Holy Ascension Monastery removes its Hagia Sophia replica

Father Maximus at the site. (photo by Dion Ogust)

Father Maximus at the site. (photo by Dion Ogust)

The four monks who inhabit Holy Ascension Monastery were finishing up a farina breakfast. When asked what happened to the 1/5 scale replica of Istanbul’s fabled Hagia Sophia that once dominated a hill overlooking the monks’ collection of farm buildings on Cold Brook Road near the Olive/Woodstock border, one crossed himself while their leader, Father Maximus, began explaining why the structure was disassembled after nearly five years of construction.

“We didn’t have enough rebar in it,” Father Maximus said. “The town asked us to take it down.”

He then told a story of dreaming, planning, building, and then dismantling that the four monks agreed was their great lesson in humility, renewed commitment, and possible new beginnings.

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Their version of Hagia Sophia, the grand Byzantine gem originally built as the patriarchal seat for the Greek Orthodox Church when Istanbul was still Constantinople, officially started with the blessing of a foundation by five bishops and four priests in June, 2011. The idea was simple and elegant — the fabric of the church would consist of autoclaved aerated concrete block units with an exterior facing of limestone and Byzantine brick (made in Italy), and interior marble illuminated by over 60 custom-made windows. All in the monastery were involved in its initial design and building, overseen by a stonemason who had built similar churches in central New York.

According to members of the town planning board who spoke off the record about the project in recent weeks, the monks’ Hagia Sophia replica would have no electric, and would be used only a few times per year.

Challenges arose when a company that had been paid to send columns from China didn’t, and it took over half a year to find out they’d gone out of business. The materials were repurchased.

Also, as a schism opened up elsewhere in the Greek’s orthodox order, the population at Holy Ascension monastery grew to 18. Father Maximus brought up the idea of an expansion on Cold Brook Road, and asked the planning board to consider what would be entailed in building a new, classic-style monastery around the Hagia Sophia replica. Planning board members were not enthused, and advised that the process could be long and difficult…and force the replica being built into new permit hearings as its use would change.

According to Father Maximus, a decision was reached last year to purchase a new site for a monastery near Cobleskill, in Schoharie County, rather than go through more construction on Cold Brook Road. Saint John of San Francisco Orthodox Monastery, located in a complex of buildings originally constructed for SUNY Cobleskill with 24 bedrooms and much room for growth, was worked on over the past year and occupied this spring.

“As you know, three years ago 14 monks, including myself, fled from heresy in Boston and moved to Holy Ascension Monastery in Bearsville, NY. This move gave us the opportunity to live the monastic life in a place already sanctified to God. But Holy Ascension Monastery was designed for a much smaller brotherhood; and we have struggled, with little success, to adapt the existing facilities to a much larger group of monastics,” wrote the monastery order’s spiritual leader, Demetrius of America, in an epistle announcing the changes, including abandonment of the Hagia Sophia replica, sent out last autumn. “After much prayer on our part about the best way to proceed, God finally opened to us a way and showed us a large property in Cobleskill, NY, which we have just purchased…The project to build a church based on Hagia Sophia came to a standstill as the result of structural problems; but with the agreement of the primary benefactors the funds that were raised in donations for the church and the surrounding cells will be used for the brotherhood’s new accommodations.”

“In many ways our experience was the inverse of the Tibetan monastery’s,” Father Maximus recounted. “We had tremendous support from the community, and no difficulties with the bureaucratic process. The planning board and building department were both very supportive. The problems developed later on.”

Here’s what happened.

As construction of the grand replica structure on a hill started nearing completion, cracks were discovered in the vaulting, curiously paralleling the damage in the original Hagia Sophia that appeared at several points over its long 1500 year history, resulting in its grand ceiling’s collapse on a couple of occasions. New people were brought in by the monks to work on fixing the faults; engineering reports were written and filed. Eventually, Woodstock code enforcement officer and building inspector Ellen Casciaro was brought in.

“By that time our building permit had expired,” Father Maximus says. “The town could not allow us to continue without addressing the engineering reports.”

Those reports, in turn, forced some hard decisions in the monastery, leading up to the purchase of the new monastery in Cobleskill.

On the town’s part, a stop work order was posted, with the Hagia Sophia site wrapped in Do Not Enter tape. And finally a demolition order was posted.

Some in town offices started speaking about “scams” at the building site. Others on the planning board wondered how something could have gotten so far without inspections uncovering problems earlier.

“One professional has a hard time completing another professional’s work. Everyone was chiming in with different opinions, obscuring the original issues,” Father Maximus continued, pointing out how “outsiders” within his greater orthodox community started getting involved. “We realized we would never find out the truth as to how serious the problems were. And we were not able to do a cost estimate of what would be involved in ‘fixing’ our Hagia Sophia.”

Finally, after the town issued a demolition order for the church on a hill this past winter, the monks complied. There was some worry that they took longer than wanted. They point out that by then their numbers were down, what with the move to a new monastery, and other projects were drawing their interest. The Hagia Sophia materials were assembled for shipment on to Cobleskill, which will occur over the coming months.

“We don’t want conflict with the building inspector, with the planning board, with the town, or with our neighbors,” Father Maximus said. “We never want to appear snarky… While we were taking the structure down we put a fence around it all that read, ‘Do Not Enter.’”

The quiet, older monk of the four crossed himself again.

The differing stories floating around town regarding the construction and deconstruction on a hill were brought up, including town building inspector Ellen Casciaro’s wish to not go on the record regarding the matter, which started during a previous building inspector’s tenure at the job.

“The question of when things went wrong is a sticky one, this gets into who is to blame, and some people were saying that the contractor scammed us, but I really want to stay away from blaming anyone because that is not healthy,” Father Maximus reiterated. “Technically, things went wrong early, before the construction of the vaults, since there wasn’t enough rebar in the vertical walls; but the question was how bad was it and whether it was fixable, and everyone had different ideas, and this is where outside contractors started putting in their two cents. I can explain in detail but I don’t know if there is any point.”

What lessons had been learned in this long, challenging process?

“Building by its nature is not quiet in terms of physical noise, and not quiet in terms of the bustle and concerns wrapped up in it,” Father Maximus said. “We certainly have our quiet back now. It reminds us that the pressing focus of a monastery is not building. It’s prayer.”

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He added that even with a smaller group of monks, (and the added fact that earlier plans to create a brewing operation at Holy Ascension Monastery were abandoned when the master brewer behind such plans was transferred to another monastery) those who remained felt rejuvenated by the experiences of the past year.

“We’ve been spending time in Guatemala, where we built a church this past winter,” he noted. “Now, in addition to our work making and selling beeswax candles here, we’ve been growing coffee which we’ll start selling here in Woodstock soon.”

The older monk gestured, with a grand smile this time.

What about Demetrius of America’s mention of a possible convent for Greek Orthodox nuns on Cold Brook Road?

“The possibility of nuns coming is still on the table,” Father Maximus answered. “We still haven’t decided if we are going to make a convent there or at another monastery closer to Cobleskill.”

The men sat a moment before their leader continued.

“We still welcome the community to our Vespers and Compline services each evening at seven, and the Divine Liturgy every Sunday.  We also run a food pantry here, open three days a week, that feeds over 500 people a month. That has been a major part of our community service over the past year or so,” Father Maximus added. “We’re planning to be here for a long time. And we’re still hoping someday to build a church up on the hill.”