Monks turn former Muslim school into monastery (Holy Archangels Monastery, 1997)

Note: The following newspaper article is taken from the Victoria Advocate October 12, 1997 11.

TX Victoria Advocate Photo (Oct 12, 1997)

TWIN SISTERS (AP) — The worker painting the sign felt a presence behind him. he turned to see two young men of extraordinary height twice his own dressed in white and smiling. In an instant they were gone.

Unsettled but unfrightened the worker ran to his boss, who took him to the Rev. Dositheos, head of Holy Archangels Greek Orthodox Monastery, which was being built in Twin Sisters.

Dositheos assured the worker, a day laborer who could neither speak nor read English, that all was well.

TX Sign (Close-up)

The visitors were Archangels Michael and Gabriel, who were merely showing their approval of the monastery founded in their honor July 17, 1996, the monk priest said.

Though the story fascinates guests, Dositheos believes the real miracle is the work already accomplished at the monastery, most of which was done by nine monks who are turning a former Muslim boarding school and mosque into an Orthodox holy place.

Though building a Greek Orthodox monastery in the sparsely populated Hill Country seems almost whimsical, Dositheos said it is a fulfilment of a vision of the Rev. Ephraim, elder monk in the Philotheou Monastery on Mount Athos in Greece, the holiest site in Orthodoxy.

Though building a Greek Orthodox monastery in the sparsely populated Hill Country seems almost whimsical, Dositheos said it is a fulfilment of a vision of the Rev. Ephraim
Though building a Greek Orthodox monastery in the sparsely populated Hill Country seems almost whimsical, Dositheos said it is a fulfilment of a vision of the Rev. Ephraim

Holy Archangels is the 10th monastery built in North America on Ephraim’s instructions. The work is funded entirely through donations. Two more are planned.

The fact that few Greeks live in South Texas doesn’t matter.

The monastery supports both the church and Greek culture in North America.

And, Dositheos said, Ephraim sees America on the verge of spiritual transformation, and the monastery will help foster that change.

As Dositheos put it, “Jesus is light for archangels, archangels are light for monks, monks are light for men.”

Fr. Luke
Fr. Luke

For project manager Eusebios at the monastery (all are called by their baptismal names only) turning the Zahra Foundation Sufi Muslim mosque into an Orthodox basilica is a labor of love, not of design.

“The architecture for basilicas was done by Justinian,” Eusebios said, referring to the Byzantine emperor who ruled 1,500 years ago. “We’re just copying what he did.”

As the design goes back more than 1,000 years, said Dositheos, so does the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, which is still read in New Testament Greek.

TX Construction 3

That Greek Orthodoxy is an unchanged tradition that goes back a millennium, he said. That is one reason it is gaining converts, who see it as “genuine.”

The work of turning the Zahra mosque into a basilica isn’t as complicated as it seems, said Eusebios.

The Muslim architect, whose hand the monks believe was guided by the archangels, built the mosque in a Roman not Arabic style, which simplifies the conversion.

Here, as in all basilicas, the wooden trusses supporting the roof will remain exposed, symbolizing the inside of an ark.

Next to the basilica, a row of cells will provide separate living quarters for up to 36 monks. Each cell will have a private bath, bed, desk, bookshelf, prayer corner and icons.

TX Construction 2

The monks live communally, sharing meals and work in common.

Once assigned to the monastery, monks live and die there. They will be buried in the former Muslim cemetery, which will be maintained.

Cemetery (early 2000s)
Cemetery (early 2000s)

At Holy Archangels, women are welcome as guests, though following Athonite tradition, they worship in a separate room in the chapel and cannot eat meals with the monks.

The two-room chapel is adorned with icons, especially those of Archangels Michael and Gabriel, and the Glykophilousa, or the Virgin sweetly kissing the Christ child.

Holy Archangels Icon in Church
Holy Archangels Icon in Church

In true monastery tradition, Holy Archangels practices the rule of hospitality, a tradition going back to Abraham. There are no visitors here, all guests.

Meals are simple beans, onion and tomato salad with olive oil vinaigrette, fresh fruit and bread.

Men sit at a table separate from the monks and must maintain silence during the 20-minute meal as Bible passages are read in Greek.

When the signal is given the meal ends. The monks rise for prayer, then file silently out of the building, followed by their guests.

In the afternoon, thick Greek coffee and kumi, a delicate pastry, are served.

Each Sunday, 60 to 70 worshippers from Houston, Dallas, even Greece come to worship. Others drop by during the week, some bringing gifts or donations.

Monks begin their day at 3 a.m. with cell rule, or private prayers. At 6, they meet in the chapel for divine liturgy, which ends at 8:30 a.m., or 10:30 on Sunday.

Then it’s time to work.

TX Construction 1

Nicholas works in the basilica, doing any number of construction jobs such as sanding doors.

As visitors leave, he quickly and quietly starts reciting a prayer as if it were a mantra.

“It’s the Jesus Prayer,” said Dositheos. “’Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.’ We pray without ceasing, as we are commanded to do in Scripture.”

At afternoon coffee, conversation turns to the monastic life and to Mount Athos and the miracles that have occurred there.

Ed Dryden, who helped broker the real estate purchase for the monastery, knows first-hand of such miracles.

Like project manager Eusebios, Dryden converted to Orthodoxy from Catholicism.

After suffering severe head trauma in automobile accident, Dryden said he was “basically vegged out.”

He suffered memory loss, mood swings, extreme frustration, sudden rages, outbursts of unprovoked profanity and disorientation for two years one year past the “plateau” or medical point of no further cure.

Distraught and on the verge of divorce, Dryden said, he visited Mount Athos with his son and the Rev. Tom Zaferes, former pastor of St. Sophia’s in San Antonio.

Fr. Tom Zaferes, Proistamenos of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Ascension in Oakland, California.
Fr. Tom Zaferes, Proistamenos of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Ascension in Oakland, California.

On the way to St. Ann’s monastery they ran into Father Eusebios, a 92-year-old monk and former abbot of St. Paul’s monastery, who began speaking to Zaferes in Greek.

As he spoke, Dryden said, the monk reached over and started rubbing his head at the exact spot where the brain injury occurred, saying, “The Holy Virgin loves you.”

“How did he know the left side of my head was injured? How did he even know I had a head injury?” Dryden asked, still perplexed.

Before they reached St. Ann’s, Dryden said, his mind started clearing. The next day the first time in two years he noticed he could actually follow a complicated conversation. In two weeks, he was healed.

Though Dryden’s miracle story impresses, and although at least one cure is associated with Holy Archangels, Dositheos makes it clear that monastic life is not really centered on miracles, but on holy living and obedience to God.

That’s why the sign painter was questioned about whether he feared the vision.

Talanton resting on wall near chapel.
Talanton resting on wall near chapel.
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