Holy Assumption Monastery (Calistoga, California)
Holy Assumption Monastery was founded in 1941 by a small group of nuns who fled from Russia and China with St. John Maximovitch in search of freedom to practice their faith. Though they originally settled in San Francisco, they soon discovered the quiet town of Calistoga 80 miles north of the city, and with the blessing of the local church hierarchy, purchased an old two-story property by the Napa River.
They were given permission to establish their new monastery on the condition that they would finance and administer the community on their own and would dedicate themselves to the service of God with faith that He would take care of them. At first, the old building had to serve as both chapel and living quarters, but soon the nuns, with their own hands, built a separate small wooden chapel as their place of worship. They adorned it with their own icons and embroidered cloths and began to hold services, to which all those inside and outside their gates were welcome.
As the community grew, Orthodox Christians of all backgrounds came to attend the twice-daily services, and it soon became apparent that the chapel was far too small to hold the increasing number of faithful pilgrims. In 1959, a new chapel was built on the grounds—a replica of the 1812 Fort Ross chapel. Under the leadership of Andre Tchelistcheff, a local winemaker, money was raised for this important project.
The community continued to thrive through the 1960s and 1970s, drawing people from all backgrounds through its serenity, beautiful surroundings, and spiritual presence. In the mid-1980s, the monastery extended its outreach far beyond its borders through the work of priest-in-charge Fr. George Benigsen, who broadcast regularly on Radio Free Europe. His radio talks became known as an inspired voice of Orthodox Christianity that touched millions around the world.
After Fr. Benigsen, the monastery fell into disrepair. The nuns were gone and buildings were dilapidated, even condemned. It was an unfortunate period of which some took advantage, using the buildings as a free shelter. They disrespected and abused the monastery, piling enormous amounts of debris in the sagging buildings and grounds. The grounds themselves were barren; nothing grew. On January 1, 1998, a restoration of the property began.
An ambitious restoration of the entire property began in 1998 through the efforts of Igumen Sergius Gerken, the new abbot of the monastery. Following an encyclical and the advice of His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and his concern for the environment, the grounds have been transformed into a lush garden oasis, a tranquil place ideal for reflection and contemplation. Much-needed retaining walls were built to hold back the annual flooding of the Napa River (one more is needed). The historic chapel has undergone extensive renovation and improvements. A rectory was purchased and is being renovated. The main historical building which will house the nuns and serve as the hospitality center has been retrofitted and reinforced with concrete floors and steel beams which would withstand most any earthquake. A new roof was added and new cedar siding is being installed now. The grounds are graced with new statuary, church bells, and a koi pond. A small community of dedicated monastery friends has formed. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been generously and sacrificially donated to this project through the love and efforts of Father Sergius.
With official blessings but without financial support, little by little the Holy Assumption Monastery began its transformation. The monastery has taken on a completely new focus and direction to better serve the faithful. It is not only being renovated but working to become a major monastic center, with nuns coming from Greece to train American novices in the ancient practice of monasticism. Daily life revolves around worship services, tending to the needs of the community, offering hospitality to all visitors and pilgrims and providing spiritual counseling and pastoral ministry to those in need.
To this day, the monastery has relied solely on donations and charitable contributions for support and financial livelihood. The vision of the sisterhood is to create the means for self-sufficiency and to become revitalized as a strong monastic community.
Friends of The Holy Assumption Monastery
1519 Washington Street
Calistoga, CA 94515
Igumen Sergius Gerken, Abbot
OCA website description (Some rearrangements made; for original text, click here.)