By Louise Carroll For The Ellwood City Ledger
WAYNE TWP. -- On a warm, sunny day 50 years ago, the faithful gathered with bishops, clergy and public officials to perform a prayer service and to break ground on a new monastery.
The ground was blessed on Aug. 11, 1967, for the Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration in Wayne Township.
The program for the day says the service was officiated by Bishop Valerian, assisted by clergy of the diocese. Also in attendance were monastery founder Mother Alexandra and members of Ellwood City's 75th anniversary committee, headed by Dr. Aaron Caplan, president; Samuel Teolis, honorary chairman; and Mr. R.J. Schill, secretary.
According to its website, "the Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration is a monastery for women under the jurisdiction of the Orthodox Church in America. It was founded in 1967 by Mother Alexandra (the former Princess Ileana of Romania), whose dream it was to provide a place where American Orthodox women from all ethnic backgrounds could come to live the monastic life and benefit from a liturgical cycle in English."
Abbess Mother Christophora Matychak said this year's anniversary is the perfect time to look at the original vision for the monastery, to review Mother Alexandra's life and to understand how the monastery had its beginnings.
"In 1948, Mother Alexandra was a woman without a country. I think about her leaving her country. She lost everything, her culture, her family. She knew she could never go back," Matychak said.
Mother Alexandra was born Jan. 5, 1909. Princess Ileana of Romania was the daughter of King Ferdinand I and great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria of England and Czar Alexander II of Russia.
A deeply religious woman, she was dedicated to helping people. In 1947 after the Communists took over her country, she was exiled with her husband and six children. They were told they could leave the country with whatever they could carry or be confined in a monastery until they were executed.
First they went to Switzerland and then to Argentina. In 1950, Mother Alexandra got a medical visa to come to the United States. Separated from her husband, she came to America with her four youngest children, joining the two oldest who were already here as students. The couple later divorced.
"In Boston, she had the same doctor as Sen. John F. Kennedy," Matychak said, "and he introduced a bill in Congress and got her permanent residency. She was very grateful for this safe place to live."
"To provide for her family, she had speaking engagements all over the United States. It was at the peak of the Cold War, and she talked about what Communism does to a people and their country," Matychak said.
She entered a monastery in France in 1961 and six years later took the monastic vows of poverty and obedience and became Mother Alexandra. To retain her residency, she came to the United States for the required time each year.
While in the United States, she searched for the right location for a new monastery.
"With the help of the diocese and the bishops, she looked at many places to start a monastery for English-speaking nuns of the Orthodox faith. This place was chosen. It was part of the Boots farm, and members of the family have visited here. They were a very Christian family," Matychak said.
Since that time, Mother Alexandra's vision has been fulfilled and the monastery has continued to expand. The monastery contains a chapel decorated with artwork, each representing a story in the Bible, and a smaller chapel with stained-glass windows. The complex contains living quarters, a kitchen, dining hall, library, offices, outdoor shelter for worship, gazebo, guest house and gift shop. A larger guest house is currently under construction.
Ten nuns live at the monastery. Three, including Matychak, were raised in the Orthodox faith; the other seven are converts.
Matychak, who has been at the monastery for 34 years, became the abbess in 1987, the third abbess following Mother Alexandra and Mother Benedicta.
Mother Alexandra lived to see Communism fall in Romania in 1989 and was able to visit her homeland in 1990. She died in January 1991 and is buried in the monastery cemetery.
"More than 1,000 people came to blessing of the monastery when it was built in 1968, and we will be holding a 50th celebration of that event next year," Matychak said.
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