10/26/13 10:00am
10/26/2013 10:00 AM

 

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | The monastery’s dog, Argos, joins (from left) novice-in-training Maria, Sister Theonymphi, Abbess Foteini and Sister Martha outside the chapel after vespers.

Nestled on a secluded plot of land in Calverton, just far enough away from the rumbling traffic of Route 25, the nuns of All Saints Greek Orthodox Monastery enter their chapel and begin to pray.

Standing in a circle around an intricately carved wooden podium, the four nuns recite liturgy before breaking into harmonious song. They’re observing Vespers, a Christian worship service that traditionally signifies the start of a new day and is usually marked at or near sunset.

After about 15 minutes, the sisters stop singing and Abbess Foteini, a petite young woman from Missouri, glances in the direction of two visitors in attendance.

“That’s it,” she says brightly. “Vespers is short.”


All Saints Greek Orthodox Monastery was founded in 1997 when Sister Ypomoni, née Chrystalla Petropolou, used her life savings to purchase eight acres of land on Middle Road. Born in Cyprus, she had moved to Mattituck in the 1950s. She died in late 2010 and is buried in the monastery’s backyard.

The monastery is under the auspices of the Direct Archdiocesan District of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. No priest resides at the abbey, but the monastery’s chaplain, the Rev. Father Vasilios Govits, comes to Calverton every Sunday to celebrate the Divine Liturgy.

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The monastery building wasn’t completed until 2007, and was unoccupied until 2009, when Sister Ypomoni and three young women — Abbess Foteini, Sister Theonymphi and Sister Martha — took up residence there. Sister Theonymphi, whose tonsured name means “Bride of God,” was born “Maria” and raised in a Greek Orthodox family in Detroit.

“I wasn’t a little kid like [she places her hands in mock prayer and closes her eyes, smiling],” she says of her decision to join the monastery. “For me, it was where my heart felt drawn.”

In 2011, Sister Theonymphi’s mother, a former middle school teacher also named Maria, entered the convent herself. Since she has lived at the monastery less than three years, she is considered a “novice,” or nun-in-training, and hasn’t yet received a new name.

“I liked my work and I was actually very comfortable where I was,” Maria says of life before the convent. “But I felt that I would have a fuller life with Christ in the monastery.”

“It didn’t hurt that your daughter was here,” Sister Theonymphi jokes.

“It helped,” Maria says. “It definitely helped.”

Days at the monastery are strictly structured and chores are assigned by Abbess Foteini. The sisters rise each day at 3:30 a.m. and pray for an hour, Sister Theonymphi explains. Quiet hours are from 4:30 to 6 a.m., during which the sisters can rest, read or catch up on personal tasks. At 6 a.m., the sisters gather for a 15-minute service that includes a song, a hymn dedicated to the saint of the day and a closing prayer. This service is repeated three more times throughout the day. Vespers is observed at 4 p.m. and dinner is served around 5. The nuns don’t eat meat and they frequently fast for religious reasons.

When they aren’t in prayer, the sisters earn a living creating handmade soaps, soy candles, all-natural deodorant, lip balm and bath scrubs as part of their “All for Nun” line of artisan goods, produced in-house and sold in the monastery’s gift shop. They have also published two children’s books, both illustrated by Sister Theonymphi, and sell prayer bracelets online at Amazon.com.

In addition, the sisters are also responsible for cleaning and maintaining the abbey.

“It’s physically demanding,” Sister Theonymphi says of the work. “We don’t have a man around. If we have to change the blades on the lawnmower and a [repair] man doesn’t show up, we’re just going to have to get out the tools and take care of it.”

As it turns out, the only “man” who resides on the property is Argos, a friendly two-year-old Bernese Mountain Dog the sisters adopted as a puppy. Named after Odysseus’ canine companion in Homer’s “The Odyssey,” Argos delights in keeping watch over the numerous chickens the sisters keep in a coop on the property.

Argos, with his glossy coat and affable personality, is the sort of dog some people might spend their time posting endless pictures of on photo-sharing websites like Instagram. The sisters don’t have their own cellphones, but that doesn’t mean the monastery is devoid of modern technology.

The nuns use alarm clocks and have an emergency cellphone as well as an iPad that can process credit card transactions for gift shop purchases. All the sisters take turns managing the monastery’s Facebook page, which is updated numerous times per month and includes things like a Lenten brownie recipe and mission work photos.

When it comes down to it, Sister Theonymphi says, monastic life isn’t much different from being married.

“People always wonder,” she says. “They think it’s so different. I’m sure you could compare the difficulties of monastic life to the difficulties of married life. It’s not always so easy to do something like cook [a meal] the way your husband really likes it, but you do it because you love him.

“We have those scenarios,” she says. “You have to cut your will and do the will of someone else. For us, we do that because we love them but we’re trying to love God through the other person.”

ryoung@timesreview.com

10/26/13 10:00am

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | The chapel’s sanctuary has simple pews and porcelain floors.

The chapel at All Saints Greek Orthodox Monastery in Calverton is equal parts ornate and unpretentious.

From the outside, the structure is a conventional representation of a modern place of Christian worship, with pale yellow siding and stained glass windows. It’s a design choice the chapel’s architect, Yanni Pavlidis of Smithtown, said was deliberately made to fit in with the abbey’s rural suburban backdrop.

“I wanted to do something to fit in with the surrounding area,” Mr. Pavlidis said. An independent architect since 1990, Mr. Pavlidis was born in Constantinople and has designed numerous monasteries. Construction at All Saints began in 2000 and was completed in 2007, he said.

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“It could pass for any other house or church,” Mr. Pavlidis said of the chapel, which was built using donated funds. “It is typical Long Island.”

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | The chapel at All Saints Greek Orthodox Monastery in Calverton. The building faces east, which is traditional in the Greek Orthodox religion. Next door is the nuns’ residence.

Enter the chapel’s foyer, however, and you feel transported to Greece.

The chapel at All Saints is bursting with colors, like blue and gold. The floor, crafted from smooth white porcelain, lends an elegant touch.

“The Orthodox Church says the outside [of the church] doesn’t matter as long as the inside is inspiring and good,” Mr. Pavlidis said.

One of the chief ways the Greek Orthodox Church seeks to inspire worshipers, Mr. Pavlidis said, is through two-dimensional paintings of Christian saints, and the chapel has several.

“The saint himself [appears to be] looking at you straight-on,” he said of the visual technique used in the paintings. “They are located in critical places. For instance, as you enter, if you look up you will see the Pantokrator, which is the Almighty.”

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | The monastery’s founder, Sister Ypomoni, who died in 2010, is buried on monastery property.

In accordance with Greek Orthodox tradition, Mr. Pavlidis said, the chapel’s altar faces east. Its stained glass windows aren’t typical of Byzantine design but “are beautiful and of course have a place in our church as well,” he said. Outside the chapel, one of the abbey’s more unique features is its ossuary, a small structure whose purpose dates back thousands of years.

An ossuary is a site meant to serve as the final resting place for human skeletal remains.

“There aren’t too many of them here in the U.S. but they’re very popular overseas,” said Deacon Eleftherios Constantine of the Greek Orthodox Archidiocese of America, who said the proper permits are in place. “Especially in Greece, ossuaries became almost a necessity because there isn’t as much space [there] for graveyards.”

When they die, the nuns of All Saints will be temporarily buried in the monastery’s backyard, Deacon Constantine said. After a few years, their remains will be disinterred. The bones will be washed, usually with wine or vinegar, then placed in the ossuary. Founding Sister Ypomoni is already buried on the property.

As far as architecture at All Saints goes, Mr. Pavlidis said, he hasn’t finished yet.

“One thing everyone is asking for is a bell tower,” he said. “I am working on a design at this particular moment. We already have several donations.”

ryoung@timesreview.com