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.
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.”