Saint of the Day – 23 January – St John the Almoner (Died c 620) Bishop of Alexandria, Widower, Confessor, Apostle of the poor, Reformer – both within the Church and within the civic structures – born in c 552 at Amathus, Cyprus and died in c 620 in Cyprus of natural causes. Patronages – Egypt and Cyprus. Also known as John the Almsgiver, John the Merciful, John V of Alexandria, John Eleymon and Johannes Eleemon. St John’s hagiography was written by his contemporary Bishop, Leontios of Neapolis at the instruction of their Archbishop.
John was born at Amathus as the son of Epiphanius, Governor of Cyprus and was of noble descent. In early life he was married and had children but his wife and children soon died, after which he entered religious life. He gave away all he possessed and became known throughout the East as the Almoner.
On the death of the Patriarch Theodore, the Alexandrians besought Emperor Phocas to appoint John his successor, which was accordingly done. One of the first steps he took was to make a list of several thousand needy persons, whom he took under his especial care. He always referred to the poor as his “lords and masters” because of their mighty influence at the Court of the Most High. He assisted people of every class who were in need. In his youth John had had a vision of a beautiful maiden with a garland of olives on her head, who said that she was Compassion, the eldest daughter of the Great King. This had evidently made a deep impression on John’s heart and soul and, now that he had the opportunity of exercising benevolence on a large scale, he soon became widely known all over the East for his liberality towards the poor.
He was a reformer who attacked simony and fought heresy by means of improvements in religious education. He also reorganised the system of weights and measures for the sake of the poor and decried and managed to cease the practice of corruption among the civic officials. He increased the number of Churches in Alexandria from seven to seventy.
The apostolate of St Vitalis of Gaza, a Monk who worked among the prostitutes of the city, was a noteworthy episode of John’s reign. The Bishop was considered to have behaved with wisdom for not punishing this Monk who was notorious for visiting the seedy part of town, his intentions of course, being viciously misread and his judgement was vindicated only after the death of Vitalis when the story of the Monk’s mission of mercy became known. St Vitalis’ life here: https://anastpaul.com/2018/01/11/saint-of-the-day-11-january-st-vitalis-of-gaza-died-c-625/
John he visited the hospitals three times every week and he freed a great many slaves. He is said to have devoted the entire revenues of his see to the alleviation of those in need.
Many of the works of John are legendary as is the following – a rich man presented him with a magnificent bed covering; he accepted it for one night but then sold it and disposed of the money in alms. The rich man “bought back” the article and again presented it to John, with the same result. This was repeated several times but John drily remarked: “We will see who tires first.”
An instance of his piety was that he caused his own grave to be dug but only partly so and appointed a servant to come before him on all state occasions and say “My Lord, your tomb is unfinished, pray give orders for its completion, for you know not the hour when death may seize you.”
When the Sassanachs sacked Jerusalem in 614, John sent large supplies of food, wine and money to the fleeing Christians. But eventually the Persians occupied Alexandria and John himself, in his old age, was forced to flee to his native country, where he died.
From Cyprus his body was moved to Constantinople, then in 1249 to Venice, where there is a Church dedicated to him, the Chiesa di San Giovanni Elemosinario, although his relics are preserved in another Church, San Giovanni in Bragora, in a separate Chapel.
Another relic of his was sent by Sultan Bayezid II in 1489 to King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary. It was placed in the private Royal Chapel in Buda Castle, which was dedicated to him. Now his body lies in the St John the Almoner Chapel in St Martin’s Cathedral in Bratislava, Slovakia.
Two Churches in Malta, are also dedicated to him.