Hermitage of Prophet Elias
When most of us think of the monastic life we probably picture in our mind’s eye images from books we’ve read, movies watch and perhaps even college texts studied. Do you see dimly lit scriptoriums, maybe chanting and Vespers? Most certainly we imagine men in dark or black cassocks walking silently through the forest. Our preconceptions are likely close to reality as there are many different types of monasteries and the monastic life spans not only the different branches of Christianity – though predominantly Catholic or Orthodox – it spans different religions. For most of us the one common perception is that monasteries are only found in Europe or parts of Asia. That’s certainly what I thought. I wouldn’t have been be too surprised to that there are monasteries in eastern Canada or perhaps South America but certainly not the Canadian prairies. If your perceptions are similar to mine, prepare to be surprised as we visit the ruins of St Elias Orthodox Skete (a skete is a monastic community in Eastern Christianity that allows relative isolation for monks, but also allows for communal services and the safety of shared resources and protection).
There was a monastery in northeast Alberta. I don’t have the date it was established but very early in the 20th century is likely as that is when the area was settled by people from Ukraine and other Slavic countries. St Elias was closed in the early 1960s although it was also re-established in 2009 as a modern monastery based in Smoky Lake, Alberta.
The following is from a website that describes the current status of the monastery. Click here to read it at the source.
“While the Hermitage of Prophet Elias a small group, who. due to the necessities of work are not living under the same roof, they still keep a very good fraternal spirit and are in constant contact with each other by means of travel, phone and Skype, etc. Igumen Gerasim supports himself personally and supports and maintains the current residence, (on a farm acreage six miles north of Smoky Lake, Alberta) by being a missionary priest and rector of eight rural parishes and 10 cemeteries in this vast area of the Canadian heartland of Orthodoxy, founded by mainly Bukovinian Ukrainian settlers over a century ago.”
“Thus the revived St. Elias Monastery has a significant impact on the spiritual life of this historic region, blessed in the past by the service of the likes of St. Tikhon, the Priestmartyr Jacob Korchinski, Archbishop Arseny of blessed memory, Archimandrite Germogen, and numerous others, both monastic and married, who like the St. Herman and his companions, carried and continue to carry the light of Orthodoxy to the People of God. Thus our mode of life at St. Elias, though quite distinct from a seemingly more cenobitical or anchoritical model, such as is found at places like the Holy Mountain of Athos, has nevertheless the same spiritual goals of true union with God, an example (as frail as it is) of striving to live the Angelic Life of the Heavenly Kingdom, and a “voice which cries in the wilderness” calling all to follow the Holy Orthodox Way.”
This is a thickly forested area. From the road you need a keen eye to see that there are buildings beyond the trees.
This sign near the road is the only indication that there is something beyond the trees. It states that the monastery was re-established in 2009.
As I enter the forest there are few paths. The further into the forest I walk the more old buildings I see. Most are in an advanced state of decay although none appear to have fully collapsed. Most are quite generic leaving me to wonder which were built for specific purposes.
Soon the forest path gives way to a tangle of fallen trees and prickly shrubs. Did the monks experience trees falling down upon the buildings during windy winter nights?
I heard no chanting or Vespers; only the wind through the trees disturbed the silence. What would it have sounded like in the early century when many monks called this home? Where they happy; are any monks happy? My questions are rhetorical of course since there is no way to know these things. This forest is no longer home to the monastery but St Elias continues as a modern monastery. In fact as recently as 2012 a new monk was admitted into the order. Click on the red citation below to read the full article about the ceremony.
On September 20th, 2012, the Eve of the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos, the Very Rev. Igumen Gerasim (Power) of St. Elias Skete, Smoky Lake County, Alberta, was tonsured into the Lesser Schema (Stavrophore). The ceremony took place at St. Herman’s Sobor, Edmonton, Alberta, during the celebration of Vespers for the Feast and was performed by the Rt. Rev Archimandrite Alexander Pihach, Abbot of St. Elias Skete.The Orthodox Church in America
The Mysterious Piano
The piano in the forest is a mystery. Another blogger stated that the monks know nothing of where it came from as they neither owned nor used a piano at the monastery. The excellent blog called St Elias – Off the Beaten Path with Chris & Connie describes their tour of the monastery with the monk and his daughter. Chris Doer checked the serial number of this piano and found it to be manufactured in the early century by The Morris Piano Co. Ltd. Nobody seems to know who placed it in the forest or why.
Much too soon it’s time to leave. There are other places to photograph. We leave St Elias exactly as we found it, unchanged as if we were never there. I hope it remains here for some time yet, including the piano, so others can experience a remote forest monastery for themselves. However, in order to prevent the wrong types from causing damage or stealing old wood, I’ll not give the exact location here.
If you would like to read more about what it’s like to be a monk, I suggest that you refer to a website that describes a day in the life of a monk. This is not about St. Elias, and it’s not even an Orthodox monk’s life that is described. However it gives a brief taste of what it must be like as a real person in a real monastery in modern times. Click here to read about a Catholic Benedictine monk’s day.
If you visit the structures shown in this blog, or any other old and potentially abandoned structure, please respect the landowners” rights and obtain their permission to access and photograph their structures. Always exercise caution when visiting abandoned buildings as there are potential dangers such as crumbling structures, deep wells hidden by grass, and even spores of mould in the air.