by Chris Clemens
There’s no mistaking that Upstate is one of the most picturesque areas in the country. I have friends who have moved away and when they return to visit they’re always pleasantly reminded of the rolling hills, greenery and waterways that make the land so memorable. So, it’s no wonder that a group of Russian Orthodox monks had made their way to Jordanville in Herkimer County during the early 1900’s and determined upon first sight that it was the only place befitting of their new home.
Fr. Panteleimon and four others set out building their first structure featuring a house and church and it was later was dedicated with a special service on July 17, 1935. Toward the end of that service the wooden structure caught fire and the monastery’s hopes waned as everyone in attendance watched in awe at the incredible misfortune unfolding in front of them. The group’s strong spirit and fortitude would later pay off, as they collectively determined that their original dedication to God must not have been worthy and that He required a greater consecration. They built anew right away–only this time they used stone and would go bigger with their plans in hopes of pleasing God.
I visited the monastery with a friend and had the great fortune of spending a few hours with Brother Angelos, a 24 year old Russian Orthodox monk from Scotland. He walked us around the property and we discussed the history of the Orthodox church and how the Great Schism sent Christianity in two different directions. He told us how that affected the culture and history of the countries involved and how much of the culture of the Orthodox church developed over time.
We first met in the bookstore of the monastery where we began our conversation. It was quite obvious that at least 80 percent of the books available for purchase were in Russian, with a just a few shelves available in English. Brother Angelos explained that though many Russian immigrants have settled in this area of the world, there aren’t abundant resources for those who speak English as a second language and want to honor their Orthodox beliefs. The monastery serves as a bit of a pilgrimage site for those longing for the traditions and culture that they had in Russia. In fact, at the same time we were there, there was a group of about thirty Russian Orthodox Christians from Toronto spending the weekend. In addition to books, you can purchase icons made on site, soap made by the nuns who live down the road, jewelry, incense and candles–much of which is either made on site or by other monks at a different brother monastery.
Our new friend walked us out to the Baptistry, and then the main church. He explained there actually were five churches on the grounds and we were standing in one of them–the largest and most grand of the bunch. The second church was directly below the nave of the main church and is used for smaller gatherings or in the winter when it costs less to heat the smaller space. There were icons of saints and images from the Bible painted on the walls and ceilings, and icons of saints hanging everywhere. One of my curiosities about the Christian faith has always been with the worship of relics–either an item that has once touched the saint or an actual remnant from their body. Without counting, the number of relics just in the churches we visited (3 of the 5) would easily rival that of the largest Catholic collection of relics in the entire U.S. One of the main differences between Catholic Saints and Orthodox Saints is that Catholics require a vetting process overseen by the Holy See, and often takes decades at even the quickest pace before someone can be named a Saint. In the Orthodox church the process is much less stringent, and indeed, if an Orthodox Christian feels as though they gain strength from praying to someone who isn’t ‘officially’ a Saint, then so be it. The beauty of Orthodox sanctuaries has always enamored me and the peace and stillness from a dark, quiet nave is a setting that can only be understood from having stood in one. The iconostasis, artwork and deliberate glorification of faith through imagery inside the sanctuary of the church would rival most museums.
Speaking of museums, on the property behind the church is another large building that includes a museum of Russian church artifacts, military collectibles, cultural and religious art and antiques that date back in some cases over a thousand years. On your way, take a moment to stop and pay respects to those monks, priests and high ranking men who have been buried in the plots in between the buildings. The crypts located in the rear of the church building are where the highest ranking officials in the church rest in peace.
We said our goodbyes to Brother Angelos and thanked him for his hospitality, though he told us before leaving that we needed to head up the street and see the two other cemeteries and another church. The cemetery up the street is available for all whom belong to the Russian Orthodox church and would like to have their loved ones buried there and includes yet another small, but elegant church. At the time we arrived it was being used for a prayer service by the Toronto visitors, but a nearby monk tending to a grave insisted that we not miss the opportunity to see the inside so we stepped in while trying to remain unnoticed.
Thus far I’ve mentioned visiting three churches, but that there are five on the campus. One of the two remaining is in the refectory where the monks reside, and not accessible to the public. The fifth was one that was a bit of a mystery. Brother Angelos told us that directly across the street from the entrance to the bookstore, next to the available dormitory house, was a path that led back deep in to the woods. If we were to follow it, we would eventually find a pond and somewhere near that pond was one more church. It was rarely ever visited by anyone and hadn’t been used in years. It was the tale of a small, wooden church that was the legacy of one sole monk who once lived at the monastery. Slowly but surely he dedicated himself to building a small church in the woods somewhere in the 1970’s. Though the path was longer than we anticipated and quite unmarked, the opportunity to find a sacred piece of art slowly being overtaken by the nature around it was unmatched. Standing in the middle of tall grass next to a quiet pond such a distance from the nearest bunch of humans and seemingly in the middle of nowhere was a beautiful experience–and one that I was grateful to share with a dear friend.
We spent the car ride home basking in the delight of having had the opportunity to visit and explore one of the most beautiful regions of Upstate New York and for having made a new friend at the monastery. The grounds in Jordanville and the history set forth by Fr. Panteleimon in the 1930’s allowed Russian Orthodoxy and culture to span the globe and bring people together right here in Upstate New York.
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