself restored to health, he himself went to the artist and with his own hands brought the Icon to the Cathedral to be blessed.

Many miracles have been attributed to the Abalak icon of the Theotokos who is revered as the patroness of Siberia. With time people began to have copies of the icon painted and a number exist to this day in Russia having escaped destruction during the years of the communist yoke. The large Abalak icon in Cabramatta church is most likely one of the earlier copies of the original icon, which is recorded as being much smaller in size.

In the northern summer of 1917 during the tragic and fearful times of the Russian revolution, a copy of the Abalak icon was sent to the Tsar-martyr Nicholas during his imprisonment with the Imperial Family in Tobolsk. The icon remained with the Imperial Family up unto their deaths in July 1918. In the diary that the martyred Tsar kept there is an account of the family praying before this holy icon in the days leading up to the Nativity of Christ in 1917 – their last Christmas. The Imperial Family carried many icons with them into exile. In the list of the Imperial Family’s belongings catalogued by the White Army when they entered Ekaterinburg are two small copies of the Abalak icon found with others in the Ipatiev House and its outbuildings:

No. 150. An image, average size, of the Very Holy Virgin of Abalak, on colours, carrying on the backside a drawing of the cross and this inscription in the hand of the Empress: “To our dear Tatiana, blessings for the 12th January 1918, Tobolsk, Papa and Mama”

No. 155. Small image of the Very Holy Virgin of Abalak, in colours, carrying on its backside this inscription in the hand of the Empress: “T. Save us and protect us. Mama. Christmas 1917. Tobolsk”

The original location of the Cabramatta Abalak icon is not known, its history lost in the turmoil of the revolution. What is known is that to save it from desecration by the Bolsheviks, the then ruling hierarch of Omsk and Pavlodorski, Archbishop Sylvester, a future new-martyr of Russia, blessed the Siberian leader of the White Army, General Michael Konstantovich Dietrich, to take the sacred image under his protection. The Abalak icon was to become the Protectress of the Siberian Cossack Regiment of the White Army.

General Dietrich’s wife Sofia had organized a children’s orphanage in Omsk, which eventually had to be evacuated with the retreating White Army. The Abalak icon of the Theotokos became the Heavenly Protectress not only of the Cossacks but also of the orphaned children as they traveled by rail from Omsk through Siberia and eventually to Shanghai in China. During the journey the train was attacked by communist forces a number of times suffering much damage and an eventual derailment. However, all who traveled in the carriage with the holy icon remained unharmed, protected by the Mother of God.

During the Revolution, this icon became extremely dark, the images of the Mother of god and Christ Child were barely discernable. But when the icon was brought to Shanghai it became clearer, though today still of somber hues and difficult to photograph. During the Second World War the icon was known to have constantly emitted myrrh.

Following the death in China of her parents, the only daughter of the Dietrich family, Agnes Mihailovna, immigrated to Australia, bringing the icon with her. Eventually the icon was installed in Holy Protection Russian Orthodox Church, Cabramatta, in NSW where it has been venerated for over forty years. Many of the faithful attend the weekly Akathist served before the icon, and is carried with honour at every feast day Cross Procession.

- The Voice. Vol 6. No. 4 December 2006