ROCOR (A): On New Monastery and Mother Agapia

Hat tip to R.D.

The Road to a Monastery
Vadim Yarmolinets

A church lives on because of its ascetics and the ROCA(A) owes its existence to such people. Two years have passed since the now-departed Metropolitan Lavr signed the ROCA into union with the Moscow Patriarchate. In these two years, Metropolitan Agafangel (Pashkovskiy), a tireless bishop, and the Supreme Church Authority which he formed, have restored the infrastructure of the church, but there are difficulties that cannot be resolved by executive fiat. People are also needed that have a sense of purpose, motivation and the desire to sacrifice themselves. All of these traits can be found in full measure in the nun, Mother Agapia, who has taken upon herself the task of creating a new monastery in New York, destined to become yet another spiritual center of the ROCA(A) in place of Jordanville, which it lost.

Mother Agapia was born into the family of a Greek priest in the United States, but her attachment to the New Calendar church of her father was merely a formality. A real sense of belonging occurred when, as a student, she visited Jordanville, located in the northern part of New York State. New Yorkers call this picturesque area “upstate,” that is the upper part of the state, if you were to look at a map. Agapia, who went at the time by her secular name Anastastia, or simply Stacey, was attending law school, going on dates, and there was no indication she would immerse herself in the life of the church. What the future might hold could be seen in the career of her brother, George Stephanopoulos, who became a close advisor to President Clinton, and is now a political analyst and commentator. Mother Agapia remembers how the atmosphere at the monastery, the monastic elders, the singing of the choir made an unforgettable impression on her. She felt at home and wanted to stay in this home. Subsequent visits to Jordanville only strengthened this desire and she eventually took her vows within the walls of this monastery. When speaking with her, she lists the names of the monastic elders who became her mentors, as if she was recalling her closest friends.

That was all two decades ago. Now, according to the opinion of many who visit Jordanville, the feeling that once existed has left from within those old walls. There is a sense that this place has lost its sacredness, and more importantly, its reason for being. Most of the monastic elders have left this world, while new professors have arrived from Moscow, as have many of the students.

“What’s the point?” shrugs Mother Agapia.

This is borne out by a recent photo spread on the official Jordanville website. It seems that the parishioners, attending the festive liturgy on the Sunday of the Holy Trinity, are less in number than the clergy. The staff from Moscow have not been able to create the desire to go there, which Jordanville was always famous for in the not too distant past. The staff decides everything, as the cleric who founded sergianism once said, not realizing, apparently, that the players need an audience that can appreciate them.

I meet Mother Agapia in the warm and inviting home of Fr. Vsevolod Dutikow, in the quiet old neighborhood of Astoria, a part of Queens on the eastern shore of the East River. You can see Manhattan from there, a view which was described by a local poet as a carpenter’s tool box, with the skyscrapers sticking up like a line of different files. Mother Agapia has arrived from upstate, where she has been looking at a place for the future monastery. Fr. Vsevolod’s wife, Matushka Irina, asks her if she would like some coffee or tea. Mother Agapia asks only for some water, and sitting down with her cup, describes the property for the future monastery; 50 acres of land with a stream and woods, and most importantly, a house for the sisters and a small chapel. All the rest, building a church, a house for visitors, and creating a cemetery are matters for the future. Fr. Vsevolod playfully arches his gray eyebrow and asks if Mother will have a place for him there. Mother Agapia answers energetically, “Sign up, Father!” Both laugh.

Mother Agapia uses this phrase “Sign up” often, with those who help the future monastery one time, and those who decide to help with financing the cause for years to come. The burden of the bank loan becomes manageable, when split among a large number of people. People know her, trust her, and her energy is contagious.

“I don’t know how to paint icons, sew vestments or make prayer beads,” says Mother Agapia, “but I have my modest talents.”

Those talents were enough to gather part of the large down payment necessary, which will probably be about half a million dollars. An appeal has gone out among the parishes of the ROCA(A), which has already resulted in more than ten thousand dollars.

During our discussion about the establishment of the new monastery, talk turns to the main characteristic of a dedicated ascetic – a driving force, and Fr. Vsevolod jokes, “She’s the driving horse!” Father replaces the word “force” with “horse,” as they sound similar. Mother Agapia does not take offense. Both have a good sense of humor and an infectious love of life. They say every joke has a kernel of truth. Some would say that Mother Agapia has taken on a task beyond her abilities, but it is not a matter of strength, but that of a sense of purpose and dedication to a cause. This is the typical approach of a monastic seeking to fulfill any mission; outwardly unhurried, but methodical, resulting in concrete results. That is how monasteries were established in the rugged northern lands of Russia, and that is how they were started in the Russian diaspora.

Mother Agapia explains how she decided what area to look in; it should be about three to four hours from the city, not only to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city, but also to be close to the Orthodox communities in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.

What compelled Mother Agapia to follow this path? She was among those who did not accept union with the Moscow Patriarchate and was not shy about her opinion of the matter. It is well known, that many agreed to the union against their will, in the fear of losing the roof over their heads.

“Many will come to us, when they see there is somewhere to go,” she says with certainty.

She experienced the “kindness” of the MP before everyone else, when she was living in the Holy Land and the MP appropriated the church property of the ROCOR with brute force. Those who tried to stop them were literally thrown in the street. Union imposed unquestioning submission to the power of the Moscow Patriarchate and its goals for the church. It had no intention of honoring the conditions put forth by the ROCA; the condemnation of sergianism and the refusal to take part in the ecumenical movement. Time has borne this out, with sergianism becoming the foundation of the internal policies of the MP, while ecumenism a part of its external policies.

Two years ago, Mother Agapia had to leave the convent in Gethsemane, where she spent many years, and ventured to Australia to a convent headed by Hegumena Anna. She knew the Hegumena personally and believed the convent would not follow Metropolitan Lavr, but she was mistaken. After that, there was only one choice, the road led to America. She and several others have since then relied on the kindness and generosity of church members. She characterizes her own existence as being “on the road.” For her and her fellow travelers and her church, the road leads to a monastery, which Mother Agapia would like to dedicate to St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, the patron saint of travelers.