by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Tiny village in southwest attracts pilgrims who believe in Most Blessed Stoyna, a woman who supposedly healed through faith

st chistopher zlatolist

Born in 1883 near Serres, which was then in the Ottoman Empire and today is in Greece, Stoyna Dimitrova was seven years old when she experienced something extraordinary. While she was ill with smallpox, a strange storm engulfed her home and tried to push the door open. Her parents attempted to keep out the elements, but Stoyna told them not to – the storm was actually St George, who wanted to enter the house. Her parents complied and a strange light filled the room. When it all ended, Stoyna had become blind.

Several years passed before the next strange event. When Stoyna was 13, St George appeared in her dreams and instructed her to dig in the garden. She obeyed and – lo and behold – an icon of the saint and a sanctuary lamp were discovered on the spot. Stoyna built a small chapel there, but she was unable to take care of it for long, as larger events unfolded in her life.

A pilgrim writes her wishes in a special notebook by the cell of Most Blessed Stoyna

A pilgrim writes her wishes in a special notebook by the cell of Most Blessed Stoyna

In 1913, after Bulgaria was defeated in the Second Balkan War the region of Macedonia, where Serres was located, was lost. Stoyna's family, along with many Bulgarians from the area, left en masse what had now become Greek territory. The refugees headed towards Petrich, but Stoyna never reached that town. While her family was passing through Zlatolist, she demanded to stay in the village, in the church of St George.

Her request was highly unusual, and both her father and the local community hesitated before deciding to allow her to have her way. Stoyna settled down inside the church, and spent the rest of her life there, sleeping in a tiny room on the balcony where women would listen to mass.

According to the accounts of her relatives and the villagers of Zlatolist, written down years and sometimes decades after her death, everything Stoyna did while living in the church of St George was extraordinary.

A 19th century teenager reportedly painted the very un-Orthodox murals in St George's Church

A 19th century teenager reportedly painted the very un-Orthodox murals in St George's Church

She led a celibate, ascetic life, offering spiritual help and healing to anyone who sought her out, and she often communicated with St George and other saints. If anyone tried to harm her, a seemingly defenceless woman, they would be punished by divine force. Advancing Turkish and Greek soldiers were repelled by St George himself, and evil men were punished by the death of their closest kin.

Stoyna took care of herself, the church and the garden, and provided schooling to young girls from the village. She ate little, mostly bread and citrus fruit, and gave all the money and sweets that grateful visitors brought her to the children. She instructed the adults too, teaching them Christian stories and values, and would listen to their confessions.

Her most amazing ability was her supposed habit of staying for days in a death-like trance, after which she would predict future events, and levitate in the church while praying to St George.

A 19th century teenager reportedly painted the very un-Orthodox murals in St George's Church

That was why the locals started calling her Prepodobna, or Most Blessed, Stoyna. Some even referred to her as a "saint."

After Prepodobna Stoyna died, she was buried in the churchyard. People continued to visit and pray for health and guidance.

As Communism took over in Bulgaria, Prepodobna Stoyna remained a local phenomenon. Vanga, a blind clairvoyant who lived on the other side of the mountain, was quick to outshine her. Stoyna slipped into oblivion.

Stoyna was rediscovered after the regime collapsed in 1989 and the economic crisis that followed sparked interest in all things spiritual, religious and mystical. By the early 2000s, Zlatolist was already on Bulgaria's pilgrimage map, though it is still less known and visited than Rupite, the area near Petrich where Vanga spent her final years. In the warmer months you will see plenty of people driving along the dusty dirt roads from Katuntsi village or Rozhen Monastery towards Zlatolist.

A 19th century teenager reportedly painted the very un-Orthodox murals in St George's Church

Prepodobna Stoyna's abode is actually far more atmospheric than the manicured, touristy Rupite.

Built in 1857 and recently renovated, St George's church appears humble and bland from the outside. Inside everything changes – there you realise that you have entered a strange, mystical place.

The church is sunk into the ground. Even when packed with people, there is a hushed silence there. Visitors usually make a beeline for a marble slab on the floor in front of the altar. The double-headed eagle carved there is a standard depiction of the emblem of the Constantinople Patriarchate, which had jurisdiction over St George's at the time of its construction, and is hardly unique. Still, Bulgarians believe that this particular slab is special, and that Prepodobna Stoyna used to pray and levitate over it. It is believed that prayers said there are particularly powerful – you just have to take off your shoes before stepping onto the sacred stone.

While waiting for your turn, you will inevitably notice how unusual the murals in St George's are: crude, almost grotesque. The massive, dominant figure of a dog-headed St Christopher is particularly impressive. It is not unique in ecclesiastical art in the region, but people believe that it might hold some special, ominous meaning.

There is more to see in this church. Follow the crowds to the back of the church, take off your shoes again and climb the rickety wooden stairs that lead to the women's balcony. On your way you will pass more strange murals: Death on its pale horse, brandishing a crossbow, and a bosomy Mary Magdalene naked to the waist. The artist of St George's in 1876 was supposedly a teenage boy, and these murals give credence to this theory.

St George Zlatolist

Prepodobna Stoyna lived on the church balcony, today the space has become a shrine to her

The balcony itself is packed with portraits of Prepodobna Stoyna, all recreating with varying degrees of skill her only known photograph: a pale, ascetic face with closed eyes under a black kerchief. All around are presents left by grateful or hopeful pilgrims: linens and towels, artificial flowers, all types of icons imaginable and children's clothes. Two notebooks are provided for them to write down their requests in the hope that Most Blessed Stoyna will ensure deliverance. A knot of people is usually gathered in one corner, impatient to have a look at the prophetess's cell.

This room is small and claustrophobic, and stuffed with more portraits and icons.

The atmosphere outside St George's is definitely lighter. Visitors walk around the tiny garden, drink water from a supposedly healing spring, pray at Most Blessed Stoyna's grave, and wait for their turn to hug or have their photo taken with the 1,200-year old plane tree.

Once they leave the church compound, the pilgrims and visitors engage in activities which Bulgarians always connect with visiting a monastery or some other religious site: the indulgence in more earthly pleasures. Zlatolist is tiny, more of a hamlet than a village, and most of the inhabitants seem to be up at the church, selling fruit and homemade jams, pickles, wine and rakiya to tourists and pilgrims. A couple of makeshift taverns serve some of the most delicious grilled meat in this corner of Bulgaria.

The original tombstone of Most Blessed Stoyna's grave is on display in the church

The original tombstone of Most Blessed Stoyna's grave is on display in the church

Who was Prepodobna Stoyna in reality and what happened to her?

The lack of documentation and contemporary accounts means that there will never be a definitive answer, but her story is strikingly similar to that of Vanga. Both were suddenly blinded in strange circumstances at an early age. Both had to migrate to Bulgaria proper, and both had visions of saints. They were pious women and dedicated Christians, but are these parallels real or the result of a myth-making process?

What is certain is that the Eastern Orthodox Church treats them similarly. On the one hand, both clairvoyants are and were tolerated by the Church authorities. On the other hand, both have been criticised by clerics and theologians – Vanga is suspected of demonic possession while Stoyna is condemned for behaving like an ordained priest and hearing confessions.

Those who flock to Zlatolist, whether out of despair or curiosity, are probably not much interested in theology, and what they crave is the feeling of otherworldliness and mysticism. At St George's, there is plenty of both. 


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