Located in St. Augustine, Florida, the Saint Photios Greek Orthodox National Shrine is a memorial to the first Greek settlers on the American continent. This photo shows the fresco behind the altar which depicts the Virgin Mary and is entitled Mother of God – More Spacious Than the Heavens.
The first Greeks in America came as a group of 1,403 settlers enlisted as indentured servants by British landowners in 1768. Initially settling in New Smyrna, 75 miles south of St. Augustine, the Greek colonists discovered that no provision had been made for them. They lived in deplorable conditions; were made to clear swampland filled with alligators and poisonous snakes; were not given adequate food, clothing, or medical care; and were treated as slaves rather than contract workers. An unsuccessful revolt resulted in the executions of two rebel leaders, and by the end of the first year 450 men, women, and children had died from disease and malnutrition.
In 1777, after working beyond their contracted years and receiving neither promised land nor freedom, the Greek colonists appealed to the Governor of Florida. Sympathetic to their plight, he began to investigate the atrocities they reported. In April 1777, a group of 90 men, women, and children left the New Smyrna Colony and walked to St. Augustine. By the end of June they were joined by 500 additional Greek colonists eager to start a new life in the city of St. Augustine.
The St. Photios shrine is located on St. George Street and is primarily housed in an old home called the Avero House, built by a Spanish family in 1749. The shrine is filled with icons (religious paintings) on the walls and overhead domes. The altar contains the relics of three female saints: Saint Euphemia, who was martyred in the year 305; Saint Solomonee, who lived in the 4th century; and Saint Theodora, a 9th century Empress of Byzantium who presided over the Council that restored icons to use in Orthodox worship.
Saint Photios, for whom the shrine is named, was the Patriarch of Constantinople (and thus, head of the Eastern Orthodox Church) during the middle of the 9th century. He is remembered not only as a theologian and scholar but also as a supporter of missionary activity. Saint Photios commissioned Saints Cyril and Methodius as missionaries, and it was as a result of the missionary activity of these two men that the Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe were converted to Christianity and the Cyrillic alphabet was developed for the purpose of translating the Bible into Slavic languages.