Monastery in the Mountains
Explore the quiet lives and wonder inside Wayne County’s Hermitage of the Holy Cross.
Photographed by Toril Lavender
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The day starts early on Miller’s Fork. After morning prayers are said, eggs are retrieved from the chicken coop. The lively herd of goats is fed, and Myrtle the Jersey cow is milked. Sasha, one of two sheepdogs on the property, wants attention, too—just as long as you’re wearing all black. If you aren’t, she shies away, uncertain. She lives, after all, with 21 Russian Orthodox monks at the Hermitage of the Holy Cross.
The fact that the largest English-speaking Orthodox monastery in North America is located just outside of Wayne, West Virginia, is perhaps one of the area’s best-kept secrets. Since May 2000, the group of monastics has been living and working to meet its spiritual needs and the needs of others in an unlikely location. Along the way, they’ve gotten to know their Wayne County neighbors and become fixtures in the community.
But being accepted in the community wasn’t easy in this tight-knit, rural county. “Out here, which one of the Baptist churches you go to is really important,” says the order’s Deputy Abbot Seraphim. While working to establish the monastery and develop the vast property, Father Seraphim says neighbors were curious. “People had no idea who we were, what religion we were.” He and the other monks grew used to fielding questions whenever they ventured into town in their distinctive garments. The most commonly asked: “Are you folks Christians?” The answer? Yes. Now, whenever the men patronize the local home improvement stores for supplies, they return to the monastery with a list of people in need of prayer. “People approach us and ask, ‘Are you one of the monks from Wayne County?’”
Once, at the Huntington Mall in neighboring Cabell County, a woman stopped Father Seraphim and his companion to ask, “Does God hear the prayers of sinners? Because I’m a sinner.” They talked momentarily and the woman asked if she could touch the cross he wore around his neck. Father Seraphim told her that in the Orthodox church, it is customary to kiss things that are regarded to be holy. She kissed his cross not once, but twice. “That could only happen in West Virginia,” he says.
Originally, the 120 acres of land that the hermitage now sits on belonged to Maurice and Nadezhda Sill, a Russian Orthodox couple with ties to the monastery’s Bishop George. Hermitage of the Holy Cross was founded by the late Father Kallistos and originally located in Missouri. In 1993, when it became an English-speaking monastery through the Russian Orthodox Church outside of Russia, the community quickly increased in size. It was an obvious draw for converts to the church, who spoke only English.
Soon, the number of new monks combined with talk of a road being built through the property made it clear that a new home for the monastery was needed. After a trip to West Virginia, Bishop George and Father Seraphim accepted the Sills’ offer of donated land in the early 2000s.
The monks knew early on that establishing a working monastic community in such a remote location wouldn’t be easy. “The first week we were here the temperature didn’t get above 10 degrees,” says Bishop George. “And we slept in a tent,” Father Seraphim adds. Gardening and building on the hilly land were especially challenging. “We learned some hard lessons when we first came here,” Father Seraphim says. “You dig away part of a hillside to put a garden in, and the next big rain, everything starts sliding down because it’s all clay. We almost lost the old entrance road from doing things like that.”
The monks learned to manage the property in part from their Wayne County neighbors and friends. Father Seraphim tells the story of a 92-year-old man called Samp who taught him what the land was like in the old days. “He said, ‘This is all young forest because the people who lived here before would sell the timber to feed their families.’”