Religion is at the heart of the story of the human race. People devote themselves to higher powers, sometimes giving up all else: their lives, their riches, their possessions, to concentrate completely on greater power.
And, almost as long as there has been religion, there has been abuse of it. Often this takes the form of institutionalized control, drawing wealth from the communities these religious houses clai to serve, like some parasite. But religion has masked many smaller, though no less evil, crimes as well.
What transpires when someone abuses this confidence or unquestioning faith in the Almighty? In Greece, in the early 20th century it ultimately resulted in the deaths of as many as 500 devoted followers. Who was Mariam Soulakiotis, the evil nun, and how did she earn the name “Mother Rasputin”?
A Doomed Marriage: Soulakiotis and the New Calendarist Church
This story of fraud, deception, and murder all began when twenty-three-year-old Mariam Soulakiotis was first introduced to a self-styled monk by the name of Father Mattew Karpathakis. Up to this point, Mariam had been working on farms and in factories, and although she is believed to have come from an impoverished Greek family her origins are obscure.
The monk and Soulakiotis met at a crucial time in the monk’s life when he was struggling with his own doubts about the doctrines and tenets of the Greek Old Calendarist Church, the orthodox denomination to which he belonged. Denouncing the teachings of the Old Calendarists the holy man formed a new sect, called the New Calendarists.
Breaking with orthodoxy, he then proceeded to build a convent and monastery, to provide a place of worship to his followers. Enamored with Father Mattew and his alternative ideology Soulakiotis left her family and job to help work in the convent.
It’s reported in part due to Father Mattew’s declining health but also her “strong character” Soulakiotis quickly gained more responsibility. Raised to the position of Abbess in the new church, Soulakiotis was in charge of daily management and recruiting new members for the convent by the time the sect’s founding father passed away in 1939. By this time she had earned a reputation for being rigorous, even ruthless, at times.
Mother Superior Mariam
According to reports given by followers of the New Calendarist sect, Father Mattew had built the convent for two purposes. The first was to praise the Virgin Mary, and the second to secure financial aid for the burgeoning New Calendarist movement.
Now under the charge of newly named Mother Superior Mariam, the convent’s mission firmly focused its energies on acquiring financial investments. New members were required to relinquish any money or property they possessed, adhering to the church’s “vow of poverty”.
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Along with their vows to rid themselves of “evil” and show commitment to their belief in this new church, it was compulsory for applicants to confess all their sins and undertake fasts and periods of silence. All these practices are similar to rituals undertaken by many mainstream religions, but it was Soulakiotis’s modus operandi that makes her a figure remembered in history.
The strict abbess would use heinous methods to extort the financial assets of new members, such as sleep and food deprivation, corporal punishments. New joiners were made to pray for hours upon hours, and were subjected to blackmail, beatings, and even torture.
Astutely, Mother Mariam targeted wealthy families as their estates would provide fruitful income that could indefinitely maintain the convent financially. Her scheme was rather simple: when joining the New Calendarist convent followers would knowingly enter an isolated life of devotion with little to no contact with families or friends from their previous “sinful” lives. This cut them off from anyone who could come to their aid if alerted to the horrific crimes being committed against them.
Many people who joined the convent did not join the convent as religious followers but because they were seeking medical attention. The cruel abbess had offered free tuberculosis treatment to all, citing the high altitude of the convent as an ideal location for recuperation.
If they were truly treating tuberculosis, there would have been doctors on site to check on patients. However, it is stated that the only doctors permitted on site were there to sign death certificates. This “treatment plan” was just another ruse she employed to defraud more people.
It wasn’t until 1949 that rumors about what was happening inside the “sacred” walls started to spread. Even though residents claimed to have heard screams, it wasn’t until 1950, after Mother Rasputin had been in charge for more than a decade, that the authorities were informed of possible wrongdoing.
Things came to a head when a daughter of a recent convert reported that the deeds to her mother’s land had been signed over the Mother Mariam. The daughter was alarmed by this, and stated that this seemed like an uncharacteristic action for her mother to take unless she was under some kind of duress.
Mother Rasputin is Exposed
Finally, on December 4th, 1950, after a ten-year, uninterrupted reign over the convent, police arrested Soulakiotis during a large-scale raid. Eighty-five police officers spent two days scouring the grounds, rescuing 46 children along with a number of naked and malnourished elderly women who had been detained in the basement. Along with the living followers found, the remains of over 170 bodies were uncovered.
However, when her trial began on September 4th, 1951 Soulakiotis did not face any charges related to the abuse or deaths of the followers. She was also found to be in possession of $750,000 in cash and held the deeds to over three hundred farms and houses, but would not be prosecuted for this either.
Prosecutors believed that they could not secure a conviction related to these crimes. The only sure conviction they could achieve was on the two counts of illegal business activities she had undertaken. She received twenty-six months in prison for illegally importing tires and exporting olive oil to Cyprus.
Although the court had not found her guilty of any heinous crimes the public and the media had condemned her as “Mother Rasputin”. Along with the considerable media attention, more people came forward with evidence against Soulakiotis.
Prosecutors, aided by this new testimony, charged the abbess with a number of new crimes. Soulakiotis was accused of the murders of one monk and three nuns, as well as counts of embezzlement, forging wills, extortion, abuse, torture, and negligent homicide as a result of the avalanche of fresh testimony.
After her second trial in February 1953, Soulakiotis received a ten-year prison sentence, to be served concurrently alongside her first sentence. Bizarrely there was a third trial shortly after the culmination of her second sentencing where she was found guilty of illegal detention and earned herself a further four-year prison stay.
All in all, it’s not clear how many deaths she caused. Authorities thought that 177 people’s deaths from lethal lung infections were the result of negligent homicide. A further twenty-seven are believed to have been murdered. At one stage it was claimed that she had killed five hundred people.
A Woman of Faith?
While still incarcerated in Averoff Prison, the cruel abbess passed away in 1954 at the age of 71. Even as she lay dying, she maintained her innocence, calling the accusations against her “satanic fictions.”
Mother Rasputin was found guilty of premeditated murder and was held accountable for more than one hundred premeditated homicides. But despite the fact that her horrific deeds were made public, her followers continued to support her.
Many young teenage girls who had earlier expressed interest in joining the convict before her trials ended soon vanished and were never recovered. It’s considered that whoever assumed the new role of superior mother operated more discretely than their predecessor.
Even as recently as 2019, the convent was still operating and appeared to be a safer, more typical convent. Some followers still hold the view that Soulakiotis was falsely accused, and she is someone to be praised.
It’s unclear what Soulakiotis’s motives were, whether she had some skewed view of how she was to enact her lord’s work, or whether she was simply an opportunist using religion as a guise for her fraudulent activities. There is no denying the deaths that occurred under her watch, however. For those, she was held accountable.
Top Image: Mariam Soulakiotis was able to get away with her crimes for more than a decade. Source: Stanislav / Adobe Stock.
By Roisin Everard