New Gracanica Monastery, Third Lake, Illinois (Serbian Orthodox Church in the USA)
By Alexei Krindatch
New Gracanica Monastery
Third Lake, Illinois, a northern Chicago suburb, is home to the Protection of the Most Holy Mother of God Monastery. The sixty-five acres of lakeshore property were purchased by the Holy Mother of God Serbian Association for the establishment of a monastery in 1977. The monastery, also known as “New Gracanica,” is a major spiritual center for Serbians living in the United States. “This is a gathering place for all Serbian people,” says Bishop Sava (Juric), who was at the monastery when construction first began and returned to retire here after many years of living abroad. Indeed, thousands of Serbian families come annually to the monastery not only to pray, but for various social and cultural events, children’s camps, baptisms, weddings, and funerals. The monastery also serves as the diocesan office of His Grace Bishop Longin (Krco), the head of the Midwestern American Serbian Orthodox Diocese.
Replica of Gracanica Monastery in Kosovo
The monastery’s main church is dedicated to the feast of the Protection of the Most Holy Mother of God. The church was constructed as a detailed and slightly enlarged replica of the medieval church of Gracanica Monastery in Kosovo, hence the name “New Gracanica”. Bishop Sava explains that “for many of us, Kosovo is like Serbian Jerusalem.” The original Gracanica Monastery was built by Serbian king Stefan Milutin in 1321 on the ruins of a sixth-century Christian basilica and was one of his last monumental endowments. (1)
Architecturally, the Gracanica Monastery in Kosovo represents the culmination of the Serbian medieval art of building in the Byzantine tradition. (2)
The wooden entrance doors to the Protection of the Most Holy Mother of God Church in Third Lake are hand-carved and depict twenty-three monasteries and churches from various regions of Serbia. The interior is richly decorated with wooden furnishings, ornate gold and crystal chandeliers, imposing icons, and a terrazzo floor. But the most unique feature of the church is its Byzantine frescoes. Fr. Theodore Jurewicz (3) was commissioned to paint the entire church, a project that took three years. Today brightly colored religious scenes cover the walls, vaults, pillars, and dome of the church.
Three-Handed Mother of God
One particular icon displayed in the church is especially noteworthy. It is called “Bogorodica Trojerucica” (in Greek, “Panayia Tricherousa”), which means “Three-Handed Mother of God.” Its prototype is a famous wonderworking icon in the Serbian Orthodox Monastery of Hilandar on Mount Athos, Greece. The icon portrays the Virgin Mary holding the young Jesus. A distinct element of this icon is a third hand (wrist) depicted in the lower left corner.
According to tradition, the icon was in the possession of St. John of Damascus (a Syrian monk and priest of the early eighth century) and is associated with his miraculous healing around the year 717 AD. According to the story of St. John’s life, prior to his ordination as a Christian priest he served as vizier (chief administrator) to the local Muslim ruler, Caliph Al-Walid I. St. John was falsely accused of treachery, and his hand was cut off. The accusation was allegedly made by Byzantine emperor Leo the Isaurian. The emperor was an Iconoclast (i.e. a person strongly opposed to the use of icons in the church), a great opponent of St. John, and a friend of Al-Walid I. After having his hand cut off, St. John prayed fervently in front of an icon of the Virgin Mary, and his hand was miraculously restored. To express his gratitude, he made a silver replica of his hand and attached it to the icon. Thus, the icon depicts three hands: two of the Virgin Mary and one “attached” by St. John. The Bogorodica Trojerucica icon in New Gracanica Monastery was painted in Thessaloniki, Greece, and then spent time in Hilandar Monastery on Mount Athos, where it sat side by side with the original icon. Eventually the new icon was brought to New Gracanica personally by the abbot of the Hilandar Monastery. Many people come to New Gracanica to venerate Bogorodica Trojerucica and to ask for healing from various illnesses.
Joe Buley Memorial Library
New Gracanica Monastery maintains the Joe Buley Memorial Library, which houses a collection of materials on Serbian history and culture, both in English and Serbian. The collection is especially strong in the area of twentieth-century Serbian history and the history of Serbian communities in the United States. Also noteworthy is the monastery’s cemetery, which encompasses thirteen acres of land and contains over five thousand graves.
Every July New Gracanica organizes a camp for children and teenagers aged six to sixteen. They come for one-week sessions, and each group has about one hundred participants. Fr. Serafim, the monastery’s abbot, says, “We think about these camps as our inside mission work. Most of our campers are third-fourth-generation American-born. The idea is to bring kids together so that they can have fun, but also learn about their Orthodox faith and Serbian history and culture.” The schedule of the camp is fairly full. Each day includes two church services, (4) three thirty-minutes classes (one related to Orthodox religion, one dealing with Serbian culture and history, and one on church singing), and a variety of afternoon activities (visits to the nearby Six Flags amusement park and swimming pool, sports games, bonfires, craft classes, etc.). For many campers, however, the favorite part of the day is the evening gatherings, when the youth are divided by age group and each group is allocated a window of time with Fr. Serafim. He reads a Bible story, and then the floor is open for questions and answers and discussion.
While regular church services at the monastery are mostly in Serbian and Church Slavonic, the summer camp uses English as the main language of communication and instruction. This allows the children from Serbian families to bring with them their non-Serbian friends, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox.
Celebrating Serbian Traditions
The monastery’s grounds are open every day, and many Serbian families come here throughout the year for various events: picnics, weddings, and social and cultural activities. Several times a year New Gracanica hosts folklore parties. They are typically organized on Friday afternoons by one of the local Serbian Orthodox parishes. Serbian traditional dishes are enjoyed, and young people wear ethnic clothes and perform Serbian dances.
But the events that attract the largest crowds— thousands of people—are the Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day picnics. These events are open to the wider public. In the morning, the Divine Liturgy is served in the monastery’s church, followed by speeches given by the bishop and an invited speaker. In the afternoon a variety of Serbian foods and drinks are available for purchase (the highlights include roasted pig and lamb along with slivovitz, Serbian plum-brandy), while the vendors sell various arts and crafts.
For large groups and private events, the monastery has a dining hall where meals can be prepared and which can accommodate up to eight hundred persons. There is also a soccer field for the athletically inclined. Picnic benches and tables are scattered throughout the monastery’s grounds. Nearby Druce Lake, with its beach, is a scenic place to relax and commune with friends and nature. New Gracanica Monastery offers overnight accommodations in eight simple but comfortable family rooms.
- Today the original Gracanica Monastery’s cultural and historical significance are recognized by its placement on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Through the centuries Gracanica Monastery became a symbol of Serbian spirituality and national unity for the Serbian people worldwide.
- Sometimes this style is referred to as “Kosmet style,” a development of the Macedonian style or cross-in-square.
- Fr. Theodore Jurewicz (b. 1949) is a Polish-American Orthodox old-rite (“Old Believer”) priest and artist specializing in Byzantine icons and frescoes. He was a student of the late Archimandrite Cyprian, the founder of school of iconography at the Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, New York (see separate article on this monastery). Fr. Theodore is regarded as one of the most renowned icon painters in North America today.
- Those who desire are given the opportunity to learn how to help with church services in the capacity of altar boys.
The above was taken from the book Atlas of American Orthodox Christian Monasteries, by Alexei Krindatch.
Click here for more information on monasteries in America.
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