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North Ft. Myers, FL: The Monastery in the Sunshine State

St. Nicholas Monastery in Florida recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of its founding.

It is deep autumn, and the palm leaves are bright green. But even the "greenery" in Fort Myers comes in many colors, because of the wide variety of palms not to be found anywhere else in Florida. That is even the city’s nickname: "City of Palms." Add to these the mango, papaya, banana, lemon, and grapefruit trees, along with a large assortment of orange trees, all of which grow on the grounds of St. Nicholas Monastery.

In November, the monastic habitation marked the 40th anniversary of its founding. Up to 400 parishioners, faithful from churches of various jurisdictions, and guests from overseas came to pray and venerate – alongside the monastery’s own relics and icons – the Protectress of the Russian Diaspora – the Kursk Root Icon of the Mother of God, brought from New York by Eastern American Diocese vicar Bishop Nicholas. Leading the jubilee celebrations was the First Hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad – Metropolitan Hilarion of Eastern America & New York.

Originally founded as a male monastery, six years ago I found it a convent. But later, some of the nuns moved away, fulfilling their ascetic labors elsewhere, while the nun closest to the convent’s abbess, Mother Andrea (Nichols), an American named Schema-Nun Theodora-Amphilochia (Butler; +2015) – departed this mortal coil. Mother Andrea was unable to manage the large monastery grounds by herself, and three years ago transferred the convent to Archimdandrite Alexander (Belya) – rector of St. Matrona of Moscow Cathedral in Dania Beach, near Miami, and Dean of Florida. Once more, the habitation became a male monastery.

The Elder

The first Russian monastery in the state was founded by Archimandrite John (Lewis), who received a blessing to do so from his spiritual father, Bishop Andrew (Rymarenko; +1978) of Rockland.

Archimandrite John was born Robert Albro Lewis in Philadelphia, PA, to an American father and Carpatho-Russian mother. He graduated Pittsburgh University, and matriculated to medical school. But Robert felt another calling – to become a priest. Against his parents’ wishes, the young man left his secular education and began studying theology in institutions in the U.S. and Europe. It was over there that Fr. John acquired pieces of saints’ relics that would later come to reside at the monastery. Today, the monastery houses over 600 pieces of relics! And not only those of Eastern Ortodox saints, but also of those less well known to us, from the times of an undivided Church: Dutch, English, and Norwegian saints.

On January 2, 1972, Bishop Laurus (Skurla; +2008) of Manhattan ordained him a deacon in the Synodal Cathedral of the Sign in New York City, and on the feast of the Nativity of Christ, the First Hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad, Metropolitan Philaret (Voznesensky; +1985) ordained him a priest. Six years later, Fr. George (his name in baptism) received monastic tonsure with the name John, in honor of the Holy Righteous John of Kronstadt, and was sent to Florida, where he founded the monastery 2½ hours’ drive from Miami. Fr. John had yet another obedience: he spoke 14 languages fluently, including Greek and Russian, and would translate the service texts, as well as author exegeses on Holy Scripture in the languages still in need of them.

At first, the monastery was named in honor of the Icon of the Mother of God "Joy of All Who Sorrow" (this revered icon of the Most Holy Theotokos is still located in the monastery), but after the miraculous appearance of the icon of the Holy Hierarch Nicholas the Wonderworker, the monastery was renamed in honor of that saint.

Archimandrite John labored in the monastery for almost three decades, and reposed in the Lord on September 1, 2007.

The Abbess

On his deathbed, the monk blessed his spiritual daughter – whom he had had time to tonsure a nun with the name Andrea, in honor of the Holy Apostle Andrew the First-Called and in memory of the Bishop of Rockland – to take care of the monastery. Born an Orthodox Jew, she received her primary education in a Catholic school, was baptized in the Orthodox church in Miami; mother learned about the monastic life in Greece, and remained at St. Nicholas Monastery for ten years after the elder’s repose, working to grow the monastery and repair its buildings.

The Archimdandrite & the Brethren

While still a convent, the habitation had no luck with permanent priests. Only Priest Constantine Desrosiers, a university professor who visited from New Hampshire to serve, was a constant joy to the pilgrims. Now, in radiant memory of Archimandrite John and through the labors of the brethren, the habitation is being restored and adorned.

"Restoring the monastery is no easy task. But we see that, each time, we are able to find people who come to the monastery and begin to lift it up," says the monastery’s abbot, Archimandrite Alexander (Belya). "Coming to our aid along with Archpriest Luka Novakovic (born in Serbia) were monks from Ukraine: Archimandrite Stefan (Hilchuk) from Volhynia and Archimandrite Silouan (Lembei) from Carpathia, who also labored in Volhynia. Thus, our monastery is gradually uniting in Christ modern ascetic laborers of varous nationalities, as in his own day the ever-memorable Archimandrite John united all."

Fr. Alexander recalls how, when he had only just begun serving at the monastery, there were only two people present at the first service. The monastery is, indeed, in a location where few Russians live; but now, people come here from many miles away, some traveling 2-3 hours, in order to pray, confess, and commune of Christ’s Holy Mysteries. Divine services are held twice daily – at 8 o’clock in the morning and at 5 o’clock in the evening. Liturgy on Sundays and major feast days is served at 10 o’clock in the morning.

Fr. Siluan, a seminary and theological academy graduauate, has taken on a new obedience in Florida, and works in the apiary. There are 10 beehives on the monastery grounds, with another 20 behind the property. The brethren produce unpasteurized honey, a rarer product in the U.S. Its high quality has been attested to by experts, and honey from St. Nicholas Monastery’s apiary is safe to consume even for those suffering from diabetes.

The brethren’s plans include continuing the production of candles, which was begun by the sisters when the habitation was still a convent.

Yet another accomplishment is the creation of a comfortable women’s guesthouse at the monastery. There are now proposals to create a men’s guesthouse for pilgrims, as well.

Major renovations have taken place in the former storehouse. The building originally had no windows, and thus it was decided to add a new roof with skylights, which would illumine the interior. This building will house the monastery office.

In recent years, the monastery withstood a powerful hurricane, and many trees were knocked down. One must see these local tropical trees! Fr. Alexander and Brother John had to labor much in clearing and cleaning the monastery territory – 50 containers of damaged trees were hauled off!

The Celebrations

Having prayed for the repose of Archimandrite John, Metropolitan Hilarion thanked the hierarchs who had gathered for the festivities: Bishops Saba (Georgian Orthodox Church), Nicholas of Manhattan, and Victor of Artzis (vicar of the Diocese of Odessa in Ukraine), as well as brothers Archpriest Vitaly and Archdeacon Serge Kosovsky – rector of Holy Prophet Elijah Church in Kiev and archdeacon to His Beatitude Onufry, Metropolitan of Kiev & All Ukraine, respectively. He also thanked Archimandrite John and Vanya Belya for their labors.

Arriving from the Synodal Cathedral in New York City for the feast at the monastery was the Kursk Root Icon of the Mother of God. The Queen of Heaven had already visited here, and worked a number of mirales.

Parishioners of the Orthodox Church in America Victor Wegner and Sergio Romiros made a special trip to the monaster just to venerate the Kursk Root Icon fot eh Mother of God.

"Our friends attend the services at this monastery, and told us much about today’s feast and icon. We know that this is a very renowned icon; we read about it online. And this entire time we thought, could this truly be the very same icon that appeared 14 yearsa go! And, as it turned out, yes, the very same!

Luminita Koman (parishioner of the Romanian Orthodox Church
of St. Polycarp of Smyrna in Naples):

"The Kursk Root Icon came to our city nine years ago. At that time, services in our parish were served in a house chapel. The icon arrived during the reading of the Akathist to the Most Holy Theotokos. Upon completion of the service, the holy image was taken out into the street, and the priest blessed the building across the street with it. At that point, the building was a Baptist church. We wondered, why did he bless that building? After all, they do not reverence the Most Holy Theotokos.

"But at that same time, we were searching for a building for our Romanian parish. I asked our neighbors if they would sell us their church building. They replied, ‘No, what is the matter with you? We have been here since 1954.’ And we did not find anything else. But I believed in a miracle. And two years later I found out that the Baptist church building was on the market! And now our Romanian Orthodox church is located in it.

"We celebrated our first Liturgy in the new church in July 2, when the Church honors the memor of the Holy Hierarch John (Maximovitch) of Shanghai & San Francisco. Later we found out that St. John had also traveled with the Kursk Root Icon. And now we serve an akathist to the Kursk Root Icon of the Most Holy Theotokos every Sunday. It says in the akathist, that wherever the icon travels, there miracles occur. And we beheld one such miracle! We found out that there was someone who wanted to purchase the building before us, but he was scared away because there was something wrong with the paperwork. And he decided against the purchase. Later, we decided to buy the building, and when we came to receive the keys, our lawyer informed us that the paperwork all in order, with no issues. See how the church was waiting for us!

"We found a copy of the Kursk Root Icon in Stockholm and bought it; it contained a certificate in Russian. Our neighbors, who are from Moscow, read it and told us that this icon was from Moscow, and was also wonderworking."

Archdeacon Serge Kosovsky (Kiev):

"At Liturgy, we prayed before the wonderworking image. Like everyone else, we are concerned but the events taking place in Ukraine. What is going on in our country, the division of the Orthodox Church, is strange and frightening to us, the faithful. Nevertheless, the episcopate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is unanimous in its firm stance grounded in the Orthodox Faith.

"As archdeacon to His Beatitude Onufry, Metropolitan of Kiev & All Ukraine, I am always by his side. Our Primate was always a man of firm resolve, but now he has become even more steadfast and resolute. And he inspires us to stand firm in the Orthodox Church.

"We thank Metropolitan Hilarion and the Eastern American Diocese for the support they have expressed for Metropolitan Onufry and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The support of the Local Orthodox Churches is very important to us right now, and we sense this support from you.”

Tatiana Voynova

(Donbas, Ukraine. Parishioner of the Orthodox Church in America):

"My first words to the Kursk Root Icon were about peace. We – Russians and Ukrainians – have not done anything to each other. So why should we fight? We always had Russian-language schools in the Donbas. We speak in both languages, and in my life’s experience, Russian was always a native tongue for us. We are all friends in America: Russians, Ukrainians, Belorussians, and people of various ethnicities from the former Soviet Union. Just as before, here we bear no ill-will toward one another.

"My son-in-law is an American. In America, thanks to the fact that I attend an Orthodox church, I have begun to learn English, and my granddaughter speaks Russian and English equally well. And I know that, for her, it will make no difference in what language she will hear the word of God."

* * *

As "an offering to contemporary monasticism" and for veneration by parishioners and pilgrims, Bishop Victor of Artzis, vicar of the Diocese of Odessa and deputy abbot if St. Elijah Monastery in Odessa, presented as a gift to the monastery a piece of the raiment of our Lord Jesus Christ, as well as a piece of the relics of Venerable Gabriel of Odessa, founder of the monastery and patron saint of Russian monks on Mount Athos.

Bishop Victor asked for intensified prayer, that the merciful Lord might strengthen all those living in Ukraine, and that the clergy and faithful might "until their last breath remain true to Orthodoxy."

Last year, Bishop Victor and the monks of the Kiev Caves Lavra were present for the washing of the incorrupt remains of Archimandrite John. 

The Relics

In 2017, the remains of Fr. John were found incorrupt.

"When I received the monastery from Mother Andrea, one of her stated wishes was the fulfillment of the last will of Fr. John, who asked to be buried near the church," relates Archimandrite Alexander. "The elder had been buried in Ft. Lauderdale in a crypt rather than in the earth, with the knowledge that, when the time came, his remains could later be reinterred at the monastery.

"Preparing for the reinterment took half a year. And when the funeral home staff opened his coffin, I saw fear on their faces, as if they had seen something they did not expect. The Catholic staffers began to cross themselves: ‘We have never seen anything like this at our job. It is a miracle!’, they said.

"Half a year later, we forged a metal reliquary and sewed new vestments. The monks who came from the Kiev Caves Lavra said that these were the very same form of relics as they have in the Kiev Caves.

* * *

Fr. John’s life was very similar to that of the Holy Hierarch John of Shanghai & San Francisco. They were both merciful and charitable, caring for children and feeding them. St. John built a cathedral in San Francisco in honor of the icon of the Mother of God "Joy of All Who Sorrow." Archimandrite John also built a monastery, originally named in honor of the Theotokos and her icon "Joy of All Who Sorrow." Both ascetic laborers suffered unjust legal persecution for building the cathedral and monastery.

There is a wonderworking icon of the Holy Hierarch Nicholas at the monastery, as well. And it has its own history.

One day, Fr. John was at an art exhibit, which also featured icons. There, he saw an icon of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker. He approached the artist and asked to sell him the icon. But the artist replied that the icon was not for sale. Yet Fr. John was certain that this icon must be with him at the monastery.

Returning to the monastery, Fr. John prayed to St. Nicholas all night. That very night, the artist's wife had a dream: St. Nicholas came to her and said that the icon must be given to the monk who wanted to buy it. The artist brought the icon to the monastery and presented it to Fr. John as a gift. The elder inserted a reliquary into the icon with a piece of the relics of St. Nicholas, and now this large icon, painted in ancient style, abides in the monastery church.

* * *

"We need holy placed," said Metropolitan Hilarion during the celebrations. "St. Nicholas is the first and only Russian monastery in Florida. Its presence in this land and the prayerful mood of its inhabitants is spiritually uplifting for the hearts of the faithful who come here. They see how the monastics labor, and their example inspires the laity; a desire arises within them to labor just as fervently in their own parishes – in this way, parishes begin to come to life, and the people save their souls for the Heavenly Kingdom."

Tatiana Veselkina

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Eastern American Diocese | Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia