Photius Kavasalis Fisk


Photius Kavasalis Fiske

Photius Kavasalis Fisk

Source: Hodge, Lyman F. Photius Fisk, a Biography. Boston, 1891.


A man or woman either who can truly be called a philanthropist is of the highest type of human character. Some people say, that to "stand up for Jesus" means every degree of excellence. Not so; we can do nothing for Jesus, but we can respect our fellow creatures and exert ourselves to do them good. This is philanthropy, and [Photius Kavasalis Fisk] … is a worthy friend who practises this great virtue

Source: "A Philanthropist." Boston Investigator, 10 November 1886.]

Photius Kavasalis Fisk (1807 - 1890) was born on the island of Hydra. At an early age, his family moved to Smyrna where his father was employed as an accountant in a mercantile house.

In 1814, when Photius was seven years old, a plague that ravaged left Photius an orphan. In one short week his father, mother, two brothers, and two sisters were all dead. Photius himself infected with the plague, found refuge in a hospital, where he was kindly cared for, until he had recovered.

His older brother, Athanasius, being not in Smyrna but in Malta at the time, escaped the infection. Subsequently, Photius reunited with his brother in Malta. At the onset of Greek War of Independence in 1821, Athanasius joined the liberation effort and found in many battles, but would eventually succumb to malaria.

In Malta, Photius became a protege of the American missionary Reverend Pliny Fisk who was in Greek territory at the time. In 1823, Reverend Fisk arranged for Photius and his friend Anastasios Karavelis (the son of the Greek priest in Malta, John Karavelis) to travel to the United States with Captain Dewing on the brig America where they would become missionaries. Both boys read modern Greek and Italian, and also converse in Maltese. Photius Kavasalis was 14 years of age when he arrived in Salem, Massachusetts on February 22, 1823.

In America, Photius received his education at the Foreign Mission School in Cornwall, Connecticut; Hopkins Academy in New Haven, Connecticut; Amherst College; and the Auburn, New York Theological Seminary where he studied under Reverend Lyman Beecher. Photius was ordained as a congregational minister and preached in Vermont for a while.

Photius – a naturalized U.S. citizen – was from 1842 to 1864 an active Chaplain in the United States Navy. His appointment to the navy chaplaincy was chiefly owing to the action of former President John Quincy Adams, then serving in the House of Representatives. Photius had first met John Quincy Adams in Boston, soon after his arrival in the United States. They subsequently met on several occasions when Photius was at Amherst. Photius and John Qunicy Adams had become close friends over the years. His name was officially changed to Photius Fisk by act of Congress in 1848.

Naval Chaplain Photius Fisk was a fierce abolitionist and part of the anti-slavery movement. In his view:

In his view, slavery was the sum of all abominations, the fountain-head of all social and political corruptions, and the primary source of untold wretchedness and misery. It was repugnant to his moral nature; and no consideration of social or official standing could restrain the free and unreserved expression of his principles. He openly denied the right of ownership in men, and denounced the whole system as a monstrous wrong against humanity.

Hodge, Lyman F. "Photius Fisk, a Biography." Boston, 1891, p. 61

In 1844, Chaplain Photius Fisk was serving on the USS Columbia in the Mediterranean. When they docked at Naples, Italy, he was granted a six-week leave of absence to visit Greece. He made his way to Hydra where he had found out that his aunt had passed away, but that her daughter was still alive. Finding his cousin in poverty, Photius assisted her financially as best as his means would allow. They spent some limited together, but he needed to get to Athens, then Malta to rendezvous with his ship.

The USS Columbia returned to the United States on December 30, 1844. He was then stationed in Washington, DC. In the spring of 1850, Chaplain Fisk was assigned sea duty aboard the frigate USS Raritan bound for the Pacific. The Raritan returned to Norfolk, Virginia on February 2, 1853. Photius was again granted a leave of absence and visited New York, New Haven, Boston, Salem, and other places.

He was then assigned to shore duty at the Naval Yard in Pensacola, Florida where he was met with great animosity since he was an abolitionist. His Sunday services at the chapel of the Pensacola navy yard were not well attended – typically one to three and seldom were there more than a half-dozen. In 1858, he left Pensacola and was ordered to return to the Department of the Navy in Washington, DC. Upon arrival in Washington DC, he was instructed to head to Boston and await orders. He was there for over two years waiting to return to active duty, but given his anti-slavery views he was not wanted in Washington or anywhere else. In the meantime, he had connected with other abolitionists, served the needs of the poor until 1868. In 1868, he retired with the rank of captain.

Photius Fisk continued his work helping the poor in Boston. He grew somewhat tired of city life and decided to buy a 36-acre farm in Franklin, Massachusetts. Although he did farm, Photius primarily used the farm as a rural retreat for his friends and also to feed and comfort the poor. Rather than sell the farm's produce, he would give it away. After two years, however, he wound up selling the farm. He returned to Boston and resumed the work of helping the poor.

In 1871, Photius left for Europe, first arriving in Liverpool. From there, he travelled to Belgium, Germany and Italy. From Brindisi, Italy he made his way to Greece visiting Corfu, Cephalonia, and Zakynthos – the birthplace of his friend and schoolmate Anastasios Karavelis. He continued on to Corinth, the island of Aegina and finally, Pireaus and Athens where he stayed for a few weeks. He then sailed to the island of Syros, where he re-united after more than 50 years with Anastasios Karavelis. Afterwards, Photius headed for Chios, Smyrna and Constantinople.

Photius returned to Athens and stayed there for a while. In the fall of 1871, he left Athens and travelled through Italy. In Naples, an Athenian persuaded Photius to return with back to Athens and spent the winter there. In December of 1871, he returned to Hydra once more. He visited his cousin once more, and financially assisted her again. By May of 1873, he had decided to return to the United States.

Back home in Boston, he returned to serving the needs of the poor. He also erected monuments in the memory of his fellow abolitionist friends as well as contribute to the Perkins Institute for the Blind. In 1880, made an additional contribution to the Perkins Institute and his friend Michael Anagnos of $500 in gold towards the publication of the history of Greece in embossed characters. In 1882, he donated a complete set of the Greek classics to Iowa College (now Grinnell College). He donated to Berea College in Kentucky and the Holley School at Lattsburgh, Virginia. Founded in 1855, Berea College to this day provides free education to students and is the first college in the Southern United States to be co-educational and racially integrated.

The Reverend Photius Kavasalis Fisk passed away on February 7, 1890 in Boston. Upon his death at the age of 83, he left a small bequest for the anti-slavery cause, some of which went to aid the family of John Brown, abolitionist.

The following article was published in the Boston Commonwealth (March 31, 1883)

Every one familiar with the streets of Boston for the last eight or ten years has frequently noticed, though perhaps not knowing the man, a short, slim, frail figure, moving rapidly along with quick, elastic step. It is that of a little old man, above three score and ten years, with nervous, gray eyes, thin face, sharp features, something between a saffron and a bronze complexion, and long, white locks, not hanging, but drawn up on either side over a head bald on top. This man is one of Boston's characters, known and loved by many, especially among the poor, lowly, and unfortunate. His name is Rev. Photius Fisk, and he has a strange history.

By nationality he is a Greek, and in him are combined all the traits and characteristics of the remarkable race from which he sprang. One of the islands of the Grecian Archipelago, Hylas, was his birthplace; but he did not live there many years, for reason that the plague visited his home, and, in its frightful devastations, swept away, in one week's time, both his parents, two brothers, and two sisters, leaving him the sole survivor of the family. In his distress, he fell into the hands of an uncle, Panages Maneses, and afterwards, at an uncertain age, – presumably in his teens, – was picked up at Malta by Rev. Pliny Fisk, a missionary from this State, who became deeply interested in him, gave him his own surname in place of Kavasales (his family name), and sent him to this coun try to be educated for missionary work.

Another Greek boy was shipped with him, and the two landed at Salem, and were placed in charge of a member of the American Board of Foreign Missions, Rev. Dr. Cornelius. They were lionized (or "monkeyized," as Mr. Fisk would now say) in religious circles for some time, and the ministers exhibited them in order to induce contributions for missionary purposes. A little while later he was sent to the Cornwall Mission School in Connecticut, where he studied for a time, and then left it for the Hopkins Academy, in New Haven. He rather lost favor with the Missionary Board by run ning away twice, – once from each of these schools, – and finally went back to Malta; but there he found life dull and lonesome after his experiences in Connecticut, and soon resolved to return. Having but little money, he promised the captain of a vessel that, if he would take him to America, friends there would pay him for it. The vessel stopped at Martinique on its trip, and there for the first time young Photius met face to face the institution of slavery, the horrors of which so moved his pity that from that time forth he was a devoted Abolitionist, the chief interest of his life center ing thereafter on the anti – slavery cause.

Arriving in America, he began another educational career, paying the expense by his own work, and after studying in sectarian colleges in New York City and Auburn, where he became familiar with several languages, he entered the Congregational ministry. His first settlement was in Halifax, Vermont; but his Grecian constitution did not harmonize with the rigorous climate, and he sought a more congenial field of pastoral work. Moreover, his association with Abolitionists had not helped him in his aspirations for success in the pulpit, though that influence was instrumental in securing him a position which permanently relieved him of all pecuniary care. At the solicitation of Joshua R. Giddings, John Quincy Adams, and Gerritt Smith, he was appointed chaplain in the United States Navy in 1842, and served actively in that capacity at various naval stations and on the seas until ten or twelve years ago, when he was placed on the retired list, since which time he has made Boston his home. Being a man of inexpensive habits, and few calls being made upon his generous nature while at sea, he accumulated during that time a fortune of from $30,000 to $40,000, most of which is now invested in government bonds. He now draws the income of this sum in addition to a salary of $2,175, a condition of comparative opulence for a single man with no relative dependent upon him, giving scope for the exercise of Mr. Fisk's distinguishing characteristic, a most beautiful benevolence.

The philanthropic instincts of the man are something extraordinary. He lives with excessive simplicity in a suite of four rooms on the fourth floor of a house in Tremont Place, taking meals that consist of next to nothing at all at restaurants. All that is left of his income after paying for these necessaries, and moder ately gratifying a love of art and music that possesses him, he devotes each year to charities of all sorts. For many years the anti – slavery cause was the chief object of his giving, and even since its triumph the interest of the negroes and their champions have been largely his peculiar care. Besides contributing largely to the burial expenses of many prominent Abolitionists who died in poverty, he has reared no less than four monu ments to men who did brave deeds for freedom. One of these is Captain Dryton's, in New Bedford, and another – the most noted of all – is that marking the grave of Captain Jonathan Walker, the 'Man with the Branded Hand,' at the unveiling of which, in Muskegon, Michigan, August 1, 1878, Pillsbury delivered an eloquent address. He has very materially aided many other causes, giving liberally at times to the women suffragists, the free religionists, and the temperance reformers. But he is moved no less by the sufferings of individuals than by the wrongs of classes, and many are the beneficiaries who, in distress, have found in him a savior. Appalling disasters, too, call with equal effect upon his sympathetic nature. Being in Naples at the time of the great Chicago fire, he cabled to the custodian of his funds in Boston, at an expense of twenty dollars, to act for him liberally in subscribing for the relief of the suffering, and sent a similar message from Malta on receiving news of the subsequent Boston fire. No longer ago than last Thursday morning he responded readily to a call in behalf of the sufferers by the recent inundations in Holland.

James Vincent, Sr. wrote the following tribute in 1886:

[Photius] had seen a good deal of the world and with it, Slavery. He hated it. He could not keep it out of the pulpit, and for that reason probably he was what we should call in these days, "boycotted" by the Christian, ministry. …

But here is the point I want to bring out, or one of them; he was in heart and soul, and is today, in deep sympathy with ail that goes to alleviate the wrongs of humanity, and I judge from the frequent connection of his name with Liberal or Free Thought enterprises, that he, like others I could name, preferred to conduct his own education at his own cost, because he would rather do that and enjoy freedom to conduct his investigations. …

Photius Fisk still lives, and the object of this letter is, to not permit so generous, and devoted a lover of his. fellow man, to pass away with out some additional tribute of respect being shown, to him, and to cause his name wherever it shall be seen or heard, to be heard with that honor and love which all generous men and women feel towards those, whether dead or living, who have lived to make the world better and mankind happier.

James Vincent, Sr.

Source: Vincent, James. "Rev. Photius Fisk." The American Nonconformist and Kansas Industrial Liberator [Winfield, Kansas], 11 November 1886, p. 2.

Biographer Lyman F. Hodge, eulogizes Photius Fisk:

After an illness of nearly six weeks, in the early hours of the evening of February 4, 1890, he sank into a state of coma, in which he lay unconscious until the morning of the 8th, when, his earthly work being finished, he bade adieu to earthly scenes, and entered into his eternal rest.

Thus passed away one of the few unselfish benefactors of mankind, who lived but to deliver the enslaved from bondage, to redress the wrongs imposed upon the weak by arbitrary power, to bestow the bounty of a generous hand upon the needy, to instruct and elevate the lowly in the scale of intellectual and moral culture, and to scatter blessings in the pathway of all classes of his fellow-men, but more especially the pathway of the poor and the oppressed.

And, therefore, we may contemplate the character of Photius Fisk as we survey the grandeur of some noble structure – strong, majestic, beautiful, symmetrical in its proportions, faultless in its harmony of details, and environed with delightful scenery, – with enraptured admiration of the beauty of its outlines and the blended harmony of its component parts.

The Preface of Photius Fisk, a Biography by Lyman F. Hodge, is as follows

To perpetuate the memory of a life devoted to the cause of universal freedom from the bonds of slavery and tyranny, and to unselfish acts of generosity and charity, this book is written. The example of a life so worthy of the emulation of mankind, indeed, may pass from the remembrance of the race, but the results that spring from noble deeds flow onward, like a rivulet, forever. – The man with all his acts of charity may be forgotten, but the good resulting from his life endeavors, will live on in the improved conditions of the social State.

That such examples may be multiplied, and happiness thereby increased, is the earnest wish of THE AUTHOR.




Hodge, Lyman F. Photius Fisk, a Biography. Boston, 1891.