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New Hieromartyr Father John (Karastamatis) of Santa Cruz (1937-1985) was the parish priest and one of the founders of the Prophet Elias Greek Orthodox Church in Santa Cruz, California, and a fervent preacher of the Orthodox Faith, for which he was martyred by Satanists in 1985.
Fr. John Karastamatis was born in 1937 in the Greek village of Apoikia, on the island of Andros. As a boy on the island of Andros, John witnessed many miracles with which God blessed the pious villagers, and thus he was made aware of the closeness of God to the lives of those who seek Him. The heavenly saints, especially the local ones, also manifested their closeness and the power of their intercessory prayer by appearing to and helping the people.
John nourished his young soul by learning about the lives of these saints and martyrs, whose unquenchable desire to be faithful to Christ in the face of deprivation, torment and physical death inspired him to also be a servant of God. Although he did not attend any theological school, he wanted to put his faith into practice by someday becoming a priest.
In 1957, at the age of twenty, John came to the United States. Five years later he married a young Greek woman, Athanasia Matsellis, and soon became the father of two children, Maria and Photios. The cities of the United States were in sharp contrast to the village of his birth, but his acute awareness of the nearness of God and the other world, given to him in childhood, never left him. He now found himself in the midst of those who not only did not want to be close to God, but who actively fled from Him. Still he hoped in God, knowing that the freedom of Christ can be found even in the most stifling and evil surroundings.
With the support and encouragement of Fr. George Bogdanos, a Greek priest who recognized in him the integrity and zeal of a true pastor, Fr. John was ordained to the deaconate in 1971 with the blessing of Archbishop lakovos, who supported him in this. Since both his love for the Church and the love of the churchgoers for him was so apparent, he was made a priest only a few weeks later by Bishop Meletios (Christianopolis) of San Francisco.
He first served the Greek Orthodox community in Anchorage, Alaska, the land of newly-canonized St. Herman, who thus became his guardian angel for the rest of his life. He was later assigned to the St. George parish in Vancouver, Canada, and then to All Saints parish in Anaheim, Pennsylvania.
He then moved to Santa Cruz, California, which had been named by the Spanish missionaries after the Holy Cross of the Lord. There he labored with enthusiasm to provide a haven of Orthodox Christianity for the faithful in the area, who had long been without a nearby church.
Because the community in Santa Cruz was too small to immediately acquire its own Orthodox church, Fr. John began to serve the Divine Liturgy in the nearby town of Aptos, in the chapel of a Poor Clare convent. The nuns would have their services very early on Sunday morning, leaving the church free for Fr. John and his parishioners to use afterwards. The parishioners were at first hesitant: they would come to Liturgy late, and would all sit at the very back of the chapel, as if they were spectators and not participants. Fr. John knew that he had much work to do. He was sometimes disappointed at the lack of active interest among his flock. His was a burning faith, and lukewarmness had always been foreign to his soul. His task, he knew, was to ignite this fire within each of his parishioners, so that they themselves would struggle for the kingdom of heaven, the one thing needful, and not sit in the background and expect their priest to do their work for them. He could not demand too much at once, but had to be a gentle and loving pastor, condescending to the weaknesses of his flock so as not to overwhelm them and cause them to abandon the Orthodox faith altogether. The gap between shepherd and sheep had to be bridged gradually and carefully, and Fr. John had to spark the kinder in the hearts of his flock without scorching them with the consuming fire within him.
Sometimes Fr. John would speak forceful words of rebuke to awaken his people from their spiritual sleep, but mostly he would inspire them by his quiet and unobtrusive example. They began to see how hard he struggled and were moved to help him fulfill his godly dreams. His fervency and zeal, his unequivocal belief in the other world, was something that they did not fully understand, and yet that they inwardly -- and in some cases unconsciously - longed for. Having come to love him deeply, they were grateful that God had sent a harvester to their field.
Founding of Prophet Elias Church, Santa Cruz
By giving his parishioners new aspirations, Fr. John instilled in them the desire to start their own church. They collected and saved money and eventually found the perfect building for their church: a former funeral home in Santa Cruz, across from the public library and in the best part of town for missionary activity. Fr. John did much of the interior work himself, fashioning a beautiful white iconostasis and a large domed apse behind and above the altar. When completed, the newly-consecrated church became a refuge from the noisy bustle of the world, an island of holiness in the middle of downtown Santa Cruz. The church was dedicated to the Prophet Elias.
With their new and beautiful church, the parishioners, comprised of over 75 families, now had a sense of accomplishment. They felt that they had come a long way from the days when they had little choice but to use a chapel which was outside of town. Now they could branch out into other activities.
Fr. John by no means wanted his Orthodox community to be a closed one, and he rejoiced to discover any fervent young souls which came to him in search of the fulness of Christianity. Santa Cruz has been a gathering place not only of the darker and meaner elements of society, but also of idealistic young people who have desired something more meaningful than the American values of materialism and competition. By the time Fr. John started his church in Santa Cruz, a small but significant "Orthodox Christian movement" had already begun at the university there. This was primarily the result of the missionary work of Hieromonk Anastassy. Through him, many Santa Cruz university students embraced the Orthodox faith and dedicated their lives to serving Christ.
In 1981, Fr. Seraphim Rose, at the request of the Orthodox students there, gave two lectures at the university and further inspired young souls to enter what he called "the saving enclosure of the Church." The fellowship of Orthodox students turned also to Fr. John and his church in order to receive spiritual nourishment and to participate in the divine services, which lifted them above the worldliness of university life. Fr. John always greeted them with a radiant smile and warm love, seeing in their young faces the freshness and enthusiasm that would keep Orthodoxy alive for future generations. After these students graduated, Fr. John brought other young people to the Orthodox faith, giving them all that they needed for their growth in the faith and being to them a loving father who was concerned for their spiritual welfare.
Since the Prophet Elias Church was in the middle of town, people would often come from off the streets to ask questions and attend the services. Fr. John kept an "open-door policy," making himself and his church available to anyone with a pastoral need. The people of Santa Cruz came to know him as being kind, trusting, full of love and open. He had great compassion for the poor, and was helpful to all who came to him, disregarding their religion or whether or not they were taking advantage of him. It was not uncommon for him to be awakened at odd hours of the night by needy people knocking at his back door. No one would be refused, but would always be given alms for a meal. In the most outcast and downtrodden of individuals, and perhaps especially in them, Fr. John saw the image of Christ. With deep-felt Christian love, he once wrote these words about the simple people who, although rejected by the world, are faithful to Christ and follow the voice of their hearts:
- "We see them lonely within the crowd, or following the life of a hermit as they become symbols of truth and beacon lights of Christianity, praying for peace and brotherly love on earth."
Orthodox Christianity was not just something "for Greeks," but rather was universal. His love for God induced him to earnestly desire to bring forth fruits for Him, as a son strives to please his father, and this made him a zealous missionary to all peoples. He had services in public parks, where the townspeople would stop to attend something, which, although foreign to them, they found to be divinely beautiful. Hearing Fr. John, with his full and resonant voice, chanting the ancient Byzantine melodies along with his cantor, would unexpectedly catch a vague and half-remembered glimpse of that sacred realm which their souls knew but their minds had never been exposed to. In such a way was Fr. John able to introduce the riches of Orthodoxy to the spiritually impoverished American people.
While Fr. John's fervent pastoral work served to convert many non-Greek people, his first job was, of course, to "convert" many of his own people - those who were baptized Orthodox but whose commitment to Christ meant, at most, only an external commitment to church attendance and activities. By his own faith he demonstrated to them that Orthodoxy is not merely a ritual, a system of dogmas or a behavior pattern, but is instead a transforming power, which is tapped by conscious spiritual struggle.
Desecration of the Church
The good works of Fr. John were too numerous and his outreach too extensive not to evoke malicious actions from the haters of God. The visibility of Fr. John and his church in the middle of Santa Cruz made them more accessible not only to those in need of help, but also to those who wished to destroy all that is holy. A few months before Fr. John's death, the church was desecrated by unknown occultists, who painted "666" and the five-pointed satanic star on the front entrance. When the desecration was discovered, Fr. John reconsecrated the church.
Later he received anonymous threats, but was undaunted by them. His preaching angered some who began to threaten him by phone and in letters to cease preaching. But Father John became even more passionate about his ministry saying:
He advised the faithful to guard themselves against the pitfalls of the Antichrist and not to take the mark. Then the telephone threats on his life become even more intense, however Father John did not fear any of this.
Miracle of the Blossoming White Lilies
It was through Fr. John that the Most Holy Mother of God bestowed a miraculous blessing on the Prophet Elias Church. This occurred after Fr. John brought some bulbs of the "lily of the Panagia" back from his native island of Andros, where he visited with his family. He went to the Monastery of St Nicholas on the island and asked Abbot Dorotheos for few dried lilies.
The lily of the Panagia ("Most Holy") is so named because of the tradition, often depicted in icons, concerning the Archangel Gabriel presenting the Mother of God with this species of lily at the time of the Annunciation. In the monastery on Andros which Fr. John visited,[note 1] stems from these lilies, being many years old, sometimes bud miraculously at the time of the Feast of the Dormition.
Fr. John instructed his son Photios to plant the lily bulbs in pots and to water them only with holy water, which Photios did. After the lilies had grown from the bulbs in May of 1983, Fr. John cut one of the flowers and placed it by the icon of the Mother of God, which leaned against the iconostasis of his church. The flower did not wilt for three or four weeks, although it had been cut and removed from both water and earth. When it finally dropped its petals (the first one having fallen on a radiant day when one of Fr. John's converts from the university was baptized), Fr. John told his wife not to vacuum up any of them, but to save them and place them by the icon where the flower stem was still leaning. Aпd then, within three weeks, some fresh sprouts appeared on the stem!
The stem continued to produce new stems for many months, until the winter of 1983-4. Fr. John interpreted the miracle as an image of life coming out of death through the Resurrection. This miracle strengthened the faith of many to have more reverence towards the Blessed Virgin.
Father John was a sensitive and beautiful soul. At the instruction of Elder Dorotheos, he wrote poems and religious hymns, and was deeply touched by the miracles of the Virgin and the lives of the saints.
Before his martyric death, three wonderful things had happened:
- One week before his martyrdom the blossoming lilies of the Virgin wilted at once and they never blossomed again.
- The Icon of the Blessed Virgin wept, and traces of her tears can still be seen on her image.
- On three consecutive Sundays before his martyrdom, during the Divine Liturgy, the altar boy while giving him the warm water (to prepare the Holy Communion) saw a strange phenomenon - his father’ face was shining and scattered rays of light - but father John told him strictly not to reveal anything.
On the evening of May 17, 1985 Fr. John telephoned Abbot Dorotheos and asked him about the miracles of the myrrh-streaming icon of the Blessed Virgin (Myrrhovlytissa), because he wanted to preach a sermon on her for the following Sunday. Then on the night of Saturday, May 18, 1985, the eve of the feast of the translation of the holy relics of Saint Nicholas the Wonder-worker, Fr. John was in the church building, preparing the sermon for the following morning. His wife was in Los Angeles at that time visiting her daughter, who had just given birth to her first child.
Shortly before midnight,[note 2] one or more assailants entered the church. Evidently they had been watching Fr. John, for they came at a time when he was alone, when both his wife and 17 year-old son were gone. They attacked Fr. John in his church office, stabbing him with a knife. During the struggle Fr. John was severely beaten, and then was finally killed by a heavy blow on his head.
His son, who had dined with him earlier that evening, arrived at 1:30 a.m. at the church. Outside the office he discovered the body of his murdered father, and on the walls -- the blood of a martyr.
There, the boy was faced with a terrible sight: his father was found on the floor slaughtered and unrecognizable…he had been hit in the head with a hammer and his whole body was butchered with knifes. As the police had later discovered, because father John didn’t die right away, the criminals took the cross he was wearing around the neck and hanged him with its chain. The blood poured from his wounds and flooded the floor of the Holy Shrine. The Satanists used his blood to write their slogans and the mark 666 on the walls of the Church. The blessed father John suffered martyrdom in the very place where he was photographed with the cross in his hand, almost prophesizing of what would follow.
Because Fr. John's face and fingers were so disfigured and mutilated, his relics could not be displayed at the funeral service, therefore his body was covered in the usual gold-vestments and the coffin was sealed.
The police searched for the killers and found three people, a couple and the son of the man from another woman. They were priests and worshipers of Satan. They drank cobra venom while they were arrested and two of them died, and the third lost his mind and could not testify.
In the absence of a more plausible reason for the crime, it is most likely that the killing, like the church desecration a few months prior to it, was done at the hands of those who hated Fr. John for his holy work, of those who are the enemies of God and rebel against Him because they serve the first rebel, Satan. But whether Fr. John was killed for overtly satanic purposes or for other, irrational reasons, he had without doubt a martyric death, giving his life for Christ and dying in the very church in which he had diligently served Him.
Apparitions of Blessed Father John
When Abbot Dorotheos learned about the martyrdom of Father John, he wrote to the Presbytera asking her to send his priestly vestments from when they had celebrated together the feast of Saint Dorotheos at the Monastery in 1981. Some time passed but he received no response from father John’s family.
On the eve July 4, at the Monastery of St. Nicholas, a Athonite vigil was celebrated in honor of St. Athanasius of Mt.Athos, with many pilgrims who had come from Athens. As the vigil was about to end, the monastery bells began to beat themselves as for a solemn feast. They stopped for awhile, but the bells started ringing again so harmoniously that everyone was astonished.
Seized with fear and awe, the faithful started to pray the paraclesis of St. Nicholas, waiting for a miracle to happen. That afternoon, elder Dorotheos got a call from Mary, the daughter of Father John, who had come specifically to the monastery bearing the vestments of her father. She brought them into the monastery and they were received with joy by all the pilgrims there. The bells had been ringing in the monastery that morning exactly at the time when the ship entered the harbor carrying the Martyr's vestments.
The apparitions of blessed father John after his martyric death are many. On the eve of the feast of St. Nicholas, in 1986, abbot Dorotheos together with several women was preparing for the monastery's patronal feast. At one point, they saw blessed father John walking through the monastery gardens and heading towards them. They all were frightened and began to shout: “Papa Iani!” Then he disappeared from their sight. Immediately after this to their surprise, came the postman with a package from Switzerland containing a wooden carved image (icon) of Father John, from some Russian believers that honored him as a saint. Father John had asked that his icon may be spread to all Christians so they may learn about his martyrdom and missionary work.
In addition, in February 1987 while abbot Dorotheos went to Switzerland for surgery, while he was talking to the faithful there about Fr. John and his martyrdom, Fr. John appeared to them, blessed them, and then disappeared from their sight.
- "His life inspired and enlightened and cheered us!" wrote one of his spiritual children. "His death has served to confirm in a most direct way the realities of not only our Orthodox faith, but of the bizarre and truly anti-Christian ways of our times."
Holy New Martyr Priest John of Santa Cruz, pray to God for us!
Troparion – Tone 1
Having cultivated the fruit of God’s knowledge by thy labors,
thou hast plucked out the root of godlessness and proclaimed in our land the true faith.
Anointed with grace thou hast tended the flock entrusted thee,
and in shedding thy blood thou waterest the seeds of Christ’s true faith in our land,
O New Martyr John of Santa Cruz.
Glory to Him Who hath granted thee strength;
glory to Him Who hath crowned thee;
glory to Him Who granteth healing for all through thee.
- Monastery of St. Nicholas of Andros, Greece.
- The midnight hour is the supposed time of the satanic Black Mass, Witching hour, and Witches' Sabbath. Some authors have hypothosized that the Witches' Sabbath would take place during the night of the Sunday before the time the Christian mass was celebrated.
- The New Hieromartyr John Karastamatis of Santa Cruz. Orthodox Word. May 19, 2011.
- The New Hieromartyr John Karastamatis of Santa Cruz. Orthodox Word. May 19, 2011.
- New Martyr John Karastamatis of Santa Cruz. St. George Greek Orthodox Church, of Prescott. October 2, 2010. (Source: The Orthodox Word, #122 / 1985)
- Orthodox Priest from California canonized a Saint. OrthodoxChristianity.net. (Source: The Orthodox Word, #122 / 1985)
- Fr. John Karastamatis' Murderer Denied Parole. MYSTAGOGY - The Weblog of John Sanidopoulos.
- Jennifer Squires. Man who killed Santa Cruz priest denied parole for five years. Santa Cruz Sentinel. February 8, 2010.
- Ο νεοφανής Ιερομάρτυς της Ορθοδοξίας Ιωάννης της Σάντα Κρουζ. Ο ΟΣΙΟΣ ΦΙΛΟΘΕΟΣ ΤΗΣ ΠΑΡΟΥ. ΤΕΥΧΟΣ 17, Μάιος-Αύγουστος 2006, Θεσ/νίκη. (Holy Monastery of Pantokratoros (Impankratoros.gr))