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NEW SKETE: BORN FROM VATICAN II

From the Bennington Banner, July 21, 2007. The second of three parts.

By Mark E. Rondeau

CAMBRIDGE, N.Y. - The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and its aftermath inspired much self-examination, change, and upheaval in the Roman Catholic Church. The founding groups of both the monks and nuns of New Skete belonged to religious orders in union with Rome at the time of the council.

Byzantine Franciscans

The far-reaching reexamination of Catholic Church doctrine and practice during Vatican II led a group of men under the leadership of The Rev. Laurence Mancuso to discuss how to implement the council's findings into their lives as Byzantine Franciscans. The men involved came from the order's two communities in Connecticut and Pennsylvania.

"Dissatisfied with the kind of religious life they had been living, they initially tried to form a monastery within their order based on the principles of Eastern Christian monastic life," according to New Skete 's book "In the Sprit of Happiness," published in 1999. When it became clear that such a life could not be carved out within the Franciscan order, Father Laurence and a dozen men chose to leave and form a new community in 1966. "They felt called to an authentic Eastern Christian monasticism for our day, inspired by the vision of the early monastic fathers."

With this in mind, they chose the name New Skete , after one of the first Christian monastic settlements, in the northern Egyptian desert of Skete.

The nuns' story is similar. They belonged to a community of Poor Clare nuns in Evansville, Ind., and a group of them began examining their religious life after Vatican II.

"In studying the history of the Poor Clares, a lot of different questions came up about monastic life and how to live it," said Sister Cecelia, prioress of Our Lady of the Sign Monastery.

A Trappist monk informed the sisters about the monks of New Skete . He noted that both groups came from religious orders started by St. Francis of Assisi, and both were interested in living a monastic life."When we decided to strike out from our monastery to try to establish something that was a little bit more contemporary - but still the same type of life - we decided this was one of the places we would visit to see how they were doing," Sister Cecelia said.

They were welcomed by the monks, and seven nuns founded their community here in 1969. The monks purchased property for the nuns about three miles away from their monastery, on Ash Grove Road, and helped them build their monastery. With this, New Skete became an unusual modern monastic community including both men and women.

The monks and nuns remained technically in union with the Roman Catholic Church until 1979 when - after many years of studying and practicing the Orthodox faith - the community joined the Orthodox Church in America.

Same commitments

New Skete expanded further in 1983, when three married couples and two widows established the companions of New Skete , a married monastic community. The members of this community make the same religious commitments and live a similar monastic life as the monks and nuns.

"Marriage is not an obstacle to living monastic life, priestly life, or religious life in any of its manifestations," the companions state on their Web site. "Love of God is primary, and is never in competition with any other relationship."

Sister Melanie, who along with her husband, Brother Stephen, were founding members, said the companions are the only community of married monastics in the Orthodox Church.

The companions live in Emmaus House, down New Skete Lane from the monks' monastery. "We have established a real ministry for us, which is having retreats," Sister Melanie said, "primarily for married couples, but also for single men and women and some groups and families."

The carefully constructed and groomed Sanctuary Gardens on the grounds of Emmaus House include a serenity garden, a woodland walk, and a meadow of wildflowers, all meant to encourage prayer and meditation.

New Skete also includes a dedicated group of laypeople, called the chapel community, who attend services there and in turn help the community in various ways.

"It's been an oasis here for us," said one of them, Vera Beecroft, of Schaghticoke. "When I come here for services I feel like I come home."

Orthodox by birth, she first came to New Skete decades ago with her husband, Tom. He died on the day before Easter this year, and the monks performed his funeral service. He is buried in the monastery cemetery.

What does the future hold for New Skete , now in its fifth decade?

There are nine monks, seven nuns and three companions, fewer than in the past, though the nuns' and monks' communities each include a novice in their number. Deaths, departures and illness have taken a toll on all three monastic communities, and most of the remaining members are well into middle age.

Core group

Robin Hetko, a member of the chapel community who works full-time for the monks and nuns in various capacities, said she is part of a core group of New Skete monastics, chapel community members, and others exploring ways to make New Skete sustainable.

"They've determined they need help, they have to reach out, because their membership is dwindling, and they're aging," she said. "For a long time they were very separate from the community, and they realized that in order to survive they need to become integrated with the local community and expanding outward."

Part of this effort is to dispel misconceptions about New Skete and encourage local people to visit and feel like it is their monastery, too, she said.

Brother Stavros, one of the founding monks, said they host vocation weekends every year to give people interested in exploring a possible vocation with them a sense of their life. "So we're always open to that," he said. "But in American culture this is not a lifestyle that people are going to break down the door to embrace."

Sister Cecelia was serene when asked about the future of New Skete .

"Myself, I'm at peace. I hope it continues. I hope people join us and value what we're doing here and find it beneficial for their own spiritual life," she said. "And even if it doesn't for the moment I can't believe that 50 years down the road somebody (won't) read the history of us and say 'That sounds like a wonderful life' and continue it then if it doesn't continue in the next 20 years."


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Religion



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(Above) The "sign" at Our Lady of the Sign monastery. This is a depiction of Mary as "Theotokos" or Christ-Bearer. Below is a statue of St. Francis of Assisi in the Sanctuary Gardens at Emmaus House. (Mark E. Rondeau)

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