A test of faith for monk’s supporters

Author: Dick Stanley and Dave Harmon
Date Published: 02/07/1999

The two callings of Father Benedict: Accused monk has met profound trust and suspicion on spiritual path

BLANCO — Samuel Alexander Greene Jr. has always had a knack for gaining people’s trust.

When he came to Texas more than 30 years ago, he persuaded the parents of wayward young men from as far away as Florida to send their children to his rustic religious commune east of San Antonio.

When he moved on to real estate as S.A. ”Sam” Greene, he hawked Hill Country land in low-budget, corny television ads.

But Greene was also a spiritual seeker, acquiring and shedding Christian religious associations, from Catholicism to Russian Orthodoxy.

While he turned rural land into subdivisions, he pursued a dream of monastic life. Others followed his lead, and Christ of the Hills, a Russian Orthodox monastery, soon rose on a rocky hilltop near Blanco.

Greene struck some of the people he met along the way as a self-promoter in a monk’s robes. But friends and followers see the man they call Father Benedict as a sincere spiritual guide whose life is dedicated to Christ.

Now their trust is being tested. Greene, 54, and Jonathan Irving Hitt , 37, a priest and monk who is called Father Jeremiah, stand accused of indecency with a child, a 13-year-old former novice, or candidate, monk.

Last week, Greene, a big man in black robes with a white beard and long hair, shuffled slowly into the Blanco County courthouse, aided by other monks wheeling an oxygen bottle. Monastery officials said Greene needs the oxygen for worsening congestive heart failure, a potentially fatal disease that causes fatigue and shortness of breath.

Greene and Hitt pleaded not guilty to the charges, second-degree felonies that carry punishments of up to 20 years in prison and fines up to $10,000 each.

Their indictments allege that each man caused the 13-year-old boy, on three separate occasions in the summer of 1997, to touch their genitals ”to arouse and gratify their sexual desire.” Authorities have offered no additional details, and the accused can’t discuss the charges because the judge in the case has imposed a gag order.

Greene, who was recently injured in an auto accident in Colorado, was not well enough to be interviewed about his past, nor did he care to discuss it, said Father Pangratios , a monastery spokesman.

”In the time prior to becoming Orthodox monks, that time in the world, generally we don’t talk about that,” Father Pangratios said.

He said Hitt, the monastery’s financial officer, also declined to talk about himself. Friends said Hitt grew up in Austin, graduating from the University of Texas with a master’s degree in education. He also obtained a master’s of divinity from the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, but soon converted to Russian Orthodoxy.

”He’s a very caring person,” Michael Kinsey of Austin said about Hitt, his former seminary classmate. ”The charges don’t make any sense.”

A monk’s life

When they join Christ of the Hills, novices are called brother and take on religious names. They rise before dawn each day with the monks and follow a rigid schedule, with set times for prayer, worship, study and work. The monks believe their prayers keep the world intact.

Some novices, like the boy who has accused Greene and Hitt, also get to travel. The accuser was among novices and monks who visited Greece and Romania in 1997, according to Steve Brown, a Tacoma, Wash., newspaperman whose 16-year-old son is a novice at Christ of the Hills.

When novices take their vows at age 18, they join the monks in renouncing their pasts for new lives of contemplation and poverty.

Greene, who was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., grew up in the Catholic mainstream. He has told friends that he attended Catholic schools in New Jersey and entered a monastery in Vermont when he was 17.

Greene has said that he later studied in Rome and Jerusalem and in the mid-1960s took vows as a Benedictine monk.

A few years later, Greene was running a bare-bones home for wayward boys called Galilee Ranch, near La Vernia in Wilson County, east of San Antonio.

A 1969 newspaper article described how Greene and six teen-age boys lived on 121 acres that a San Antonio dentist leased to Greene for $1 a year, surviving by selling radishes and peanuts that they grew.

The story described how Greene, who said that in addition to being a monk he had a master’s degree in psychology, enrolled the boys in school, listened to their problems and helped them straighten out their lives.

In 1972, Greene formed a group of Christian clergy and laymen, Ecumenical Monks Inc., to build a monastery. They started in San Antonio, but soon moved to the Hill Country, near Boerne in Kendall County, where they named their monastery Christ of the Hills.

Within a few years, Greene was better known to San Antonians as S.A. ”Sam” Greene, a salesman for a now-defunct company called Lakecroft . He appeared in TV ads featuring, among other things, men from Mars, to help sell land all over the Hill Country.

”He was quite an entrepreneur and promoter,” said Ed Mergele, a 73-year-old former Kendall County commissioner. ”A character, that’s what I’d call him, a character.”

G.G. Gale, a real estate broker and developer who worked with Greene in the late 1970s, said Greene was like no other real estate salesman he’d ever seen, turning ranch land into housing by day and wearing his monk garb at night.

By 1980, Christ of the Hills had moved again, to ranch land a few miles southwest of Blanco. It was no longer ecumenical but aligned with Eastern Orthodoxy.

”We kept moving farther out into the country,” said Father Pangratios, a Kerrville native who converted to orthodoxy in 1981. ”This property was perfect, (offering) monastic solitude and silence.”

None of the Texas counties where Greene has lived — Wilson, Bexar, Kendall, and Blanco — has any record of him being convicted of a crime.

At the monastery

The silence is usually complete on the monastery’s dusty hilltop, crowned by white wooden crosses and onion domes atop rustic shrines and chapels, except when jets from San Antonio’s three Air Force bases occasionally roar overhead.

Greene’s house is one of the largest at Christ of the Hills, with a satellite TV dish in back. His 82-year-old mother, Caroline, lives on the property in a mobile home her son bought for her after what’s suspected to be Alzheimer’s disease and a stroke left her unable to care for herself. Greene and the other monks take care of her.

The 15 novices, monks and priests, and one nun, are all converts to Russian Orthodoxy. They are part of a trend of more than a decade, in which thousands of Americans, particularly members of evangelical Protestant churches, have converted to Eastern Orthodox religions.

Scholars say the lure involves orthodoxy’s majestic rituals, which use incense and icons of Jesus, Mary and saints, and its historical position near the roots of Christianity. Orthodoxy, in 1054, split off from the what is now known as the Roman Catholic Church over the pope’s claim to have authority over all Christians.

”In some ways (conversion) may be easier for people who were raised Catholic,” said William Y. Penn, a professor of ethics at St. Edward’s University in Austin who converted to orthodoxy. ”It’s the same basic theme for a lot of us who are in love with the traditions and practices of ancient Christianity.”

Before its Russian Orthodox incarnation, Christ of the Hills was aligned with an obscure branch called Old Calendar Orthodoxy. In 1983, Greene announced he had been named the archbishop of the Holy Orthodox Apostolic Church in America, which he said was Eastern Orthodox.

Orthodox clergy then in the area said they had never heard of Greene’s church. But Christ of the Hills soon was mainstream, joining the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, according to diocese officials in New York.

These days, in mailings, e-mail, newspaper ads and on a Web site, the monastery promotes a ”weeping icon,” a painted likeness of the Virgin Mary that, according to the monks, began weeping myrrh in 1985. The monks claim those anointed with the myrrh, a fragrant oil mentioned in the Bible, have been miraculously cured of cancer, blindness and other illnesses.

”I feel like it’s real,” said Edna Reinhard , who visited the monastery last week with her husband, Gene. The Catholic retirees from Indianapolis were visiting their son in San Antonio and drove over to take the free icon tour.

Not free are the beautiful religious items at the monastery’s gift shop, many of them imported from Greece and Russia. Ranging from inexpensive icon refrigerator magnets to $225 hand-painted eggs, the items purchased help pay the monastery’s bills.

Late last year, promotion of the weeping icon finally drew more than visitors. It spurred the New York diocese to suspend Greene and Hitt from their priestly duties, pending an investigation of the monastery’s management. But, to the diocese, the criminal charges take precedence.

”We don’t want to interfere in the criminal investigation, or the ability of the two men to prepare their defense, (so) our investigation is currently suspended,” said Lin Hughes, an Austin lawyer handling the investigation for the diocese.

The criminal charges have ignited criticism of Christ of the Hills. At an Eastern Orthodox monastery in South Austin, the criticism focuses on the monastery’s marketing of the weeping icon and its practice of accepting minor children as novices.

As for ”the alleged weeping icon,” said Father Aiden Keller of St. Hilarion monastery on South Second Street, ”we feel that such a thing should not be part of a publicity campaign, (and) we’ve never had a novice under the age of 20. We strongly disagree with the practice of taking novices at a young age.”

But two of the hundreds of parents said to have entrusted their minor children to Christ of the Hills over the years say they still have faith in Greene, Hitt and the monastery.

For Penn, whose son is a Christ of the Hills monk who began there as a 14-year-old novice, the hilltop sanctuary is a place where miraculous cures are performed.

”The monastery is a very special ministry,” said Penn, who cosigned Greene’s and Hitt’s surety bonds releasing them from jail.

Brown said his 16-year-old son has never hinted of any sexual activity at the monastery.

”Our son has never had any problem, period,” Brown said. ”If he thought (the charges) were true, he would be gone.”

In Blanco, meanwhile, where Baptists and Methodists predominate, some of the about 1,500 residents decline to speak of their monk neighbors. Many who will talk decline to give their names.

Although some consider the weeping icon a fraud, others say the hundreds of visitors it draws are an economic blessing to the little town.

”They bring a lot of people in from all parts of the country,” said store owner Don Hoskins.

You may contact Dick Stanley at dstanley@statesman.com or 445-3629 or Dave Harmon at dharmon@statesman.com or 445-3645.

(From Box)

A winding spiritual path

The spiritual odyssey of Samuel A. Greene Jr., also known as Father Benedict of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia.

*1961: Enters a Catholic monastery in Weston, V t., later studying in Italy and Israel.

*Mid-1960s: Takes vows as a Benedictine monk.

*1969: Runs Galilee Ranch, a Texas home for wayward boys.

*1972: Forms Ecumenical Monks Inc., a group of Christian clergy and laymen seeking a monastic life.

*Mid-1970s: S.A. ‘Sam’ Greene, Texas real estate promoter, gains fame for low-budget TV ads featuring men from Mars and other gimmicks.

*1980: The group moves to Smithson Valley, near Boerne, and opens the Christ of the Hills monastery, aligned with an obscure form of Eastern Orthodoxy called Old Calendar Orthodoxy.

*1981: Christ of the Hills relocates near Blanco.

*1983: Greene announces he is the archbishop of the Holy Orthodox Apostolic Church in America. He and the other monks soon convert to the mainstream Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia.

*1985: Christ of the Hills’ monks say a painted icon of the Virgin Mary begins to weep myrrh, a symbol, in Russian Orthodoxy, of resurrection.

*1991: Jonathan Hitt, graduate of an episcopal seminary in Austin, converts to Russian Orthodoxy and joins Christ of the Hills as Father Jeremiah.

*1998: Greene and Hitt are suspended from religious duties by their governing diocese in New York over allegations of improper management of the monastery.

*Jan. 9, 1999: Arrest warrants are issued for Greene and Hitt on charges of indecency with a child, a 13-year-old former novice monk.

*Feb. 3, 1999: Greene and Hitt plead not guilty. A trial is expected by summer.

Sources: The Russia Orthodox Church Outside Russia, Blanco County District Court records, San Antonio Express-News, Christ of the Hills, William Y. Penn Jr. and Michael Kinsey.