It's one of those rare, shining and crisp Detroit spring mornings and Mapquest has hosed me a little bit. And so here I am, windows rolled down, driving down block after block of side streets, clocking modest working class bungalows in the east side enclave of Harper Woods, thinking I've imagined my quarry. Just as the descending addresses are about to signal yet another wrong turn, it appears: A grand, sprawling and climbing hand-crafted wonderland-cum-sanctuary – the St. Sabbas Russian Orthodox Monastery, announcing its presence. It's true.
Tucked away into this otherwise run-of-the-mill, slightly-down-at-the-heel neighborhood is an authentic, working monastery celebrating and keeping alive the milleniums-old traditions of Christianity's most ancient lineage. The compound sprawls over seven acres of property, including two main lots, where the monks have converted former homes into the church itself, a library, living quarters for the monks, and, perhaps most notably, a gourmet-quality restaurant called the Royal Eagle. But it also encompasses a temporary woodshop across the street and a parcel of land set aside for future use (more on that later).
Entering the monastery gardens, one is transported out of time, to a place of quiet. The garden paths roam gracefully over ponds and lead to gazebos. The tree-shaded patio (on this day, covered in helicopters of towering maples) is lined with tables where congregants and lay people can sit and reflect. The church itself is a marvel of authentic antiquity, walls covered in gilded, faithful renderings of the saints, hand painted by a local iconographer in the strict, traditional Orthodox style. The grounds exude a grounding air of the handmade and the exultant. And that's exactly as St. Sabbas' abbott, Rochester Hills native Father Pachomy, and the six monks attached would have it (except for the maple helicopters, that is).
The series of events that led to the establishment of St. Sabbas is enough to give even the most hardened skeptic pause.
The Russian Orthodox church in Detroit has roots that stretch back to the early 1900s, but by the 1980s, Detroit's hard times sent many parishioners to the suburbs and the church closed the original Russian Cathedral on Joseph Campau.
In 1999, the church had set up temporarily in Eastpointe and had a house that a parishioner had purchased in Grosse Pointe Woods to be used as a showpiece for the monks' artisanal woodworking and remodeling.
"The Bishop found out a year later that the parishioner had bought a house in Grosse Pointe," recalls Father Pachomy. "And he flipped! He said, 'Monks cannot be living in Grosse Pointe.' This is against the ideal of orthodoxy. He said put it up for sale and I'm shipping you to New York to put you in charge of remodeling and reconstruction there. '"
"I said 'Eminence, I don't really want to move to New York. What if we have a monastery in Michigan, will you allow me to stay? He said 'yes, you have to get rid of the private property, you fund it yourself, the Diocese doesn't have the money. We had gotten the house for $160,000 and he said to put it on the market one year later for 350,000."
So Father Pachomy and his reluctant real estate agent (a member of the Zamboni family – yes, that Zamboni family) put up the sign.
"The bishop and he told me to pray to St. Sabbas, and if it's God's will for us build a monastery we'll sell. If not I'm off to New York with no questions.'"
The house sold in three days.
"I said 'Father, we sold the house for 350,000'" recalls Father Pachomy with a smile. "He said 'you're so disobedient! I told you 600,000!"
After a long day of property hunting, Father Pachomy picked up the mail at the temporary church and headed down Kelly Road toward the highway. As it happens, the CVS nearby had caught fire and traffic was directed down Old Homestead Road, right past a house that was in the process of being converted into a neighborhood clinic, but that was up for sale by the owners.
Father Pachomy nearly didn't get out to check it out, bespoke as he was in full Cossack and long beard and at first reluctant to wander a strange neighborhood. But a parishioner and his child were in the car and the child chided him saying "'Father, since when are you ashamed to be a priest?' I've never been ashamed to be a priest, but out of the mouths of children comes the truth. And so we stopped."
As it happens, the family was reluctant to sell, and was headed off on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Father Pachomy made a phone call to another abbott there and arranged for a feast and viewing of church treasures for the family and their fellow travellers. When they couple returned, they agreed to sell the house to the church.
They set to work immediately, renovating the main property and meticulously crafting church and property with the help of both monks and lay craftsmen – including an iconographer and a master woodworker, under whom resident monks apprentice.
Six monks are "attached" to the church, each of whom contributes to the constant building, woodwork and renovation. "Everyone does a little bit of everything," says Father Pachomy. Until we find the right monks – after all, who wants to be a monk in the modern world – to fit in the right category, which is a hard process in the modern day."
But this is the modern world. And renovations cost money. So Father Pachomy and company struck upon the idea to turn an old motorcycle repair garage on an adjacent property into a Russian Tea House – the Royal Eagle.
The Royal Eagle is built in a traditional, gorgeous Venetian style to honor the memory and bequest of an Italian-American church patron. Its interior is appointed in authentic French antique furniture and decorations. The vibe is at once cozy and lavish.
Helmed by a gourmet chef from the Czech Republic, the Royal Eagle offers tea seatings on Tuesdays and "fish frys" on Thursdays.
"We call it a fish fry because we didn't want to get into a problem with having a restaurant in a residential neighborhood, but churches are allowed to have fish frys, so we call it a fish fry," smiles Father Pachomy. "But the food is over the top. Lamb, borscht, sesame-encrusted whitefish. It's really a thing."
Last year, says Father Pachomy, 7,000 folks came through St. Sabbas for tea or dinner (reservations are strongly recommended for the intimate dining room).
Things didn't go so smoothly at first, though.
"One neighbor couldn't stand the traffic and she tried to get the police to shut us down. The police said 'we're not shutting them down. It's the best thing that's happened to this neighborhood,'" Pachomy recalls.
"And so she went one step further and she called the health department. So the health department came out and said, 'you need 80k worth of renovations and a brand new kitchen which we had just put in."
So, who did they turn to? Well, Mike and Marian Illitch, as it turns out, who are close friends of Father Pachomy and St. Sabbas.
"They put in the kitchen and got us the license and brought us up to par. They got us up and running."
As the site has matured, the relationship with the neighborhood and the city has grown even more friendly.
"Harper Woods is very glad we're here" smiles Pachomy. "Not to say anything bad, but what else do you associate with Harper Woods? The neighbors know that we put in the work and that we're improving the neighborhood. We have some very interesting neighbors who visit us often. There are a couple Wayne State professors in the neighborhood who come here all the time just to sit and read in the quiet."
These may be very serious monks, walking a very traditional religious path, but they have plans, nonetheless. Big ones. Pachomy says that the proceeds from the restaurant are earmarked for the construction – on yet another of the adjacent lots – of a mini-village of eight traditional Russian log cabins to both house the monks and to sell their work.
And it all leads back to the church, of course. With a congregation numbering nearly 250 who attend traditional services on weekends that require head covering and dresses for females and further require that congregants stand – as is custom – for the service, surrounded by the saints.
"We have a big plan here. A very big plan," says Father Pachomy. "But the religious part of it, the biggest part of it, of course, is that we have a lot of people who are looking for religion, young people, who are tired of going to church where they have rock 'n' roll concerts or bodybuilding for Jesus. They're looking for the simple, historical church without all of the stuff that's been added throughout the centuries. So we're serving two purposes – filling a cultural void, a spiritual void."
And if the aura of giddy awe surrounding the vanful of Red Hat ladies pulling up in front of St. Sabbas on this bright and shiny day to enjoy a morning nosh at the Royal Eagle is any indication, it seems to be getting the balance right.
Chris Handyside is a Detroit-based writer whose work has appeared in Model D and The Metro Times. His last piece was The Low Down On Metro's Lowbrow
.All photos: Dave Lewinski