A small town’s silence

Author: Jeff Guinn
Date Published: 04/25/1999

For years, residents of the Hill Country hamlet of Blanco whispered about a few of the monks at Christ of the Hills Monastery, but the miracle of the Weeping Virgin caused them to look the other way.

BLANCO – Blanco’s 1,300 residents are fiercely protective of their Hill Country hamlet’s reputation. They want outsiders to know about their exemplary public schools, the churches that form the bedrock of Blanco’s limited social life, and, most of all, about its antique stores and notion shops and motels with plenty of rooms available at reasonable prices.

What they don’t want to talk about, and don’t want the world to hear about, is what happened on Jan. 9. That’s when four law officers from Llano arrived at Christ of the Hills Monastery five miles outside Blanco. They came to arrest two monks accused of indecency with a child, a felony that, if proven in court, could send them to jail for up to 10 years. The monks had already been suspended from priestly duties two months earlier by the monastery’s parent Russian Orthodox Church. Fifty-four-year-old Father Benedict, the monastery’s founder, wasn’t there when the officers arrived to arrest him; he’d moved to Colorado. Father Jeremiah, 37, was placed in the Blanco County Jail. The trial is set for Aug. 2. in Blanco County.

When the story spread, and when a judge imposed a widespread gag order to head off anticipated requests by the defense for a change of venue, the townspeople were struck with a collective amnesia.

“We’re a really strong Christian community,” says Blanco Mayor Louann Hayes, whose full-time job is with Blanco’s United Methodist Church. Although the monastery moved to its hilltop perch in 1980, Hayes says she knows “absolutely nothing about it; that’s not my province. ”

County Commissioner Dorsey Lee Smith echoes Hayes’ comment. “Don’t ask me about those monks because I don’t know anything,” he insists.

But it turns out he does. Many people in Blanco do. But any suspicion of monkish wrongdoing paled beside the other thing that was crystal clear – that Christ of the Hills monastery, with its miraculous “Weeping Virgin” icon, brought outsiders with money to spend into an out-of-the-way town with a shaky economy.

One longtime resident finally rolls her eyes, sighs and blurts, “Look, it was a situation where we all said to ourselves for a long time, ‘I don’t know exactly what’s going on out there, but I probably can’t stop it anyway, and besides they’re bringing money into the community. ‘ There were always rumors. But what good would it have done to find out they were true? ”

Father Benedict, one of the accused monks, is also known as Sam Greene. The judge’s gag order prevents investigators in the indecency case from sharing their knowledge of Greene’s colorful background – Henry Nolan of the district attorney’s office has perfected the words, “No comment,” and he notes the gag order muzzles “anyone involved in any aspect of the case” at peril of fine and/or imprisonment. But even a cursory check of old newspaper articles and court documents indicates that this isn’t the first time Greene has fronted a religious community and run afoul of the law.

In the early ’60s, Greene, who has said he was born in New York and spent time in monasteries in the United States and Europe, was associated with the Espada Mission, a Roman Catholic program in San Antonio. Later, Greene operated Galilee Ranch in San Antonio, coordinating with the Bexar County Juvenile Court, which placed troubled youngsters in the facility. According to old newspaper articles, Greene and the kids at Galilee lived by selling vegetables they raised.

His next incarnation is public knowledge. Greene became one of San Antonio’s and the Hill Country’s best-known real estate wheeler-dealers. His ads saturated area airwaves. He made land deals all around Blanco County.

“Sure, I knew Mr. Greene before he became a bishop,” chuckles Roy Byars, who has lived in Blanco for 80 years and served as the city’s postmaster. “He was around Blanco all the time. ”

In 1972, Greene formed a group known as Ecumenical Monks Inc., which built a monastery near Boerne in the Hill Country. They named their site Christ of the Hills, and Greene said the monastery was associated with the Greek Orthodox Church. Court records show that the San Antonio Regional Trade Association sued Greene and Ecumenical Monks for failure to pay for goods received. In 1980, the monastery was moved to a rugged 105-acre site outside Blanco; Father Pangratios, the monastery’s spokesman, says the relocation occurred because “we wanted to get a little more out in the country. ”

The number of monks at Christ of the Hills varied, usually between 15 and 20. The monks supported themselves by selling souvenirs – incense they made themselves, honey from bees they raised, church icons they bought from outside artisans. Wearing their rough black robes, they made daily trips to Blanco for supplies and to send and receive mail.

“They sure sent out a lot and got a lot,” Byars recalls. “It was from all over the country. ”

Some newspapers and magazines wrote stories about the monastery.

In 1984, Eastern Orthodox clergy in San Antonio publicly denied that Sam Greene and his monks had any affiliation with their church, despite Greene’s claim to the contrary. Greene replied it was a matter of internal church debate, but he soon began listing Christ of the Hills as a Russian Orthodox monastery.

The ’80s were hard on Blanco. The town suffered then, as it still does, from an acute water shortage that limits its ability to support any new businesses or residents. The Blanco River is the city’s only supply; it does not have access to the Edwards Aquifer.

At the same time, Hill Country tourists bypassed Blanco for nearby Fredricksburg and Kerrville and Blanco arch-enemy Johnson City, whose leadership Blanco residents still resent for “stealing” the county seat from them in the 1880s. Blanco residents couldn’t make a living farming; the harsh caliche soil is only suited to growing rattlesnakes. Some residents commuted to jobs in San Antonio or Austin. The area was in economic decline. Except for visitors to a small state park, anyone pausing in Blanco was just stopping for gas or a quick meal; the town was not a destination in the sense that outsiders came, stayed awhile, and spent a lot of money. “It got difficult,” Byars says.

The monks were always around, and, according to Byars and others, Sam Greene had a regular spot at the only bar in town. But Christ of the Hills wasn’t a key element in Blanco’s stuttering economy until the Virgin cried.

It was on May 7, 1985, Father Pangratios, a monk at Christ of the Hills, says that he discovered a Virgin Mary icon in the monastery chapel weeping tears of myrrh, an aromatic oil.

“We reported this to church authorities and committees of several Orthodox priests and bishops came at different times to examine the icon,” he says. “One even camped out in the chapel overnight. There had been other rare instances of an icon weeping, so I knew it was something possible. ”

Christ of the Hills began advertising its miracle icon, sopping up myrrh-tears on cotton balls and, Pangratios says, giving them away to whoever wanted one.

“As word spread, we sometimes had 1,000 visitors a day,” he says.

The story was widely reported. Many of the people who came stayed overnight in Blanco. The town had become a destination, not a place to drive through along Texas 281.

“A lot of people came with sick relatives they wanted to have cured by the miracle,” recalls David Leese, a proud fourth-generation Blanco resident.

Brochures touting the icon – brochures printed by the monastery on their private press – appeared in almost every Blanco shop and office, including City Hall. The monastery is featured on Blanco’s Web site.

Along with more tourists, though, rumors about possible goings-on at the monastery blanketed the town. After initially claiming not to know anything at all about the monks, several residents did recall some of the gossip.

The rumors are typical small-town fare, running the gamut from sexual hijinks to questionable personal hygiene. And, always, there were young boys supposedly living there. In small-town Blanco, everybody talks about everybody else. But few residents say they ever drove out to the monastery to visit and see for themselves.

“Besides, out here in the country we really don’t know much about that sort of thing,” Smith says. “You know, with boys and all. ”

Asked about the rumors, Pangratios responds that “in small towns, people say things. Please don’t judge Blanco by a few who make accusations. Most of the people there are kind and loving. ”

Last year, the monastery announced in one of its mailings that it had been certified by the Russian Orthodox Church to operate a parochial school for potential monks.

“There is a three-year period when it is customary to see if the lifestyle is appropriate,” Pangratios explains.

When Greene – now identifying himself as Bishop Benedict – wasn’t having a few drinks in Blanco, he and other Christ of the Hills monks traveled extensively. One 1990 monthly newsletter from the seminary noted recent trips to Russia and Alaska. State records show real estate companies operating from the same post office box address as the monastery; Pangratios explains that one is set up to support Greene’s aging mother, who lives on the monastery grounds.

Then, in January, Benedict and Jeremiah – originally named Jonathan Hitt, and identified by several town residents as Greene’s most frequent companion on forays into Blanco – were charged with three counts each of indecency with a child.

Greene and Hitt were already in trouble with the Russian Orthodox Church.

Lin Hughes, an Austin lawyer representing the church, confirmed the two had been suspended “from their priestly duties” in November 1998. The suspensions “had to do with complaints with the way the monastery was being run, though I can’t go into specifics,” Hughes says, adding the complaints were not “exactly” linked to the indecency charges.

Suspensions, Hughes says, “are standard operating procedure with any kind of problems, even lesser ones than someone being criminally indicted. We have suspended our own internal investigation pending the outcome of the criminal case, so the individuals can concentrate on their defense there. ”

The gag order restricts much knowledge of the specific indecency charges, and courts and the media routinely do not reveal the identities of children involved in such cases. The boy in question was 13 when the alleged indecencies occurred. Court records indicate the child claims Greene and Hitt asked him to touch their genitals three times during the summer of 1997. The trial date is set so the boy can be available for testimony during his summer break from school.

By the time officers came to arrest Greene and Hitt, Greene was living in Colorado. Pangratios says Greene, who weighs well over 300 pounds, was forced to move “to a more conducive climate” by ongoing, severe cardiac problems. He was also injured in a car crash while in Colorado and has since developed colon disease, Pangratios adds. When Greene surrendered himself to the Llano court, he wore a portable oxygen mask and tank. He and Hitt are still living on the monastery grounds.

So are an additional 13 monks ranging in age from “16 or 17 to 98,” Pangratios says.

But the two have their supporters, including parents whose children have come to Christ of the Hills.

Dr. William Penn, a professor of ethics at St. Edwards University in Austin, co-signed Greene’s $ 50,000 bond. Penn’s son, who is a full-fledged priest at the monastery, first moved there at age 14 as a novice.

“The monastery is a very special ministry,” Penn told the Austin American-Statesman.

Visitors have to follow two narrow country roads to reach Christ of the Hills. The entrance to the monastery is a long, unpaved trail up a steep hill. A sign warns visitors to dress modestly (no shorts) and speak softly.

There is a small parking area at the top of the hill. A few surrounding buildings are pristine brick; others are slapped together from cheap wood. Two dogs, one large and white, the other a tiny, playful puppy, romp about the grounds. Several silent, black-robed monks perform various tasks – sawing wood, raking pathways, fiddling with a drip-irrigation system in a sparse garden. In the middle of one path is the decaying corpse of some unidentifiable animal; its fangs and exposed rib bones glisten whitely in the hot morning sun.

Father Pangratios, slender of frame and wispy of beard, hurries up to greet visitors. He apologizes for the rough setting – “Monks should not have too much luxury” – and notes everyone at the monastery arose at 3:30 a.m. for morning prayer. At 10 a.m., they’re well into their day.

“We mostly live hand to mouth,” he explains. “We each have some regular work assignments and other tasks are assigned as needs come up. ”

Pangratios is eager to cite the gag order – “I really can’t talk about anything to do with the unpleasantness” – and even more eager to offer a tour of selected buildings. The weeping icon, housed in a special chapel, comes first.

Though their numbers have declined a bit since the mid-’80s and the first news of the miraculous icon, Pangratios says a steady stream of visitors – “believers and those who are just curious” – continues making the 15-minute drive from Blanco to the monastery.

But during a 90-minute visit on a Tuesday morning, no other cars arrive at the main compound.

Pangratios eventually says goodbye, adds a gentle “God bless you,” and pointedly notes he believes the Lord will put fairness into the hearts of all who come to visit Christ of the Hills.

“Call if you need more information,” he concludes, and gives a private number.

The timing of what Pangratios calls “the unpleasantness” couldn’t be worse for Blanco. Recently, the town’s chamber of commerce and its separate merchant’s association ended months of feuding and developed a joint new marketing plan. Money has been raised; a new billboard touting the town is up beside the highway, and Blanco residents are proud enough to brag about it.

“Everybody is working together to get the word about the town out,” says Norm Gaida, who owns the Swiss Lodge motel. “Obviously, we want those tourists. ”

Blanco is getting lots of media mentions in stories about the allegations at Christ of the Hills. Residents questioned by reporters are torn. They don’t want to associate themselves or their town with alleged sex abuse of children, but they do want people to keep coming to see the weeping icon. So they compromise by saying they know nothing personally about the monks or the monastery, while prominently displaying Christ of the Hills brochures in their shops and city offices.

One by one, often over iced tea or coffee in The Bowling Alley, Blanco’s mom-and-pop eatery, they follow their “don’t know anything” rote with information about what they do know.

Smith, for example, says he knows about a monastery furniture-making operation, dogs he claims they breed and sell, and that somebody from a Russian Orthodox church in New York came down recently on some investigation. As a member of the local tax board, Smith has even inspected the monastery himself.

In no instance does it appear that anyone in Blanco had solid evidence of malfeasance at Christ of the Hills. But they had plenty of suspicions, which, if confirmed, could have killed the cash cow.

Father Pangratios says the monastery will continue to operate no matter how the trials of Benedict and Jeremiah turn out. The Virgin icon weeps daily, its tears interpreted by the monks as a sign of sadness at the wickedness of the world. Father Benedict and Father Jeremiah await their days in court.

In downtown Blanco, in the few shops around a square dominated by a courthouse that’s been empty for a century, business owners await tourists. Mayor Hayes, Commissioner Smith and the rest continue to tout the town’s excellent public schools and tightly knit church community. A prominent sign in the window of the police station suggests, “Tell Your Minister. ”

And, in Austin, attorney Lin Hughes concludes, “It’s going to be very unfortunate if the allegations are true, and very unfortunate if they aren’t. ”

Jeff Guinn, (817) 390-7720
jguinn@star-telegram.com