This was first published in print for our Winter Issue in 2011 and later published online, February 5th, 2011.
I had heard about St.Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery (located just south of Florence) years ago, and I finally made the time to visit it in June 2011. Although I am not Orthodox, the visit was a spiritual experience for me in much the same way any place of serene beauty confirms the presence of a Greater Hand at work in the universe. The monastery is out in the desert and seems to be an unlikely spot for such beauty since the desert south of Florence is a fairly non-descript flat expanse of the Sonoran Desert. You’ll see a lot of greasewood, shrub brush, and cholla cactus, but that’s about it. However, the monastery compound stands out because of the various kinds of stately palm trees that grace the grounds and its orchards and olive groves.
The contrast between this natural desert landscape and this oasis of palms and Greek-style monastic buildings reminds me of the many times I’ve spent at Boyce Thompson Arboretum in the scorching heat of summer. Nature has responded with a true flourish to many loving hands that have been at work on this monastic enclosure since 1995. Where once the sun scorched the ground and those who toiled, there is now a shade and waters flowing, with a slight breeze blowing through the trees and among the chapels and individual gardens of the monastery.
It was not always this way.
A world away on a mountain peninsula in Greece, Mount Athos is home to 20 Orthodox monasteries and is referred to by Orthodox people throughout the world as the Holy Mountain. It was here that a young boy raised in poverty joined the monastic life at age 19. He was, of course, Father Ephraim, a priest-monk for almost 60 years. He is believed to be the first abbot to establish an authentic Athonite monastery on American soil.
Since coming to the United States in 1995 with 6 other monks to establish St. Anthony’s, Father Ephraim is also credited with founding seventeen other monasteries through America and Canada. He now oversees all the monasteries he has helped to establish, both here and on Mount Athos, but calls St. Anthony’s home. His presence at here is one of the reasons that so many pilgrims from all over the world travel to this spot in the Sonoran desert.
Today, nearly 45 monks live and work at the monastery, and there are housing quarters for pilgrims (both men’s quarters and women’s quarters). Pilgrims may come for a day or ten days and are required to attend all services, which include the main service starting at 1:45 AM and lasting until 4:00 AM every morning. Pilgrims are mostly Greek Orthodox, but being Orthodox is not required in order to make a day-visit or to stay for several days. While there is no charge for a visit, donations to St. Anthony’s are accepted.
A review by Anna from LA (on Yelp), provides a good insight into a day in the life of a pilgrim visiting the monastery:
“The first night I went at 1 AM and was able to kiss Father Ephraim’s hand. After the Divine Liturgy, there was a breakfast of freshly baked bread (made by the monks), large and small bitter green olives from the olive orchards on the grounds, two types of halva, jam, nuts, fresh fruit from the orchards, and coffee. This is a typical fasting breakfast (no animal products). After breakfast, you may go back to bed for another 3 hours of quiet time. Walking back to my room at 5 AM was beautiful. The desert stars and moon were bright, casting shadows on the cacti and the air was cool and fresh. During the day, a person is pretty much free to roam the beautiful grounds. Lunch is served at 11:30 AM, and there is no talking aloud, except for a monk reading a chosen Bible passage in Greek. When one of the monks rings a bell, you are allowed to pour water. The typical fasting lunch that I ate consisted of braised green beans with calamari, fresh bread, olives, salad, and Greek macaroni. After lunch visitors can approach Father Ephraim for his blessing, go to the book store, and speak with some of the monks or with other pilgrims. Another mandatory service is Vespers at 3:30 PM to 4:30 PM. Dinner is served afterwards. Following dinner is the last mandatory service. Then, you are ready to go to bed at 7:30 PM. I was able to fall asleep almost right away. I was feeling extremely peaceful and happy, yet exhausted.”
Requirements for visiting:
The Monastery readily accepts day visitors who wish to see the grounds from 10:30 AM to 2:30 PM, seven days per week. Visitors are asked to stop at the gatehouse upon arrival and, if a monk is not immediately available at the bookstore when you arrive, please wait at the gift shop until a monk returns.
When visiting the monastery, please be respectful and wear proper attire (i.e., for men this means long-sleeved shirts and trousers, and for women this means long skirts, long sleeves, and a head covering. To view all the guidelines, please check the St.Anthony’s Monastery website (www.stanthonysmonastery.org/visitorguide).
From the Phoenix area, take I-10 east (towards Tucson) and take exit 185. Follow the signs for Coolidge/Florence (a left at the exit ramp, followed by a right turn 1/2 mile later). You will be on Hwy 387 North that takes you to Route 87. Turn right on 87 South, heading towards Coolidge. You will pass Coolidge on your right, but continue on 287 East until you reach Florence (9 miles past Coolidge). Stay on your right, taking Route 79 towards Tucson. After mile marker 124, turn left on Paisano Drive. Follow it all the way to the end, where it turns left. This unmarked road is St. Joseph’s Way, and it will take you to the monastery’s parking lot.
Writer, photographer. Passionate foodie, lover of good books and storytelling. Lives in Globe. Plays in the historic district. Travels when possible.