by Chris Clemens
New York has one of the most diverse histories in the country when it comes to spirituality. There seems to be a never ending supply of discoverable spots around Upstate to feed the soul whether it be traveling or sitting still. For those who don’t know me personally, you may not know that Orthodox Christian art and iconography is some of my favorite in the spiritual realm. I’m Italian-Irish-Welsh-Canadian without an ounce of Eastern Europe in my heritage, but for some reason I find myself filled with intrigue regarding one of the world’s oldest religious traditions.
While recently passing through Woodstock, New York, I met Marti of The Wild Rose Inn and we talked for a bit about the history of the town and the people and things that make it unique. She told me that before I headed out that I should drive to the top of the mountain and visit the Karma Triyana Dharmachakra Buddhist monastery. While she was totally right about how much I’d enjoy the monastery, she never mentioned the Church of the Holy Transfiguration of Christ On the Mount that is literally just a few hundred feet away. After meandering and zig-zagging back and forth up a mountain road in search of the monastery, I turned a corner and instantly set eyes on the structure with a dropped jaw. Quite unfortunately, I was entirely alone with no one to be seen except for a random car that would occasionally pass paying me no mind. Without any information about the church or history, I decided to take a look around.
I later learned that Christ-On-The-Mount was originally built back in 1891 by George Mead as an Episcopal house of worship. Within a handcrafted, wooden structure with only a single room, a rare sect of Catholicism is now practiced. Rather than Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the Sarum Rite is actually a Western Orthodox practice, which means they are aligned with the Eastern Orthodox Church, but use a Western liturgy during mass.
Woodstock is well known for being a spiritual, creative place and has been since the turn of the 19th century, which only complicates the answer to the question I’m asked time and again: Is New York innately a spiritual place? Or, did we somehow make it that way? Regardless of the answer, hippies, musicians and creative types found themselves drawn to this region of the Catskills in the 1960’s, as did a man who would later be known as Father Francis. A strong advocate for immigrants and the poor, Fr. Francis earned the nickname ‘Hippy Priest’ and was well liked by all. It was Fr. Francis himself who began the Sarum Rite of Catholicism after moving to Woodstock in 1938 and taking over the property for himself and seven followers who created a monastic life of beekeeping and goat-herding and to live off the land.
He later would go on to celebrate friendships with the Hearst family, Eleanor Roosevelt, and even would finally be ordained in the Russian Orthodox Church, I’d guess at the monastery in Jordanville that I visited last year. Though the famous Woodstock Festival in 1969 actually took place about an hour and a half away from the town of Woodstock, many festival goers found themselves in the town afterward and Fr. Francis was one of the ones providing respite and food to the tired hippies. Today, the church is led by Father John in much of the same tradition as his predecessor who passed away in 1979. There’s no sign up yet, but the church on the mount was added to a historic landmark list back in 2005.
With part childlike wonderment at stumbling victoriously on to what is one of my favorite things coupled with some letdown about not being able to see inside or meet anyone, I walked a rocky, overgrown path to the front steps for a closer look. After snagging a few of the photos you’re looking at here, I decided to heed my own advice that I give explorers: “try the handle, ’cause you never know”. While I’m never comfortable going where I’m not supposed to, an unlocked door to a serene place almost felt like a gift from whatever gods were throwing a festival for themselves in Woodstock that day.
A dark, perfectly silent room with two pews flanking the nave was filled with icons on each sidewall and the typical iconostasis found separating the altar from the congregation. Without wanting to overstay whatever welcome I’m not sure I had actually received, I said a quick prayer and took a few photos to share with you before getting on my way.
While I’m certain that having had an opportunity to attend a mass or even just meet Father John would have been outstanding, I was thrilled to have had the chance to find the spot at all. An old, wooden Orthodox church in the woods at the top of a mountain was an absolutely perfect spot to take a break from the day’s travels and connect with whatever it was that was guiding me that day. In many ways, it had much to do with my new friend Marti, whose path I’m glad to have crossed and advice I’m pleased to have followed!
Sources and Additional Reading
“Church on the mount gets its due acknowledgement” on the Woodstock Times
Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens