GOLDENDALE, Wa.— An isolated spot in the mountains of central Washington state may not seem like the most logical place for a Greek Orthodox monastery, but that doesn’t stop the many visitors to the Holy Monastery of St. John the Forerunner.
As drivers speed down the mountain toward the Columbia River south toward Oregon, on the left appears an “Espresso/Greek Pastry” sign. It is just off Route 97 and downhill from the 3,100-foot Satus Pass and a welcome sight for drivers after a lonely 50 miles trolling through the Yakama Indian Reservation.
Black-robed nuns with Greek names are the baristas and bakers here. Their habits consist of floor-length skirts topped by a black tunic and black head scarves wound tightly about their faces up to their chins. There is not a hair showing.
As soft chants play in the background, visitors can choose from an array of baklava, cheesecakes, moussaka, spanakopita, dolmadakia and other foods, along with books, greeting cards, baptismal candles, incense and icons. A local Orthodox priest provides the coffee beans from his personal roastery. The place is so popular, the nuns doubled the size of the shop in 2013.
Orthodox believers from western Oregon and Washington show up along with drop-ins from the highway. A typical question overheard in coffee shop is “How is your Lent going?”
Only the shop is what most visitors see. But for those who request a tour, nuns will show them the stately Orthodox church on a hill in the back of the property. Those who are Orthodox can stay the night in a guesthouse next to the coffee shop.
The night I stayed there, I met two men from North Carolina who were volunteers.
“The energy here is amazing,” said one. “The lead nun– she is the real thing and who she is radiates to all the sisters.”
He was referring to Gerondissa Efpraxia, the current abbess. She is one of three nuns (the others were Sister Parthenia and Sister Agni) from the Holy Orthodox Monastery of the Panagia Hodigitria in Volos, Greece. Twenty-four years ago, they were asked to establish a similar convent in the ecclesiastical wilderness of rural Washington state. The closest Orthodox parish at the time was an Antiochian Orthodox parish 60 miles away in Yakima. (A Greek mission church has since been started in the nearby town of Goldendale).
A local doctor, Gerald Timmer, donated 48 acres to the Greek Orthodox Diocese of San Francisco (which oversees the Pacific Northwest) for the establishment of a women’s monastery. It was founded on May 13, 1995. Three weeks after they arrived, Gerondissa Makrina, the saintly abbess who sent them overseas and prayed for their success, died in Greece.
The pioneering nuns were charged with the difficult task of setting up a monastery at this isolated locale while coming up with ways they could be financially sufficient. Young women slowly started to join the convent and building by building, the nuns began enlarging their space.
The guest cottage, with pale lemon-yellow walls and a wood stove that more than heats up the premises, comes with a neat kitchen, living and dining area. Sister Theologia, the nun who showed me to my quarters, politely declined to give out her birth name. None of the sisters I met wished to talk about their former lives in the world.
I was asked to don a long skirt for the day and a scarf in keeping with the modesty of the place. One of the first things I noticed was there are no mirrors anywhere. The nuns believe they detract people from focusing on the inner self.
I was there during Orthodox Lent, so the simple dinner was meatless lasagna, accompanied by greens, pickled vegetables and home-baked bread.
Behind the coffee shop in a grove of pine trees are several buildings; one housing goats and chickens and another with farm equipment. The grounds are immaculate; not always easy to do when the locale is near a wind-swept mountain pass. There were burn marks on many of the tree trunks. In 2011, the entire property nearly burned to the ground after sparks from the muffler of a semi-truck on the highway blew east onto the grounds. But thanks to the local firefighters (and perhaps the prayers of the nuns), the convent only suffered smoke damage.
In the pews at 4:30 am
Completed in 2014, St. John the Forerunner Greek Orthodox Church sits atop a small hill behind the coffeehouse. The sand-colored building dominates the landscape, now at 60 acres thanks to some additional property purchased by the diocese. One passes under huge brown-and-white-striped Romanesque arches to reach the front door. Inside, gold chandeliers hang from a beamed wooden ceiling topped by a dome. The 6 pm compline (similar to vespers) service was a quiet ceremony, albeit all in Greek. Individual nuns walked to and fro, venerating icons and genuflecting. As a non-Orthodox observer, I was confined to the narthex in back of the church.
The following day, a divine liturgy service at 4:30 am was where the true spiritual life of the parish was revealed. Outside, it was cold and damp, yet the stars were glowing in the sky. I made my way through the woods guided by a cell phone light, the only sound being the barking of the monastery dogs who could hear my footsteps. They help protect the monastery goats (who produce milk and cheese and yogurt for the monastery) from coyotes.
There was a priest present; Fr. Michael Dunaway, who lives nearby and has been there 17 years. Only candles provided light to the church, along with two small electric lamps for two choirs. Silent figures in black, their heads veiled, stood about the sanctuary while the priest swung a censer filled with incense and loaded with a dozen bells (for the 12 apostles). Most of the 27 nuns and novices were present. The Byzantine chants, sung on a diatonic scale, were full of half-tones and minor keys. Afterwards, we stepped outside to see the dawn light muted by clouds that moved in. Most of us returned to bed for a nap until 8 am.
After a breakfast of oatmeal, bread and jam, Sister Iosephia (Yo-seph-fee-ya) gave me a tour of the church. Iosephia explained that everything in the church– oak carvings, oil lamps, brass chandeliers and the marble floors– had been imported from Greece.
“We don’t really try to convert,” the nun told me. “We believe that God draws people.”
Dedicated in May 2014 and costing $2 million, the 5,000-square-foot church is full of symbolic touches. Many things were grouped in threes (for the Trinity) or 12’s, and the Byzantine emblem of the double-headed eagle was prominent.
Most impressive was the huge crown-shaped 12-foot-diameter brass chandelier, suspended by 12 chains (representing the apostles) from the dome. The candles placed in it represent the saints. A Portland family gave that chandelier and during feast days, the candlelit chandelier is swung through space. That happened this past Easter (or Pascha as the Orthodox call it), on April 28. At the convent, the Pascha service began at 11 pm and went to about 3 am, followed by a feast for 125 guests.
The decorated wall separating the nave from the altar area is called an iconostasis and was covered with carved angels, grapes, fruit and icons of many saints. The marble floors were black, red, gold and pine green hues. The cream-colored church walls will someday be painted with more images of saints and two of the sisters there are iconographers. For now, the nuns cannot spare anyone to paint the interior.
“It’s a calling. Either you have it or you don’t.”
I was curious as to whether the sisters ever have a life beyond the constant work.
“They say what you give up for the love of Christ in this life, you get 100-fold in the next life,” Sister Iosephia responded when I asked her if she gets to swim. (She doesn’t.) She said that the average entry age there is about 20 and of the 27 sisters there, five are novices.
Later, I talk with Sisters Agni and Ephraimia, the latter being the nun who speaks the most with reporters. Agni’s English is passable, but she preferred to speak in Greek.
“We were called here from our diocese to establish a monastery in this area.” she said.
St. John the Forerunner is one of a group of 17 American monasteries that come from a tradition of monasticism originating at Mount Athos, an island in northern Greece with 20 monasteries. Half of the sisters there, she says, are daughters of American converts to Orthodoxy. Of those 13 or 14 women, seven or eight are from families who used to be Protestant evangelicals before converting to Orthodoxy.
“We are here because of the love Christ and the desire to give ourselves to God,” said Sister Ephraimia. “It’s a calling. Either you have it, or you don’t.”
When I ask about various things they no longer enjoy as nuns, Sister Iosephia said, “We don’t desire those things anymore. We gave them up.”
That includes their original names. Even their families must address them with their monastic names. All those who join eventually learn Greek. Their days start around 1:30 a.m., when nuns have individual prayer in their cells for three hours. A lot of this is reflection, meditation and intercessory prayer.
“We can feel the pain of the world,” Sister Ephraimia says. “So many people who come here tell us of their pain.”
The early morning liturgy is followed by more sleep, then breakfast, then work. Lunch is at 1 pm, after which the nuns have quiet or personal time until 3:30 pm. They return to work until compline at 6. Dinner is at 7:30 and they’re in bed by 9.
The bulk of their visitors are from Portland (three hours away) and Seattle (a five-hour drive). About 2,000 people came through in 2018 and their guest house is full every weekend.
One nun was the church’s contractor, another the mechanical engineer
The church took two years to build and its $2 million cost is not counting many donated goods and services. Of great help were some Greek donors who gave them no-interest loans. One of the nuns was the general contractor; another acted as a mechanical engineer and other sisters did all the insulation and painting. The builders came from Goldendale.
A two-floor dorm for the nuns was completed in 2011. The nuns credit the Vancouver, Wash.-based Omega Industries, run by Greek immigrants Isidore and Maria Garifalakis and their daughters, for having donated heavily toward the monastery. One of their recent gifts was asphalt for the monastery driveway and parking lots.
Sophia Kosaris, one of the daughters and the family spokeswoman, said her family jumped at the opportunity to help grow the monastery soon after it started in 1995, even though it was 130 miles to the east. Her father chaired a committee to raise millions of dollars for new construction, plus he personally donated steel, concrete, electrical supplies and various engineering and electrical services to get the place up and running.
“Monasteries have always been a place where they help people with disease, sickness, feeding the poor, spiritual guidance, even educating others,” she said. “Today, it continues to do all of these things. This is a place of simplicity and peace.
“The sisters of the monastery help others find their path through their beliefs, warmth, and monastic way of life. They help thousands successfully cope with different issues ranging from personal to spiritual. The results are real. The family was excited to have a place in the Pacific Northwest where the faith is not only passed on to others but can provide an avenue to help others.”
The nuns are now raising $5 million for a refectory for the sisters and guests along with a commercial kitchen, infirmary and chapel. About $1 million has been raised so far.
Along with fundraising, the nuns have full plates. Some 8-10 sisters tend the bakery, four handle the cooking, two sisters handle the animals, plus there is other outside work and office work. They are stretched. Work parties come from outside to help work on computers, chop wood and other tasks. They are hoping to hire an icon painter to move there from Greece to do the interior of the church.
To date, the nuns have scant publicity about their history and monastery but they did make a DVD in 2017 that gives out some details. In it, they call their convent “a beautiful dream.” Even for the casual visitor who may only get to snack on Greek food and pastries at the bakery just off the highway, that dream appears to have come true.