The Chapter titled, Holy Protection Orthodoxy Monastery, White Haven, Pennsylvania, (Greek Orthodox Archdiocese) was written by Chrysanthe Loizos.
On an unassuming two-lane road just off the interstate, tall wrought-iron gates are a traveler’s first indication that Holy Protection Monastery is something out of the ordinary. Visitors who pass through the gates and up a wooded, winding road will eventually see the monastery’s buildings in a clearing. With its ceramic tile roofs, stucco and stone facades, and carefully tended grounds, it looks like it might have been built in Greece and dropped neatly into this sliver of the Pocono Mountains.
The monastery was established by Archimandrite Ephraim (Moraitis), commonly known as Elder Ephraim. The former abbot of Philotheou Monastery on Mount Athos, Greece, Elder Ephraim has founded fifteen monasteries in the United States since the late 1980s and is credited with bringing Athonite monasticism to the United States. In 1993, at the invitation of Bishop Maximos of Pittsburgh of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, two nuns came from Greece to form the initial community Holy Protection Monastery.
How they chose this section of northeast Pennsylvania is attributed in part to Bishop Maximos’s eagerness to welcome monasteries to his diocese, as well as to the proximity to major metropolitan centers like New York and Philadelphia. Both cities are close, about two hours, but not so close that travelers can make the trip without a second thought. That is, the founders wanted a place that required some sacrifice on the part of visitors.
The monastery was originally situated on a 15-acre property not far from the current location. The sisters eventually outgrew that space—eighteen of them shared eight rooms—and tried for years to expand, without success. And then, in the late ’90s, the sisterhood was approached about a 360-acre property for sale nearby. Initially the abbess ruled it out, sight unseen. But the sellers kept returning and asking her to reconsider. Over time it became clear that the property was meant to be the monastery’s new home: the sellers reduced the price by half, the bank approved the loan, and the local community welcomed the sisterhood with open arms.
The monastery welcomes visitors who seek a prayerful retreat and rest from the hectic pace and spiritual struggles of everyday life. Abbess Olympiada is careful to say that the sisters themselves aren’t the ones providing help. “Panagia [i.e. the all-holy Mother of God] herself comforts everyone who takes the effort to come here. We’ve seen this happen many times,” she says.
Overnight visitors are accommodated in shared rooms in a long, two-story guesthouse with its own kitchen and dining room. At lunch and dinner the sisters bring meals prepared largely from food grown on the land, and the guests eat together in the kitchen or dining area. The shared meals allow for fellowship between pilgrims who come from near and far. Those who visit just for the day don’t need to notify the monastery in advance, but overnight guests must first receive the blessing of the abbess. Guests may be asked to devote a few hours each day to assisting the sisters in their work.
Schedule of Prayer
And although visitors are welcome, the sisters are careful not to break their so-called “hesychast” tradition: that is, the emphasis on keeping silence, inward stillness, and constant repetition of the Jesus Prayer—“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” With their monastic life rooted in hesychasm, the sisters struggle to protect and maintain that tradition alongside the competing demands of hosting visitors. That means keeping a strict schedule. The sisters wake at 1 a.m. every morning to recite the Jesus Prayer. Depending on the day of the week, they gather in the candlelit church for Divine
Liturgy at 3:30 a.m. or for a supplicatory service to the Mother of God at 4 a.m. That’s followed by a brief rest and then breakfast. The sisters work until lunchtime and then return to their work until 4 p.m. Evening prayer services follow, and then dinner and rest for the night.
Services are mainly in Greek, as the monastery sees itself as helping to establish the Greek monastic tradition in a country already blessed with many Orthodox monasteries using English, Russian, Serbian, and other languages.
The sisterhood currently utilizes about fifty of the monastery’s 360 acres. The sisters are eager to share with visitors their love and care for the land. They have become increasingly enthusiastic about organic gardening, and about what they see as their responsibility to preserve the land given to them. They have started using microorganisms in their gardening as a way to restore a natural balance to the earth and garden without pesticides or fertilizers. Much of what they eat is grown on the property, and their goal is to be entirely self-sustaining. A large greenhouse is home to different varieties of tomatoes, as well as cucumbers, peppers, leeks, and garlic. They also grow herbs, potatoes, onions, and spinach. Chickens supply eggs, and goats provide milk that is used for different Greek cheeses and soaps. The sisters intend to plant a variety of fruit trees in their future orchard.
Their enthusiasm for the land has made the nuns inquisitive. They collect and study plants and experiment with edible plants and weeds. They make tinctures and salves from berries and herbs. Their love and respect for the land stems from a belief that it isn’t theirs but belongs to God and the Mother of God. Their role, they believe, is simply to serve.
In order to see the animals and gardens, visitors need to be accompanied by one of the sisters. The other sections of the monastery can be walked on one’s own. A path leads to a cemetery and a small log chapel dedicated to St. Seraphim of Sarov. There is also a larger stone chapel dedicated to St. Paraskeve, the only structure that is original to the property. An outdoor stone enclave dedicated to the Dormition of the Theotokos offers visitors a place for quiet prayer and reflection.
The main monastery building is flanked on one end by the church, dedicated to the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, and on the other end by a smaller chapel dedicated to St. Nektarios. In between is a large bookstore and the sisters’ living quarters, including their cells and a dining hall.
Iconography and Gifts
Visitors will want to make a point of seeing the icons produced by the sisters. Icons are painted in the traditional manner, using egg tempera and natural colors derived from minerals. The wood for the icons is cut and sanded on site. Decorative features, such as beads and painted flowers, are added to both hand-painted icons and mounted icon prints. Some of the mounted print icons are finished with epoxy, lending them a beautiful shine. The process requires teamwork and patience. Approximately half the sisterhood is involved in icon making in some way. An ever-growing appreciation of hand-painted icons means that buyers may wait over a year to have an order fulfilled. Those who don’t want to wait so long can purchase very affordably priced high-quality prints of original icons from a large selection in the monastery bookstore.
The sisters also make traditional baptism and wedding items, including Jordan almonds wrapped in tulle; small, delicately painted icons to be given as favors at baptisms; decorative candles; and wedding crowns.
The monastery is also known for its traditional Greek sweet breads, which it bakes and sells twice a year to celebrate the feast of St. Basil (celebrated on January 1) and Pascha. An entire two-story building is dedicated to baking. The process requires most of the sisters: one team to make the dough, another to roll it out into traditional braids, a third team to bake and decorate, and a fourth to package the baked goods. It’s a time-consuming and deadline-bound task, the success of which the sisters attribute to Panagia.
“Panagia” is a common answer to questions here. The sisters say that with each passing year they are more and more certain that this land was chosen for them by the Mother of God and that through her intercessions their efforts are blessed.
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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