More Than Just A House That’s Off In The Woods – 1st Orthodox Monastery For Nuns Opens In West (Jeremy Meyer, 1997)

NOTE: The following newspaper article is taken from the Yakima-Herald Republic, May 3rd, 1997:

WA Sister Seraphima 

GOLDENDALE – The four nuns appear like alien shadows in this rural county – Old World images of God in a land of winter wheat and rolling rangeland.

Their monasticism, black robes and Greek language contrast with Goldendale’s bucolic Americana of Wrangler jeans, pickup trucks and satellite-dish TV.

Two years ago, the Greek Orthodox Church sent four nuns to Klickitat County to establish the first all-woman Orthodox monastery in the Pacific Northwest.

Three of the four came directly from Volos, Greece, which overlooks the Aegean Sea, to this modest, two-story, chalet-style house.

They left behind an established monastery, family and friends and a homeland populated with Orthodox Christians for this rural town, where only one other person claims to practice their Orthodox Christian faith.

DSC08280 DSC08281

The fourth nun is from California and has just finished her first year of monasticism. She is the only native English speaker among them.

In Greek Orthodoxy, such a house of prayer is called a monastery, not a convent, even though the members are all women. This one is less ornate and traditional in its appearance. In fact, it’s just a house surrounded by a small stand of trees, 10 miles north of Goldendale, off Highway 97.

Three years ago, retired Goldendale physician Dr. Gerard Timmer donated the house and its surrounding 48 acres to the church. Visitors have helped the nuns build a guest house next door and complete a kitchen and four rooms. A 100-year-old bell from Boston sits on a knoll behind the house.

Nuns’ job is to pray

The nuns are not here to spread the word or invoke mass conversions of the people of Klickitat County – though that wouldn’t be discouraged.

“Our role isn’t for Goldendale or the state of Washington,” said Sister Agni. “It is for all the people and especially for the Orthodox people.”

They’ve come to pray, to be secluded and to provide a retreat center for followers of this traditional Christian faith.

WA 1995 2

“We don’t go out to public places,” said Sister Agni. “We are devoted to Jesus Christ. In public, there is nothing to help us to be concentrated on our prayers.”

They wear black robes and head coverings and follow a life of prayer and self-discipline. They’ve taken oaths of poverty, chastity and obedience. They don’t use mirrors, don’t keep money and have taken religious names.

They speak quietly and seriously. They defer to the Abbess, Gerontissa Efpraxia, whose title means eldest.

They don’t talk about themselves or their past personal lives. Instead, they talk about the lives of their superiors and their faith.

Sister Agni, who believes she is close to 30, said she entered the monastic life a decade ago.

“I knew,” she said. “Everyone who is called to the monastery hears it first in their heart.”

Mostly, they pray.

WA St.John the Forerunner

They awake at 2 a.m., pray for about three hours. After a brief sleep, they awake again at 7 a.m. for a common service of prayer. Vespers, the traditional evening prayers, are at 6 o’clock, followed by a light dinner at 7, and more prayers.

They carry prayer ropes around their wrists or in their pockets. Saying the Jesus Prayer, they move their fingers along the knotted prayer rope.

“Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

“Their work is to pray,” said Father Joseph Copeland, the pastor of the Holy Cross Orthodox Church in Yakima.

Fr. Joseph Copeland is the priest on the right
Fr. Joseph Copeland is the priest on the right

“If it wasn’t for the many monasteries and the amount of prayer for themselves and the world, the world would not be maintained. It would destroy itself. . . . It’s doing a good job of that already.”

The Goldendale monastery is named St. John the Forerunner, in honor of John the Baptist.

It is unlike any other monastery in the Greek Orthodox religion, said Father James Retelas, pastor of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Portland. Monasteries can be century-old structures of ornate architecture. But this is just another house in the woods.

“It will take time,” Retelas said in a telephone interview. “When we establish a monastery, we do so not for 100 years but for thousands of years.”

Eastern Orthodoxy is one of the three main branches of Christianity, with an estimated 240 million adherents worldwide, mostly in Russia, Greece, Eastern Europe and Western Asia. Out of 124 million Christians in the United States, about 4 million practice the Orthodox faith.

Orthodox monasticism new in West

Only recently has the Orthodox Church decided to bring monasticism to the Western world, said Retelas.

Fr. James Retelas, Proistamenos of Annunciation Church in Sacramento, CA.
Fr. James Retelas, Proistamenos of Annunciation Church in Sacramento, CA.

“From our perspective, (monasticism) represents the fullness of the Orthodox expression of our faith,” he said.

Timmer, 84, is the reason a monastery appeared in this remote region.

Timmer, who still lives in Goldendale, donated the house after his wife died. On a trip through Greece, he was baptized into the faith. Though not a devout practitioner of the faith, Timmer is as close as you get in Goldendale.

“My knowledge of the Greek Orthodox church is very small,” he said in an interview last year. But he still drives from his Goldendale house to the monastery almost every day.

“They call me pa-poo,” he said. “It means grandfather.”

The church took over the home and acreage after one of its top officials, Father Ephraim – a monk from Greece – examined the property and knew it was right, said Retelas.

Geronda Ephraim (1992)
Geronda Ephraim (1992)

“(Father Ephraim) is as close as a clairvoyant that I’d ever seen,” Retelas said. “When he saw the place, he said, `Yes, we need a monastery here.’ He said, `This is where St. John the Forerunner will be established.’ “

The monastery is part of an effort by the Orthodox Church to bring monasticism to the New World.

The first monastery that Father Ephraim established began in Pennsylvania in 1989. He’s now established 11 monasteries, located throughout North America -in Canada, California and Arizona.

The Goldendale monastery is the first all-woman one in the Pacific Northwest and is, by far, the most isolated of the monastic communities, said Copeland, whose Yakima church is the closest Orthodox parish to the monastery.

WA St. John the Forerunner

“For this monastery to be founded in the middle of nowhere is a miracle for us,” Copeland said. “But when you think about a monastery, you think about walls and churches. Here, they have a house, but not like a monastic house. It isn’t the same model that they come from.”

The nuns are supported through alms from followers of the religion and donations from Northwest Orthodox churches.

The nuns produce incense and iconography. They decorate beeswax candles with spiritual sayings.

They also practice the ancient art of painting icons, which sell for about $27 per inch.

 WA St.John the Forerunner 2