NOTE: The following article is from the Yakima Herald, March 7th, 2013:
For nearly 20 years, St. John the Forerunner Greek Orthodox Monastery has sat just off the highway near Goldendale.
Enclosed in woods, the complex is home to 22 nuns and novices who have devoted themselves to a life of worship.
But monastic life is far from the quiet solitude some may imagine — the sisters are a growing bunch of entrepreneurs who stay busy running their own business.
St. John’s Bakery, Coffee & Gifts is the most public face of the monastery. The shop is located on the roadside of U.S. 97 and offers tourists and locals alike an opportunity to interact with the sisters and enjoy the fruits of their labor: traditional gourmet Greek pastries and other treats, Greek food, beeswax candles, hand-painted icons, jams and, new to the shop, goat milk and cheeses.
Items sold at the shop are all created by the sisters at the monastery and proceeds support their life there. The store, which opened in May 2002, has been so popular that the sisters are in the process of expanding their kitchen in order to accommodate their growing line of products.
“We felt like it was just too small what we’re trying to work in,” said Sister Myrophora, who has lived at St. John’s since 2001. “It felt like we couldn’t really keep up with our menu.”
The monastery was recently certified as a Grade A Dairy Farm and is raising a small herd of goats for milk and cheese. In order to sell those products to the public, the sisters found they needed more space.
The construction work, which is funded by a foundation created to support the monastery, is more than doubling the available kitchen space, adding new commercial freezers and refrigerators and creating a separate building for milk and cheese. The work should be finished this spring.
In the existing space, the sisters have to stop using the kitchen for making pastries and other foods on cheese-making day because of the risk of cross-contamination. The expansion will allow both activities to occur simultaneously.
All of the items created at the monastery — including sweets such as baklava, biscotti, chocolates, and other Greek cookies, breads and cakes — come from recipes brought to the monastery from Greece by its original three sisters, who still live there and oversee the work. The sisters also have been learning about cheese making from other Greek monasteries. “Greek cooking is very time-consuming,” said Sister Iosiphia. “We do it just like the ladies do at home — from scratch.” She said it can be fun for those sisters who grew up in a Greek Orthodox home, because “we’re doing the same things as our moms and grandmas.”
The interaction with the original sisters helps keep the recipes authentic.
“We’ve really tried to perfect the foods and give them the most authentic taste, so people really get a good taste of what Greek tastes like,” said Sister Myrophora.
About four sisters are permanent bakery cooks, and the rest take turns helping in the bakery, milking goats, working in the shop and creating the other products sold at the shop. And while there is more than enough work to keep them busy around the clock, they are careful to maintain their focus on God.
“We try to keep a balance,” said Sister Iosiphia, who has lived at the monastery for nearly 16 years. “Our main goal is we’re here for the monastic calling.”
The sisters have turned down catering opportunities or other orders in order to preserve their spiritual lives, said Sister Myrophora.
“We do what we can with the hands we have,” Sister Iosiphia said.
She noted many people comment on how good the food at the monastery is, and said she reminds them that “the blood of Christ sanctifies all.” Our food is “made with prayer,” she said.
The deli-style shop is remaining open during the kitchen remodel, and visitors can still pick up lunch items and frozen, family-sized meals there from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday. There is limited seating available inside the shop, and in the warmer months the sisters put tables outside as well.
Among the most popular food items sold are the gyros, which is available with lamb and beef or vegetarian. The mousakas — an eggplant and potato casserole — is also very popular, Sister Myrophora said.
“We hope maybe someday to expand the store more to give more seating. It’s really pretty packed full,” she said. “We didn’t think it would get this full.”
If you go St. John’s Bakery, Coffee & Gifts
2378 U.S. 97, Goldendale
Store hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, closed for Greek Orthodox holidays
Did you know there’s a place in the Pacific Northwest where people only speak Greek, eat Greek food and pray all day for the salvation of the world?
In the pine-dotted mountains just north of Goldendale, Washington, 18 women live in a different time. It’s called St. John The Forerunner Greek Orthodox Monastery.
Correspondent Anna King lived in the monastery for two days to bring us this story.
Anna King: So I am looking at my phone here and it’s about 8:38 p.m. and I am headed to bed because I’m getting up at four in the morning which is when the services start. Umm.
The only thing is that the sisters get up at like 2 a.m. and start doing their own prayers in their own room in prostration before they get up and do services at 4 a.m. so I feel kind of lazy getting up at 4 a.m. but I am going to go to bed now.
SOUND: Cell phone alarm
Anna King: When my cell phone alarm went off at 4 a.m. I was so sleepy I accidently used a tube of face cream as toothpaste. After washing my mouth out and pulling on a long dress and a headscarf, I headed through the dark woods to the chapel for morning prayers with the nuns.
SOUND: Nuns singing
Anna King: These 18 women at St. John sing songs with words and melodies that haven’t changed since the Byzantine era. And they live a simple life of rigorous work and prayer. There’s no T.V., there’s no radio and there’s no idle talk. Even as they work or eat they pray to Jesus for their own salvation and that of everyone else.
Sister Iosiphia: I think the main thing that the monasteries have to offer is prayer for the world.
Anna King: This is Sister Iosiphia.
Sister Iosiphia: I don’t think there can be anything more powerful than monks and nuns — young men and women — staying up in the middle of the night sacrificing their sleep and their comforts to pray to God for all of the people in the world. Which there are so many various problems and so many various needs that everyone has. I don’t think there could be a greater offering to the people and the community than that.
Anna King: Many of the faces I saw peeking out from the black head wraps were young. Iosiphia wouldn’t say how old she is but appears to be in her late twenties.
SOUND: Sisters singing
Anna King: This monastery in the mountains is young too. It was started 13 years ago when a local doctor donated his property to the Greek Orthodox Church. Three nuns from Greece came to establish St. John. The rest of the sisters here are recruits. Many of them don’t have any Greek heritage, and some are even converted Protestants.
St. John is one of 18 Greek Orthodox monasteries overseen by a Greek priest named Elder Ephraim. The priest-monk has attracted some controversy.
In fact, several Web sites criticize his monasteries, likening them to a cult. But all of the women at St. John say they choose this life. It’s a choice generally made soon after high school.
Next to Sister Iosiphia sits Sister Ephraimia. She’s wearing nearly identical black clothing. The only bare skin sticking out are their faces and hands. Both say they found the monastery life by themselves.
Sister Ephraimia: Most people probably would say that it’s something that starts to grow in their heart little by little and it gets bigger and bigger until you just know that this is what you want to do. It’s like the love of Christ grows and grows until you are ready to make that decision.
Sister Iosiphia: Just like how do you know when you want to get married or who you want to marry? It’s a mystery. There are millions of people in the world, but something draws you to that life and to that certain person. It’s the same thing for us. Something draws us to this life and to a certain monastery.
Anna King: The commitment to be a nun or a monk is life-long. And even Orthodox families can feel frightened or confused when a daughter or son decides to join up.
The nuns typically don’t visit their families, but they do have a guest house so the families can come visit them. One of the parents I met there is Donna Young from Wasilla, Alaska. She comes here at least twice a year to visit her daughter who is a nun. http://northstarbakery.com/
Donna Young: I was really nervous about having her go to take on a really different life than I was used to. I wondered how it would be or how we would relate to each other. But the sisters have made our family feel like this is our home. So we feel really close. When we come here to visit it’s just like coming to our second home.
Anna King: This home is a busy one. Visits with family are squeezed in amid chores and prayers.
SOUND: Kitchen noise, peeling onions
Anna King: The sisters receive some donations but they also work to support themselves. This day the nuns peeled tubs of onions to make traditional Greek food to sell in their cafe. They paint religious icons. And they make pastries, soaps and candles to sell on their Web site.
Anna King: But I mean do you guys miss anything from the outside world like waterslides or pizza or you know movies?
Sister Ephraimia: No
Sister Iosiphia: You find the fulfillment here with everything. And like we said it’s heavenly joy. And that can’t be compared with anything to the joy on this earth which is very vain and temporal. And our joy, our goal is for the eternal joy which we start to feel from here.
Sister Ephraimia: You get a little taste of paradise then what would you want with the world after that. It’s like it’s nothing. The world is our exile and it’s just our journey home to paradise here.
Anna King: The sisters are praying that they will earn enough money to build more spacious housing and a bigger chapel soon. That would create more room for more sisters to join them in their life of solitary work and prayer.
NOTE: The following newspaper article is taken from the Yakima Herald-Republic, November 6th, 2006, p. 6.
STATUS PASS, Wash—On a pine-covered patch off U.S. Highway 97, the Pacific Northwest meets the Byzantine Empire.
Evergreens shelter a collection of structures that look more like typical Northwest cabins than a Greek Orthodox monastery. In the wee hours, the woods are dark. So still, so quiet, so peaceful. Elsewhere, bars are closing, truckers are making the long haul, children have been asleep for hours.
At the roadside monastery at the edge of a forest, Greek Orthodox sisters are praying for them all. From this remote sylvan setting 10 miles north of Goldendale, more than a dozen nuns pray for the world. Their prayers continue until the stars disappear from the sky, the sun rises and shines, and darkness sets in again.
Life—a tranquil cycle of work and prayer—goes largely uninterrupted at St. John the Forerunner, the only Greek Orthodox monastery in Central Washington. Tucked under the trees and named in honor of St. John the Baptist, it’s a small version of monasteries in Greece that have been running for hundreds of years, and it’s growing. New sisters, most from the western United States, arrive almost every year.
The monastery is home to 16 sisters, including four novices. Most are in their 20s.
They pledge to live their lives among the pines of Status Pass, at an elevation of just over 3,000 feet, on the north side of the Horse Heaven Hills in Klickitat County. Nearly 60 miles from Yakima and thousands of miles from Greece, it’s arguably the middle of nowhere.
While other young women are going to college and on dates, getting jobs, getting married and raising families—the sisters are giving their lives to God, living in solitude together—and praying for the world.
“It’s a calling from God,” says 33-year-old Sister Ephraimia. “It grows in your heart. It’s like a fire inside you.”
Originally from Santa Barbara, Calif., Sister Ephraimia was the first American to live at the monastery, founded by three Greek nuns in 1995. She’s been here 11 years.
“I had no idea what the monastic life was before I came here,” she says. “The draw was Christ. Lots of people say it’s like you’re in prison or something. It’s not. It’s the opposite. It’s like you’re free.”
The sisters lead contemplative, quiet lives, largely secluded—save for medical appointments, shopping trips and other errands, and the occasional journey to another monastery—from the outside world. Unlike Catholic nuns, who are usually active in their communities, Orthodox nuns center their lives on a desire to come closer to God through prayer.
“It is hard to understand the depth of this life,” says 30-year-old Sister Iosiphia, originally from Scottsdale, Ariz. She’s lived at the monastery nearly 10 years. “It’s a beautiful life. You’re doing it for God.”
Sisters go through a novice, or trial, period that can last years before becoming tonsured nuns. It is extremely rare for a sister to give up monastic life after that point.
“You come here with the goal to die here,” Sister Iosiphia says. “It’s a very serious commitment.”
NOTE: The following newspaper article was taken from the Columbian (Vancouver, WA), May 1st, 2005:
As the world around them sleeps, the sisters of the Holy Monastery of St. John the Forerunner struggle to get out of bed.
Even after nine years, 2 a.m. comes early, said Sister Ephraimia. “Most of us have to force ourselves,” she said. They rise with the assistance of “alarms, alarms and sisters.” Once awake, the sisters start their individual prayers in seclusion. They stand up then drop to the floor or bend at the waist in prostrations, clad head-to-toe in black. “While everyone is sleeping, we are praying for the world,” Sister Iosiphia said. Despite the tiredness, Sister Ephraimia said, “Many say it is their favorite part of the day. That’s where we receive our strength.”
The sisters are among 16 nuns and novices who have pledged to live their lives as part of a monastic community. Many came in their early 20s, an age when young people often struggle with their identity and purpose. Novices spend as long as three years at St. John’s before being tonsured, the final step to becoming a nun.
Tucked in the trees just north of Goldendale, St. John’s is one of 18 Greek Orthodox monasteries in North America. It’s just up the highway from the area where entrepreneur Sam Hill dreamed of creating a Quaker agricultural community. Although that dream didn’t come true, his legacy is evident in the Maryhill Museum and the Stonehenge replica dotting the bluffs along the sparkling water.
After more than two hours of solitary prayer, the sisters gather in the chapel. Golden icons look out from a series of panels while lights from oil lamps and thin, amber-colored beeswax tapers flicker in the pre-dawn dark. Located on the ground floor of their large house, the small but elaborately adorned room is the heart of the place where the women gather several times a day. The sisters enter softly through a side door, long black scarves unfurling behind them. As they pray, their individual identities dissolve and merge into a choreographed, single entity. Their call and response of chanting and singing fills the sacred space.
The 4:30 a.m. common services are led by a priest who travels from Goldendale, 10 miles away, or Yakima, 60 miles away. During services, worshippers, whether they are nuns or one of the local Orthodox Christians, cross themselves and kiss the surface of the paintings, called veneration. Iconic paintings depict the faces of Jesus, the saints and the Virgin Mary as they looked when they were alive, Sister Philothei explained. They help us to pray,” she said. “We don’t worship the wood or the paint.”
‘… fulfilling, sweet life’
Over and over, the women smile as they describe how they were drawn to the solitude, the structure and the spirit of a life spent dedicated to prayer and work. It is with joy that they have turned their backs on careers, marriage, children. “It’s a process of understanding nothing else works for you,” Sister Prodromia said. She does not spend much time thinking about life away from St. John’s. “I think we’re very much in the real world. We see it all the time. The goal is not to be a part of it,” she said.
What they are a part of is trying to make the planet better, “to help the world through our example, through our prayer.” The women embrace the monastery’s restrictions: chastity, hard work, and obedience to the abbess, their spiritual mother. Known as Gerontissa Efpraxia, the abbess of St. John’s has been a nun for 40 years. A kind smile spreads across her softly wrinkled face as she speaks in her native Greek, explaining her role as “mother, sister, friend” to the women in her care.
Sister Prodromia, 27, grew up in Yakima in a Greek Orthodox family. She was then known as Megan Hagler. She made her initial visit to St. John’s when she was 17. “It was the first time I realized monasteries weren’t castles in the clouds,” she said. Although she was drawn to the life, she left home to study theology and philosophy at a small Orthodox college in South Carolina. “I didn’t really have a plan. I think that’s why I was there,” she said. Her mother, Glenna Hagler, said that when her daughter returned to Yakima with the intention of enrolling in college there, she lacked direction.
“She just seemed so sad,” Glenna Hagler recalled. She remembers turning to her daughter and asking: “When was the last time you were happy?” The last time I was happy was when I thought I was going to be a nun,” Megan, then 20, replied. The young woman went to Goldendale for a visit, then accompanied the sisters back to Yakima to attend services at her family’s church, Holy Cross. Her mother was there and knew immediately something had changed. “I looked back at her with the sisters and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, she’s not coming home,'” Glenna Hagler said.
Sister Prodromia’s story is similar to many of the women who have embraced an existence of structured spiritual practice that dates back thousands of years. Just as Orthodox nuns centuries ago, they dress modestly in long skirts and long-sleeved shirts. Their heads are wrapped in identical black coverings with small red crosses stitched into the fabric at their foreheads.
Sister Ephraimia, 31, compared the feeling to the way people sometimes describe meeting their future spouse. The knowing goes beyond what can be rationally explained. That is the same way the sisters feel about the monasticism, she said. “Everything else seems so empty,” she said. “The monastic life is really such a beautiful, fulfilling, sweet life.”
Following the 4:30 a.m. service, the sisters spend time on their own resting, reading and praying before breakfast at 8:30 a.m.
Work and prayer
By the time they begin their work day at 9:30 a.m., they have spent many hours praying for both their salvation and peace for the planet. When it is time to work, they scatter to the shop where their wares are sold, the kitchen where the authentic Greek food is prepared, the studio where the icons are painted, the mobile home where the candles and soap are made.
As the sisters go about their day, the swish of dark skirts is accompanied by the whistling whisper of the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ Have Mercy on Us” uttered over and over again in Greek. The softly uttered words form the background to Sister Iosiphia’s work as she dips a large ladle into a huge vat of syrup on the stove, fishing out lemon and orange slices. She pauses in her prayer to explain her choice.
Sister Iosiphia, 29, grew up the oldest of four in a Greek Orthodox family near Phoenix. She loved school, sports and fashion. Sister Iosiphia was studying to be a teacher when she was drawn to the life she experienced during monastery visits. It felt like home.
“It’s a calling,” said Sister Iosiphia. “It’s like a flame inside you.” She has the soul of a scholar, effortlessly quoting Scripture and the teachings of the church leaders. One of Sister Iosiphia’s main duties is to maintain the chapel: filling the oil lamps, straightening the books, looking after the visiting priests who conduct services. She pitches in wherever she is asked by the Gerontissa. Some days that means stuffing vine leaves with meat, vegetables and spices, called dolmadakia. Other days that means preparing syrup to use with the homemade baklava, a popular item in the store.
At first sight, the shop just off the highway could be any roadside stop frequented by the campers and hunters who pass through. “ESPRESSO” spelled out in bright neon lures drivers off the rural highway. Once inside, the difference from a typical convenience store becomes apparent: there’s no gleaming silver cases of beer lining the coolers, no bait or tackle for sale. Not a pack of cigarettes or can of chewing tobacco is in sight. A sweet smell from the handmade lotions and soaps mingles with the spices from freshly baked pastries with long, vowel-laden names. The espresso machine in the corner occasionally sputters to life, filling the room with the strong aroma of fresh coffee. The low, melodic rumble of Byzantine chants draws attention to a display filled with pastel-colored bits of incense and black prayer ropes.
Purity of work, purity of life
On most days, Sister Philothei’s work takes her to a tiny, sun-dappled room above the kitchen and bakery. Leaning on large easels are shiny golden-toned icons in progress.
Iconography is the art form of the saints, Jesus and the Virgin Mary painted in a style that dates back to the Byzantine era, about 300 years after the death of Christ. Sister Philothei has a warm smile for everyone she encounters. Her eyes light up as she talks about the life she has chosen. She pages through a large book filled with photographs of murals painted on the walls of a monastery in Greece. The icons depict Jesus’ life from his birth in a manger to his rising from the dead. “We can live the liturgy. We don’t need to see a movie,” Sister Philothei said. “This is the story of the Gospel.”
She’ll talk passionately about iconography and discuss the meaning behind the paintings. But Sister Philothei, 25, is less comfortable talking about the young woman she was before she became a nun. Her father, Luke Dingman, is an Orthodox priest and artist who lives southwest of San Jose, Calif. His portraits of St. John’s adorn the bottles of lotions and soap as well as the notecards sold by the sisters. His daughter grew up as Sarah Dingman and worked in his art studio before becoming a nun. From a very young age, she showed artistic promise. “She just drew everything,” Luke Dingman said.
Now her art is limited to iconography; she leaves the sketching of the wilderness around her to her father when he visits. She also sees herself not as an individual with unique talents but a member of a community to which she offers her contributions. “This is our life now,” she said. “You don’t want anything else.” Although he misses her, Luke Dingman is proud of his daughter. “I think she’s gone beyond me in the purity of her work and the purity of her life,” Luke Dingman said.
The sisters stop their work for lunch at 1 p.m. After lunch, they have quiet free time that they spend in personal prayer, reading, resting or walking. They return to their work at 4 p.m. until they are called to evening services.
The freedom to make individual decisions has been replaced by a life led in obedience to the Gerontissa. Rather than feeling controlled, Sister Philothei said the structure is a comfort. “Obedience is quite an amazing mystery,” she said. “It’s true freedom; it’s freedom from cares.” The Gerontissa said she doesn’t see obedience as a bad word but a way of expressing how their lives are structured. “It kind of keeps a nice order,” she said in Greek, interpreted by Sister Iosiphia. “It’s an understanding, not like servants or a slave. I’m not going to get them to do something that’s against the will of God.”
All of the sisters came to the monastery with the belief that God’s will for them is to live out their days there. “You come here with the goal to die here,” Sister Iosiphia said.
‘Surrounded by angels’
At 6 p.m., as the sun starts to set, Sister Iosiphia summons the sisters to vespers by whacking a long plank of wood with a stick, meant to symbolize Noah calling all the animals into the ark.
The service offers thanks for the day coming to an end and a welcome for the next day to dawn. It is filled with low soothing tones of the sisters reciting prayers. Local Orthodox families join the sisters. The sisters greet the children by name, often wrapping an affectionate arm around them. One mother, Theophano Reese, loves having her four children spend time at the monastery. “It’s like they are surrounded by angels,” she said.
Following vespers, the sisters have dinner, then return to the chapel for small compline, their evening prayers. Sister Iosiphia explained that they are closing their day by asking for forgiveness. You kind of make everything good with everyone,” she said.
“That’s the end of our day,” Sister Ephraimia whispers before quietly disappearing into the residence. “Have a good rest.”