Monastery, as the Soul of the Church

Interview with Mother Agapia (Stephanopoulos), Superior at the Convent of Saint Nicholas, the Wonderworker, of the Syracuse Diocese, ROCOR (See pages 6-7 of the Missionary Leaflet)
The first thing that struck me was the overwhelming response from clergy and laity throughout the US and even in Australia to our appeal. It was obvious that the call for a convent, a spiritual center for the ROCA under Metropolitan Agafangel was important to many people both young and old. The letters received from elderly people expressing their deep appreciation for the formation of a Convent were very moving. At the same time it was wonderful to meet young people excited about the idea of coming to visit the Convent. After the ruinous and sometimes bitter separation from friends and family because of the 2007 union between ROCOR and the MP people are deeply in need of a place where they can once again focus on their spiritual life and rebuild their communities in a positive and healthy way. The Convent can help provide direction and inspiration.
Finally buying and moving into a new property in early February was an important step but what I find to be even more significant was the joy of having services and celebrating our first Liturgy at the end of the first week of Great Lent. This above all else is the reason for our existence here at St. Nicholas.
To struggle and purify our own souls within a daily prayer cycle and to offer prayers on behalf of our brothers and sisters in Christ scattered throughout the world.
Some of my most profound experiences as an Orthodox Christian took place at Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville which in many ways exemplified the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. Sadly with the union between ROCOR and the MP much of the history of the the ROCOR is being distorted to fit a particular agenda.
It is important that we do what we can to collect and archive ROCOR materials (journals, magazines, books, photos, memoirs) in order to present and remind people what those luminaries in Jordanville (Archbishop Averky, Archbishop Vitaly, Fr. Konstantin Zaitsev, Fr. Michael Pomazansky, Ivan Andreyev, etc) said and wrote. Their unvarnished legacy is one that is most important for coming to a real understanding of Orthodoxy and its significance for today’s world. With Metropolitan Agafangel’s blessing we plan to build a library here on the Convent grounds first to collect in one place as many of these materials as we can and then to catalog and present them in such a way that the library can become a real learning center. Already faithful have begun to send such books and magazines to the Convent and we have begun to sort and catalog them in our residence. It is hoped within a year construction of a separate library can begin.
First, be thought of as a superior of a convent is a misnomer. The fact is that the events in 2007 caused disruption in the life of many: clergy, laity and monastics. Now we begin to pick up the pieces and just as Archimandrites Panteleimon and Joseph did in 1927 when they left St. Tikhon’s Monastery for conscience’s sake and purchased the property in Jordanville so too do we do today. I am simply a nun trying to be true to our faith.
While I was raised in the New Calendar Greek Archdiocese in my college years I had the opportunity to visit Jordanville, and in fact remember meeting Fr. Panteleimon who was in the last year of his life. The experience was overwhelming to me for it was the first time I had really seen monks, the full order of services, and a hint of what the Orthodox faith was really all about in its fullness. I visited Jordanville frequently off and on for about 4 years before a women’s monastic community was formed.
In December 1991, I was made a novice in the Community of St. Elizabeth and lived there for five years. Besides obediences such as making incense and candles, one of my chief obediences was assisting the Monastery’s printshop and it was here in the typesetting and preparation of the Monastery’s publications that I learned and absorbed much of the history of the ROCOR. Having this knowledge and experience is certainly one reason why I am so committed to the path of Metropolitan Agafangel’s Synod.
I then spent 10 years in Jerusalem at the Convent of St. Mary Magdalene. There was a wonderful young abbess their at the time (Abbess Anna Karipoff) who did much to instill a coenobitic order and inspire the nuns to a deeper spiritual life. Here in a much larger community of 25-30 nuns I was relieved of having to do so much physical labor that a smaller community might entail and aided by good examples and the inspiration of living and often visiting the Holy Sites, I was able to focus more on my interior spiritual life. This sweet period was only to last about a year and a half. Soon the events in Hebron happened (MP seizure of our monastery in 1997) and I was called to assist with administrative matters. As well the upheaval and strain caused by this seizure led to Mother Anna resigning her position and leaving the Convent. This led to other changes in the monastery and I was appointed to run the Convent’s Orthodox School of Bethany The experience of running a school for 325 children, caring for 12 girls from broken homes, managing the property, dealing with teachers and employees, and at the same time trying to live the life of a nun in the Holy Land, going to services and hosting pilgrims, all in a most politicized and sometime violent part of the world certainly honed skills that are most useful as we undertake the formation of a new convent here in the States. Quite frankly while there are challenges here, it somehow seems a lighter burden than those days in Jerusalem.
Finally in February 2006 essentially due to my known opposition to the coming union I moved to Australia for two years to a small skete in the outback that Abbess Anna had established. With 6 people living on 200 acres and the nearest town about 60 miles away it was as far from the tension and hustle and bustle of Jerusalem, the center of the world, that one could imagine. But it was just what my soul needed. It was refreshing to be in the quiet once again, free of distraction and able to concentrate on the inner life. Sadly Mother Anna’s community went with the union but accepted and understood my decision. So I returned to the States, my homeland, not knowing exactly what would happen.
Looking back yes it does seem that all my experiences have prepared me for this moment. Our property is rather isolated and quiet and I find this to be the perfect place for working out a life of prayer and repentance. At the same time the place was not ready made and many organizational and administrative matters, dealing with municipalities and money matters need to be dealt with and my work at the School certainly helps in this regard.

While in someways it is premature because we are still very much in the beginning stages, still unpacking boxes, renovating rooms 3 months after we moved in, we will open our doors for the celebration of our patronal feast day. Our Convent is dedicated to St. Nicholas, and given the weather conditions here, it was decided the feast of the Translation of his relics (May 9/22) would be more appropriate for a pilgrimage. Because the feast fell the day before Pentecost we transferred the celebration to the weekend following Pentecost this year. We expect about 50 – 75 pilgrims to join us primarily from Astoria, from our communities in Toronto and Ottawa, as well as locals.
There will be a Vigil service on Saturday evening May 29 led by Archbishop Andronik and a hierarchal Liturgy the following morning. May St. Nicholas ever guide and protect us in our small efforts to provide a place of prayer for our ROCA faithful and a witness to the Orthodox faith to those outside the fold.

Holy Father Nicholas, pray to God for us!
Photographs: Bethany near Jerusalem, the Holy Land. 
Top photo:Mother Agapia and students of the Orthodox School
during the Divine liturgy, Lazarus Saturday, Pascha-2005

Second photo: Chapel at the school’s courtyard.