Home for the Greek Orthodox faithful (Michael J. Parker, 2006)

NOTE: The following newspaper article is taken from My San Antonio, August 22, 2006.

L-R: Hieromonk Paul Comits, Geronda Dositheos Maroulis, Hieromonk Joseph.
L-R: Hieromonk Paul Comits, Geronda Dositheos Maroulis, Hieromonk Joseph.

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.

Fr. Gabriel
Fr. Gabriel

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. [Note: For a detailed account of this hoax, see http://stnektariosmonastery.tumblr.com/post/102237272523/the-myrrh-weeping-icon-of-our-lady-of-new-sarov

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 A church spokesman said its recognition was revoked because the Blanco monks refused to abide by church discipline.

Fr. Luke hitting the talanton.
Fr. Luke hitting the talanton.

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.

Novice Thomas (ca. 2005)
Novice Thomas (ca. 2005)

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.”

Geronda Ephraim in the altar at Holy Archangels Monastery.
Geronda Ephraim in the altar at Holy Archangels Monastery.

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.

Andrew Constantinou Chairman & CEO of Direct Resources
Andrew Constantinou Chairman & CEO of Direct Resources

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. [NOTE: The company in Serres, Greece that does all the wood work for Elder Ephraim’s monasteries in North America (chairs in the church, iconostasis’, etc.) http://www.eleftheriadi.gr/

Beautiful Gates
Beautiful Gates

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.”

View from the bell tower.
View from the bell tower.

jparker@express-news.net

https://web.archive.org/web/20060827183258/http://www.mysanantonio.com/news/metro/stories/MYSA082206.01B.ORTHDOXY0822.2f2723f.html

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State official finds peace at Central Texas monastery (Gary Scharrer, 2009)

NOTE: The following newspaper article was taken from the Houston Chronicle, December 30, 2009:

Archon-candidate Thomas Suehs presents Metropolitan Isaiah with the official, signed Texas State House and Senate Religious Freedom Resolutions (2011).
Archon-candidate Thomas Suehs presents Metropolitan Isaiah with the official, signed Texas State House and Senate Religious Freedom Resolutions (2011).

AUSTIN — About twice a month Tom Suehs finds the perfect place to get away from the pressures facing anyone who runs the state’s largest agency with 54,000 employees under his watch and millions of Texans who depend on vital services including Medicaid, food stamps and health insurance for low-income children.

Suehs, the Texas Health and Human Services chief, heads out to the Holy Archangels Greek Orthodox monastery in the Texas Hill Country, where he cooks for the monks, repairs broken toilets and generally volunteers wherever they need help.

“I’m out here as ‘Tom the volunteer,’ ” Suehs, 58, said recently while chopping vegetables for a Sunday meal.

“It’s relaxing. Nobody’s out here to bother me. Nobody’s asking questions — ‘What do you think about this? Can you make this decision?’ It’s tranquil. It’s reinvigorating, and I like cooking,” the commissioner said while preparing paella, a meal of rice, vegetables and seafood. “There’s no pressures, no stress.”

The monastery is in the hills near Kendalia, about 45 miles north of downtown San Antonio. The main church (Kathlikon) is a basilica-style building, with the interior featuring traditional hand-painted iconography, woodcarvings and a large chandelier with candles that is lit and swung during church feasts.

Construction of the monastery is ongoing, with residences and an infirmary in progress. Ask when the construction projects will be finished, and the monks laughingly give a perpetual projection of “two years.”

In his day job, Suehs oversees an agency with a $30 billion-a-year budget and about 1,000 health and human services offices across Texas.

The eight monks who make their home in the monastery initially were not aware their volunteer friend occupied such an influential job in state government.

“It was a shock for us,” said Father Joseph. “I just saw him as a brother in Christ. That’s all he is. That’s how we knew him. ”

Hieromonk Joseph (South Africa) with the Chefs (Feast Day, 2013)
Hieromonk Joseph (South Africa) with the Chefs (Feast Day, 2013)

No TV, no Internet

Rank and status don’t mean much for anyone entering the quiet grounds of the monastery, where there is no television or Internet access.

“You don’t bring your day job. You don’t bring your position or degrees. All of that falls away at the gate,” said Father Joseph, who entered the monastery 12 years ago after a career in the restaurant business in South Africa. “People come here, and everybody is equal. It’s an honor to have somebody like (Suehs) because you have to humble yourself to be able to do that.”

For someone like Suehs to perform routine chores, including road repair and crushing grapes for winemaking “means there’s something sweet about you,” Father Joseph said. “You come to a place where your pull has no pull here.”

About twice a year, Suehs pulls volunteer duty at the Holy Monastery of St. Paraskevi in Washington, Texas

About twice a year, Suehs pulls volunteer duty at the Holy Monastery of St. Paraskevi in Washington, Texas
About twice a year, Suehs pulls volunteer duty at the Holy Monastery of St. Paraskevi in Washington, Texas

Suehs grew up as a Roman Catholic in Castroville. His parents instilled in him the value of public service. Both were mayors of the town.

The Roman Catholic and Orthodox Church split over church doctrine in 1054. Suehs decided to make the transition to Greek Orthodox after his marriage 24 years ago.

“You marry a Greek, you marry everybody,” he said.

His dinner menus for the monks and a dozen or so Sunday evening visitors often include gumbo and chicken fried tuna.

“He makes good Southern dishes. Everything he makes is delicious,” Father Michael said.

Forget the rat race

Through Suehs, the monks found a supplier of California grapes they use to make wine. Their first attempt a few years ago turned into wine hardly worth drinking. The monks hope to eventually get a license to sell their wine. Their own modest vineyard remains a work in progress.

Suehs’ world as commissioner revolves around paperwork, contracts and evaluations. Part of the job requires him to create a vision for health and human services for Texans and to make a case for legislative support.

“You don’t have time in the day-to-day (routine). When I come out here, I’m relaxed. There’s no rat race,” he said of the ideas that strike him while at the monastery. “I’m more focused when I get back.

“I can’t imagine doing the commissioner’s job at the pace seven days a week, and it’s pretty much a seven days a week job,” Suehs said. “Here, there’s a respite.”

gscharrer@express-news.net

http://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/article/State-official-finds-peace-at-Central-Texas-1733250.php

New wings under construction
New wings under construction