A Saint’s Subjects

Author: Sandi Gerjevic
Date Published: 02/01/1999

Kokiak Monks Remain Devout Group Despite Legitimacy Questions

This is the second of two parts examining the monks of the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood. TODAY: Who are they and what is their mission?

SUNDAY: Following a defrocked leader: A visit to Spruce Island

At Monk’s Rock, an Orthodox bookstore and chapel, the air was thick with incense. Evening services had ended, and Father Paisius sat in the brightly painted chapel, explaining the iconostasis, a traditional altar partition in an Orthodox church. Some think it separates the priest from the parishioners, but that’s wrong, Paisius said. The iconostasis symbolizes the fall of man. It separates us from God. What’s behind it is a mystery, he said. One we’re meant to ponder.

The richness of Orthodoxy is a portion of what attracted Paisius to the ancient religion. He’s a deacon who came to Kodiak last spring to begin a boarding school for teenage boys. The school is linked with the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, a monastic organization based in Platina, Calif. Its mission is to provide religious and classical education for young men ages 15 to 18, as well as teaching them a trade. St. Innocent’s Academy currently has 10 students, nine of them from the Lower 48. But last summer, Paisius was in turmoil. The school remained unfunded, and he questioned his decision to give up a stable life in Santa Rosa, Calif., to bring his wife and two young daughters north to an island, where they lived in a ”fisherman’s shack,” while he waited to head a school that didn’t exist.

”There are nights when I do bite my nails,” he said.

Paisius also is known as Robert DeLucia. He’s originally from Boston and grew up in the Catholic mainstream. Like many young people in the 1960s, DeLucia questioned the status quo, espousing a distaste for greed and materialism. He gravitated toward a hippie culture, but eventually he found direction in a new religious movement called The Holy Order of MANS.

MANS is a secret acronym known only to members. According to a book on the order by religious scholar Phillip Lucas, MANS was founded in 1967 by a middle-aged engineer named Earl Blighton. Some believed Blighton was the reincarnation of the apostle Paul. In trances, he claimed to be a shaman, receiving the direct word of Christ.

MANS borrowed from Asian spirituality and Catholicism and was known for its social work and missionary outreach. Members took vows of poverty, yet as a group, MANS prospered. It founded a chain of restaurants called Brother Juniper’s and shelters for homeless families called Raphael House. Based at a rural property near Forestville, Calif., called ”The Ranch,” the order targeted college towns nationwide, and by 1977 its membership peaked at 3,000, with nearly 70 mission stations in 49 states. After the mass suicides in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978, cult-watch groups began to monitor MANS.

Blighton died in 1974, and MANS languished until a disciple, Vincent Rossi, led the order toward Eastern Orthodoxy. After stumbling on the teachings of Gleb Podmoshensky, a defrocked priest and founder of the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, he asked him to speak to MANS groups around the country.

”When (Podmoshensky) came in contact with the Holy Order of MANS in 1983, he provided the strong charismatic presence and definite direction which the group so desperately needed,” wrote Siobhan Houston, who has researched MANS extensively.

The invitation resulted in a mass conversion of MANS to Orthodoxy in 1988. In a single service, Podmoshensky baptized 750 members of the order. More than 200 took vows as priests, brothers and sisters. As Orthodox fundamentalists, members gradually affected the look of 19th-century Russian peasants. Subsequently, Rossi had Blighton’s writings recalled and bulldozed into the Nevada desert near Reno, as a firm break from the order’s New Age beginnings. MANS re-emerged as Christ the Savior Brotherhood.

Through an alliance with Podmoshensky, MANS had made ”a pilgrimage to the heart of Christianity,” Rossi said. It also had found a way to link itself with Orthodoxy without relinquishing its assets. At the time, the order was worth was about $14 million, according to Paul Brown, a former MANS member who left the group in disillusionment. Brown was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1992.

Some who stayed with the order were unwilling to abandon long-term friendships and associations, not to mention their financial dependence on the communal group. Others resisted Orthodoxy, a religion that meant renouncing MANS’ female priests and returning to centuries-old fundamentals, such as an all-male hierarchy. Lucas, the author, estimates MANS has dwindled to 200 or fewer members today, with 10 to 15 parishes. Overshadowed by Podmoshensky, Rossi resigned from the order in 1991, reportedly receiving $250,000 in severance. According to Lucas, ”The Ranch” in Forestville has been ceded to Podmoshensky.

The reordered MANS now contributes to the support of its parishes, the St. Herman of Alaska monasteries, missionary outreach and Raphael Houses in California and Oregon. In Kodiak, Monk’s Rock, a missionary outreach, is subsidized by the Valaam Society of America, a joint venture of the reformed MANS and Podmoshensky’s group. It helps support 50 or so bookstore/coffeehouses around the world, like the Catacomb bookstore in Lincoln, Neb., and the Desert Wisdom coffeehouse in Kansas City, Mo.

Faddish and late-night, the coffeehouses are the perfect way to attract young people to Orthodoxy.

Herman’s hermits

In 1983, Podmoshensky’s followers established a monastic presence on Spruce Island, near Kodiak. Once home to Alaska’s St. Herman, the island is sacred to Orthodox Christians.

Over the years, Nick Pestrikoff, 63, a commercial fisherman from the village of Ouzinkie, has hauled lumber for the monks, ferried them in his boat and loaned them his truck.

”I took a liking to them right away,” he said. ”I decided I’d help them get started.”

The decision by Ouzinkie Native Corp. to evict the monks from Spruce Island last May was controversial, Pestrikoff said. He’s not alone in thinking the group has a historical right to Monk’s Lagoon because of its connections to Father Gerasim, a Russian monk Podmoshensky befriended on the island in the 1960s.

”I believe in them,” Pestrikoff said, calling the monks ”marvelous people.”

But in an open letter last year, the Rev. Michael Oleksa of Kodiak wrote: ”The question is not whether the monks or priests sent to Kodiak are ‘nice men’ but whether Gleb Podmoshensky has any legitimate authority to assign them here at all. . .”

Oleksa accused the monks of overstepping their bounds at Monk’s Lagoon. ”When asked whose land it is, they have reportedly replied ‘God’s’ and one can suppose by this they really mean ‘ours.’ ”

In some Orthodox circles, the young monks of Spruce Island are mocked as ”Herman’s hermits.” Their garments have been called costumes. In many cases, they have little formal religious training. Despite the monks’ willingness to live an austere life, critics have questioned the depth and sincerity of their beliefs. The same questions haunt the MANS converts.

”It’s not a healthy Orthodox environment,” said the Rev. Victor Sokolov of Holy Trinity Cathedral in San Francisco. He called Podmoshensky’s following a cult devoted not to the church, but to Podmoshensky, a ”self-serving leader” with excessive personal control over the lives of converts.

”He tries his best to isolate the Brotherhood from the main Orthodoxy,” Sokolov said. ”It’s absolutely an un-Orthodox thing. . .he is confusing people, misguiding people.”

Jim Forest, of the St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, has followed the group closely, since Podmoshensky has followers in his area.

”Certainly the way (Podmoshensky) rules the lives of so many people is disturbing and not only to Orthodox clergy,” Forest wrote. ”One of the hallmarks of a cult is the way in which everything centers on a certain leader and obedience to his will.”

According to Sokolov, the church has invited the converts into its fold, provided their leader retire. In Portland, Ore., Father George Gray of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church said his parish recently initiated about 125 MANS converts and would welcome others, with stipulations.

In his book, Lucas characterized new religious movements like MANS as fluid and chameleon-like, shaped by their times, subject to personalities. To call them cults may oversimplify their complex dynamics, he wrote. Paul Brown, the former MANS member who defected, described his fellow members as sincere but misguided people.

”Most of the people in the order were not the brightest beings on Earth,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. ”Many of us came into the order damaged by drugs or with some other emotional needs. We weren’t the cream of the crop, but we were basically decent people trying to get our lives together and, in our own way, serve God.”

On the Alaska level, monk John Marler and his brethren dismissed criticism of Podmoshensky, maintaining his schism with the mainstream church in 1989 was political, nothing more. The Orthodox church is a maze of jurisdictions with a history of splintered factions, he said.

As for tensions between the monks and the local parish, there’s a precedent for that, too. Even St. Herman was at odds with the church in his time. During the monk’s final decade on Spruce Island, a young parish priest attacked his reputation, accusing Herman of living a degraded life and even having the old man’s cell searched for hidden gold. If a saint could overcome opposition, so can the monks.

After all, St. Herman predicted a monastery one day would stand on Spruce Island, a holy place where the mind stills, said one monk, like a bowl of water left to settle. Where in 1995, the brothers labored to raise a humble kneeling chapel that stands yet, dank and abandoned. Inside, a plate of molded bread lies on a mildewed satin coverlet trimmed in gold braid. What light enters illuminates oily blues and golds, elaborate scenes depicting the life of Herman.

Here, these ”desert dwellers” of Spruce Island inscribed their most solemn creed: ”Flee the vanity of this world, O ye lovers of silence and righteousness.”

Daily News reporter Sandi Gerjevic can be reached at sgerjevic@adn.com.