America Needs More Monasteries
When visitors describe their impression of Dormition of the Mother of God Monastery, (Orthodox Church in America) two words are used most often: “hospitality” and “icons.” This monastic community is located in the old farming community of Rives Junction near the city of Jackson (south central Michigan). It is about an hour drive from Detroit airport. The monastery sits on 220 acres of wooded land that is home to an array of wildlife.
Dormition of the Mother of God was founded in 1987 by three nuns from Varatec Monastery, the largest women’s monastery in Romania (it has over four hundred nuns in residence). When the sisters came to the United States, they first joined the well-known Monastery of Transfiguration in Ellwood City, Pennsylvania. After staying there for nine years, they felt a strong desire to pursue missionary work and to spread the Orthodox faith in America. Mother Gabriela (current abbess of Dormition of the Mother of God) remembers the exact words of the late Mother Benedicta, the most “senior” of the three founding sisters: “America needs more monasteries.” The nuns purchased an old and dilapidated farm in Rives Junction township, Michigan: an area where missionary Baptist churches always maintained a very strong presence. In a relatively short period of time, the sisters were able not only to establish a monastic community, but also to build a committed group of Orthodox faithful—the “friends of the monastery”—who provided support and encouragement.
The original farm property had only an old farmhouse and a pole barn. Less than three decades later, the Holy Dormition Monastery has become what some people describe as a “landmark for North American Orthodoxy.” Well-maintained hiking trails allow visitors to explore the monastery’s grounds or to find a secluded place for prayer, intimate conversation, and simple relaxation. There is a prayer hermitage in the woods and a large open outdoor pavilion that is used in the summer for worship services, public events, and festive meals. With the aspiration of making their monastery a “family-friendly” place where not only adults but even small children feel engaged and involved, the nuns created a “children’s garden.” It is simultaneously a garden, a playground, and an educational space that allows children to explore and learn about the Orthodox faith. The children explore the garden on their own, or one of the nuns can give them an introductory tour in which she explains, in an entertaining and accessible manner, what various parts of the garden symbolize.
Fr. Roman Braga
For many years the Dormition Monastery was the home of Archimandrite Roman Braga. A humble monk, respected priest, talented musician, and fervent preacher, Fr. Roman was the resident priest and spiritual father of this monastic community from 1990 until his death in 2015. When remembering Fr. Roman the sisters often compare him to “a nourishing rain on the seed of Orthodoxy in North America.” Fr. Roman offered his priestly, intellectual, and spiritual support not only to Orthodox but to non-Orthodox as well. His presence at the Dormition Monastery was very important in the development of the spiritual oasis the Dormition Monastery is today.
To the outside world, Dormition Monastery is perhaps best known for the regularly held iconography workshops. At a certain point one of the nuns, Mother Olympia, discovered herself to be a talented iconographer. The work and books on icon-painting techniques by Theophanes the Cretan—a sixteenth-century Greek iconographer— inspired Mother Olympia to try her hand at creating images. Being mostly self-taught, she felt a call not only to paint (the whole interior of the monastery’s main church was painted by Sister Olympia), but also to help others to learn this art. And so, for the past fifteen years, the monastery offers weeklong icon-painting classes (twice a year). Mother Gabriela, the monastery’s abbess, says, “There are two distinct features of our icon classes. First, most of our students are amateurs who learn icon writing not for professional purposes but by simply answering their internal need to create. Second, those who come here for the classes are also fully ‘immersed’ into the monastery’s everyday life: they stay at the monastery, share meals with us, and participate in all worship services.”
Besides painting and teaching how to paint icons, two other industries of the Dormition of the Mother of God monastery should be mentioned: mounting icons on wood and granite, and making prayer ropes. The monastery also runs a small publishing company: HDM (i.e., Holy Dormition Monastery) Press.
In addition to the annual pilgrimage held on the feast of Dormition (August 15), the events attracting a great numbers of visitors are the so-called “workdays” and “caroling day.” The workdays are organized twice a year (in spring and fall). On these days, anyone is invited to visit and to help nuns with various work projects. The day begins with Liturgy, followed by work, and then lunch and some more work. But the real reason why people come is for fellowship and to simply have a good time together. As Mother Gabriela says, “This is all about bringing together people who otherwise would never meet each other.”
The caroling day occurs on the second day of Christmas—a day when the churches typically do not have services and most people are done with festive meals, exchange of presents, and so on. On this day people of all cultural backgrounds, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox, literally pack the monastery and sing Christmas carols from various ethnic traditions and in different languages. This is a unique opportunity to hear traditional American, Greek, Russian, Serbian, Romanian, and even Ethiopian Christmas songs performed in one place.
Eight sisters live together today under one roof at the Dormition of the Mother of God Monastery. Some of them are quite young (in their mid-twenties), while some have much longer life experiences. Half of them grew up in Romania, while half are American-born. Some are “professional monastics” and spent most of their lives living in monastic communities, while some were accomplished professionals (including a former engineer, an English language teacher, and a realtor). The monastery has Romanian cultural “roots” and the founding sisters came from Romania, but today it can be described as an “all-American” Orthodox monastic community. English is used both as the primary language of worship and everyday life.
Everyone Is Welcome
Visitors should keep one thing in mind when visiting the Dormition of the Mother of God Monastery. The sisterhood welcomes everyone for both short and multiday visits, but this is a relatively small community, and the sisters cherish the atmosphere of tranquility and peace at the monastery. Those coming here would benefit greatly by “fitting” into this atmosphere and being sensitive to the established routines of the everyday life at the monastery.
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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