This great procession of Saint Spyridon with palm branches follows a longer route than any of the others. Naturally there is a history behind it which I will relate briefly.
On Christmas night in 1629, four cases of the plague occurred in the town of Corfu. The epidemic by then had spread to Italy and possibly other countries. This greatly worried the people and the authorities. After meticulous inquiries it was established that a servant of the lawyer Odigitrianos Sarantaris had bought two Turkish kerchiefs from a foreign ship and offered them to the lady of the house. She in turn gave them to one of her daughters for safe-keeping, who became infected and died soon after. All the visitors to Sarantaris’ house were also infected and spread the plague to other quarters of the town.
Despite the strict measures imposed by the authorities the number of dead increased. The people then started to hasten with devotion to the religious surgery, namely the Church where the Holy Relic of Saint Spyridon was kept. They prayed night and day to the Saint to save them from the deadly plague. Older people told us that even the Jews who are of another faith took refuge in the Church of Saint Spyridon seeking his help.
The compassionate Saint listened to the prayers of the faithful and intervened on behalf of God the Lover of mankind. Very quickly the deadly plague receded leaving only 60 dead since the first fatalities. The historian A. Marmoras who flourished in the 17th century informs us as follows: “Most of the sick, seeing the Saint in their dreams with his promise to save them, were saved, and when the town was scourged by the plague, a light in the shape of a small lamp appeared atop the Holy Church of the Saint, which was seen continuously by the night sentinels of the two Fortresses” (L. Vrokinis: Works, 302, pp. 286-287, published 1973). By Palm Sunday the epidemic was over and this was ascribed to the miraculous intervention of the Saint. The number of dead remained at 60 while at other places the plague continued to rage.
That Palm Sunday 1629, making an application through their local authorities, the pious people organised a procession for the Saint’s Holy Relic outside the Church, and soon after they collected 5,000 ducats for the repair and embellishment of the Saint’s Church.
The Venetian authorities accepted the Corfiots’ general request for an annual procession to commemorate this miracle which had saved the island from the deadly plague, and by a decree of 21/6/1630 established the annual Palm Sunday procession of Saint Spyridon which has taken place ever since, passing through nearly all the principal streets of the old town.
History informs us that the lawyer Odigitrianos Sarantaris was held responsible for this terrible epidemic. He was sentenced to death without recourse to any defence and executed.
The procession stops at two locations for prayers. One location is near the entrance of the Old Fortress, just as it is with all the other processions of the Saint. The other location, earlier in the procession, is where the Church of Saint Athanasius, which housed the Holy Relic of Saint Spyridon from 1456 until 1489, used to stand. A popular story has it that the prayers at Saint Athanasius take place to commemorate a miracle worked by the Saint in the Lefkimmi area.
According to an ancient custom the pennons, banners and torches which constitute the main elements of this grand procession of the Saint are decorated with palm branches reminding us of Jesus Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem (John 12: 12-13).
By Aleko Damaskinos