Home for the Greek Orthodox faithful

Author: Michael Parker
Date Published: 08/22/2006

KENDALIA – Off FM 473, 6 miles east of here near U.S. 281, a modest sign directs visitors down a meandering 3-mile road to an oasis of Greek Orthodox spirituality hidden in the
middle of the Texas Hill Country. Each Sunday, 80 to 100 visitors gather to attend a 9 a.m. Divine Liturgy at the Holy Archangels Greek Orthodox Monastery. Those who don’t live
in San Antonio, Austin or the Hill Country rent nearby motel rooms. Founded in 1996, Holy Archangels is less known these days than the 25-year-old Christ of the Hills monastery 5
miles southwest of Blanco. Christ of the Hills has courted frequent publicity, with a ”weeping” icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary that attracted thousands of visitors for years and with recent charges of sexual assault against several of its monks. The Blanco monks’ only affiliation with any recognized ecclesiastical jurisdiction – the New York-based Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia – lasted from 1991 to 1999. A church spokesman said its recognition was revoked because the Blanco monks refused to abide by church
discipline. But Holy Archangels is affiliated with the 1.5 million-member Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, the largest nationwide Orthodox jurisdiction in the United States. The Greek Orthodox Bishop of Denver, Metropolitan Isaiah, is its regional superior. ”People have always confused us with them, but we have no connection,” said Father Dositheos, 38, the Canadian-born abbot of Holy Archangels. The two groups of monks wear similar black robes and have long beards.

Beginnings

The eight monks of Holy Archangels are veterans of monastic life on Mount Athos in Greece. They left the ”holy mountain” to join other pioneers in establishing Greek Orthodox monasticism across the United States. Holy Archangels is Texas’ first Greek Orthodox monastery and one of 15 built in this country since 1989. A monastery for women was recently dedicated in Washington County near Brenham. Metropolitan Isaiah said Orthodoxy itself remains unfamiliar to many Western Christians. They widely assume it’s ”foreign” because of its ethnically based divisions, which include Greek, Russian, Serbian, Ukrainian, Coptic, Antiochan, Romanian and Bulgarian, to name a few. They share one faith, but each division has its own hierarchy. Each still
uses its own language to varying degrees, feeding the ”foreign” perception, Metropolitan Isaiah said. In parts of the United States with large Orthodox populations, the monks are readily recognized by non-Orthodox neighbors, said Father Ephraim, 36, a Galveston-born priest-monk at Holy Archangels. ”But there aren’t many monasteries in the Texas Hill Country.” Metropolitan Isaiah said early Greek immigrants in the United States didn’t build monasteries because ”they expected to make a quick fortune and return to the old country.” That changed in 1989, when a monk from Mount Athos, known as Elder Ephraim, began founding a series of monasteries across the United States. Holy Archangels was the 10th in less than a decade.

Looking ahead

It’s a huge blessing to Texas’ Orthodox faithful, said Andrew Constantinou, a member of St. Basil the Great Parish in Houston. He drives 250 miles at least biweekly to help clear brush, paint walls, tend the vineyard below the monks’ house and even fill potholes in the dilapidated road that connects the monastery with the outside world. ”For me, it’s a labor of love. A monastery gives us a place to recharge our spiritual batteries. Having a monastery to go to is almost like being in the old country. In Greece and Cyprus, there are monasteries everywhere,” Constantinou said. The monks at Holy Archangels describe their vocation as a continuation of the early Christian custom of living, eating, praying at different hours each day and working in community as described in the Acts of the Apostles. ”I love it here. If I’d heard about monastic life at a younger age, I’d have come earlier,” said Father Joseph, a 31-year-old South African. ”On Mount Athos, I was touched to see the monks in their black robes. They had a peace about them that was otherworldly.” He and the others, like bees painstakingly making a hive, are building a spiritual legacy that could far outlast their own earthly lives. The monastery’s centerpiece is a strikingly beautiful Byzantine-style church built of Texas limestone
with a red-brick finish and an arched facade, dedicated in 1998. Everything in it comes from Greece, Father Dositheos said. Its intricately detailed iconostasis, an oaken wall bearing colorful icons of Jesus and numerous Eastern saints, was hand-carved. So were the rows of seats on both sides of the church that all face the building’s central axis. Matching the church’s architecture is a modern, spacious dining hall that’s much too big for just eight monks. But perhaps the monks’ boldest statement of confidence in the future is a building still perhaps two years short of completion: a three-story, 40,000- square-foot dormitory designed to accommodate not eight monks but 50. Father Dositheos
said progress on the building depends on continuing donations, the complex’s only source of funding. ”We don’t collect a certain level of funds and then say, ‘Let’s begin,’” he
said. ”We just keep moving forward. People appreciate seeing progress each time they come, and they keep helping.”