Monastery in the Mountains
Explore the quiet lives and wonder inside Wayne County’s Hermitage of the Holy Cross.
Photographed by Toril Lavender
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.’”
On one occasion, Samp offered to cut the monastery’s grass. Father Seraphim initially declined, explaining that the young novices could do it. But Samp insisted, and to Father Seraphim’s surprise, his tool of choice was a scythe. “He didn’t even break a sweat. It was amazing. And the grass was perfect. One of the novices was so inspired by Samp’s work that he tried to use the scythe. I’m surprised he didn’t cut his ankles off.”
Now, 11 years since moving to Wayne, Hermitage of the Holy Cross consists of numerous sites for work and worship. The property includes an outdoor chapel, a building for administrative offices and library, a gift shop and incense studio, a church, cemetery, and a kitchen and dining hall. There is a large guesthouse to accommodate visitors and to serve as a retreat space for the three local Orthodox parishes. Two structures original to the property include a log cabin, now attached to the administrative building, and a pole barn, now housing monks’ cells and the monastery’s soap workshop.
The monastery’s primary source of income is the production of Athonite-style incense, which refers to granular—as opposed to stick—incense. This incense is burned on coals during church services or in homes during prayer. Frankincense resin is ground and mixed with fragrances like Damask Rose, Myrrh, or Flowers of Cyprus. After kneading, the incense is rolled and cut. Finally, it is cured for up to a month before being packaged and sold. Theheady odor of frankincense fills the second floor workspace, and white clay powder covers everything in sight. “The monks who work here always smell good,” says Father Seraphim.
In addition to incense, bread, honey, candles, and goat’s milk soap are also produced on-site. Items are sold in the monastery gift shop, at various vendors locally and outside the area, and via catalog. As the monks go about their daily work, making one of the 330,000 candles produced there annually or clearing tables after communal meals, there is a constant stream of spiritual renewal and prayer. According to Father Seraphim, “It becomes the undercurrent of our lives.”
Not only is Holy Cross Monastery home to the monks, it serves as a place of retreat and worship for the area’s Orthodox population. In Huntington, there are two Orthodox parishes, St. George Greek Orthodox and Holy Spirit Antiochian Orthodox. Christ the Savior Russian Orthodox Church was founded in Wayne in 2002 in part to respond to the spiritual needs of those who’d relocated to be close to the monastery.
Those who choose the monastic life do so, according to Father Seraphim, not to escape from the world, but to live more spiritually in it. “Monastic life is joyful and peaceful and fulfilling.” And in this particular setting, among the graceful curves of the Wayne County hillsides, one can easily see how that could be true. Of all the lessons learned by the monks on Miller’s Fork, perhaps this is most valuable, says Father Seraphim: “How you treat people out here is the most important thing of all.”