European elegance and old-world traditions grace St. John’s Monastery (Loretto J. Hulse, 2015)

NOTE: The following newspaper article was taken from Tri-Cities Area Journal of Business, June 16th, 2015.

Sister Iosiphia, one of 22 nuns at the Holy Monastery of St. John the Forerunner near Goldendale
Sister Iosiphia, one of 22 nuns at the Holy Monastery of St. John the Forerunner near Goldendale, answers questions about the Greek Orthodox religion. She was giving a group of visitors a tour of the buildings, churches and grounds.

There’s a bit of old Europe just a few miles north of Goldendale at the Holy Monastery of St. John the Forerunner.

The chapel and church are built and decorated in a traditional, Greek Orthodox manner, with intricate carvings, colorful icons of Jesus, Mary and the saints and elaborate tile work.

“It’s very normal for an Orthodox church to be elaborately decorated because it is a house of God and you want to give your best to God,” said Sister Philothei, one of the 22 nuns who live at the Monastery.

Sister Philothei said throughout the history of the Greek Orthodox church, which goes back about 2,000 years, the churches have been ornately decorated.

“The churches have had elaborate carvings, parts of it decorated in gold leaf, and wonderful icons,” said Sister Philothei. “Because our churches are an offering up to God, we try to create heaven on earth, a very holy place.”

St. John’s monastery was founded in 1995 when Dr. Gerald Timmer donated 48 acres to the church to establish a Greek Orthodox monastery.

Unlike Roman Catholic nuns, the sisters of a Greek Orthodox monastery do not go out into the community to teach or do social work. Instead, they live a secluded, God-centered life and pray for the salvation of all mankind. When not in prayer, their days are devoted to sustaining the monastery.

The monastery, one of only 20 Greek Orthodox monasteries in the U.S., is home for 22 sisters and novices.

The monastery’s original chapel was cramped and has been replaced by a new larger church. The new church isn’t completely finished, but the nuns began using it for services in June 2014.

Some of the outside tile work still needs to be done and several chandeliers are on order, but the traditional Byzantine icons, fabulously carved seats and altar and soaring architecture of the church are all in place, giving it a European feel.

“If you were to go into a Greek Orthodox church in Greece, Serbia or in Russia, this is what you’d see. People from Greece who visit here say the chapel, our new church, feels like home,” said Sister Philothei.

In fact, what you see in the church at St. John’s monastery — as elaborate as it is — isn’t as over the top as many of the churches in Europe, Sister Philothei added.

In 2013, the sisters ordered the carvings for the new church hoping some would come by June, in time for the special feast day honoring St. John the Forerunner. Instead all the hand-carved elements arrived in time.

“A special family in Greece who do nothing but carvings for Greek Orthodox churches made ours,” said Sister Philotheir. “There’s about 20 people who worked on them — a couple of brothers, their children and their grandchildren.”

[NOTE: This would be the Eleftheriadis Brothers; http://www.eleftheriadi.gr/ ]

Sister Philothei couldn’t say what the carvings cost, but knows it will take the monastery years, many years to pay for them.

Inset into the carvings in the church are prints of icons copied from those painted by the sisters of St. John’s monastery.

The icons decorating the chapel, the monastery’s original church, were painted by the sisters who live there. But the sisters haven’t had the time yet to paint icons for the new church.

“As we have time they’ll be replaced with original paintings, but that will take us years,” Sister Philothei said.

With help from parishioners, the sisters care for the extensive grounds including the chickens and goats. They also run a bakery/café, which serves traditional Greek food and baked goods. And they make a variety of Byzantine arts and crafts for the gift shop, including prayer ropes, incense, beeswax candles and handmade lotions and soaps.

In May, the Kennewick Senior Center arranged a tour of the monastery and a luncheon of traditional Greek dishes. Twenty people participated in the trip, which was guided by Frankie Meaders, an assistant volunteer hostess for the center.

Tours of the grounds and two religious buildings on site are available with advance notice.

“It’s best to call a week or more ahead so we can make sure a sister is available,” said Sister Iosiphia, who led the tour.

Sister Iosiphia has been a nun at St. John’s monastery for 18 years and is well versed in the history of the monastic community.

Unlocking the door to the smaller chapel on the grounds, she explained it had been in continuous use for 15 years before they built the new, larger church.

“It would get a little cramped with all the nuns and lay people who attended services,” said Sister Iosiphia. “But we’ll continue to use it for special services. It holds a lot of memories.”

Sister Iosiphia shared the history of the Greek Orthodox Church and how it was founded thousands of years ago by Jesus and the original apostles.

Greek Orthodox sisters and monks aren’t divided into separate orders as Roman Catholic nuns, priests and monks are. They also, with the exception of very unusual circumstances, spend their lives at the monastery where they take their vows.

To help support the monastery, the sisters opened St. John’s Bakery, Coffee and Gifts in May 2002.

However, it doesn’t bring in enough income to fully support the monastery.

“Donations are very important. Without them we would never have been able to build our new church,” said Sister Iosiphia.

St. John’s Bakery offers a selection of classic Greek foods including dolmadakia, grape leaves stuffed with ground beef, rice and seasonings and gyros, grilled strips of meat stuffed in pita bread and topped with tzatziki sauce. There’s also a Greek lasagna, a Greek pizza of cheeses baked on pita bread and grilled pork shish kabobs.

Several other Greek dishes, such as spanakopita, are available in family-size portions in the freezer case.

They also make traditional Greek baked goods — baklava, biscotti, and koulouakia — using no preservatives. And the sisters mix up melt-in-your-mouth, golf-ball size chocolate truffles, nut clusters and cheesecakes.

The café also has a full espresso bar, using fresh-roasted coffee from Father Michael’s Roastery in Goldendale.

St. John’s Bakery, Coffee and Gifts is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., daily, except Sundays. The monastery is at 2378 Highway 97 in Goldendale. The phone number is 509-773-6650 and the website is www.stjohnmonastery.org.

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