Every Sunday morning I drive from Napa to the small town of Calistoga where I attend church. While traveling up the Napa Valley, I pass by seasonally changing vineyards flanked by darkly-forested mountains and oak-studded hills. During this peaceful early morning interlude, I am always struck by how the Valley’s blend of nature and nurture contributes to its romantic sense of place.
Calistoga lies at the north end of the Napa Valley near Mount St. Helena. The mountain is said to have been named by Russian explorers after St. Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, who was the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire. St. Constantine made Christianity a legal religion within the Empire. He also convened the First Ecumenical Council, which compiled the books of the New Testament and codified the Orthodox Church’s fundamental tenets of faith. Others have suggested that Mount St. Helena was named after Princess Helena de Gagarin, the wife of the commanding officer of Fort Ross, a fur-trading post built by the Russians on the Sonoma coast in 1812.
Few visitors to the Napa Valley realize that an Orthodox church and monastery are located within blocks of each other along two of Calistoga’s tree-shaded backstreets. For a number of years I attended Sunday services at St. Simeon Verkhotursky Orthodox Church and the small chapel at nearby Holy Assumption Monastery. The proximity of the church and chapel is reminiscent of the a joke told to me by a fellow parishioner: “In Russia, we Orthodox find it necessary to build two churches in each village — one to attend and the other not to attend,” parish politics being what they are. While the church and monastery are distinct entities, they have found it necessary to share a priest because of the economics of their small size. Today, all services are temporarily held at the Holy Assumption Monastery chapel while St. Simeon is undergoing major repairs.
St. Simeon was originally constructed by Russian immigrants seeking refuge from religious persecution in China. In the 1960s, the immigrant community settled in Calistoga where they built what is now called the parish house. In 1974, the church proper was constructed immediately adjacent to the house and dedicated to Russia’s much beloved St. Simeon, who was a native of Verkhoturye in Siberia. The church, like the monastery chapel, accommodates fewer than 40 people. Its most prominent feature is a gold cupola, which is topped with the distinctive Russian Orthodox cross.
The Bell Tower
Today, after years of effort, the Holy Assumption Monastery is a mix of buildings of different architectural styles and finishes which have been cobbled together to form an organic whole. It is set within a beautiful garden bordering the Napa River. Holy Assumption Monastery is the oldest women’s monastery in the United States.
By design, its small chapel resembles that at Fort Ross. In fact, it incorporates a timber salvaged from the fort’s original chapel, which was rebuilt by the State of California as part of the Fort Ross Historic Park. The chapel is both intimate and inviting. Built of California redwood, its interior walls are adorned with icons, framed in gold and silver, which glow in the soft candlelight, while the smell of burning beeswax and incense fills the air with “spiritual fragrance.” During Divine Liturgy (which is similar to the Roman Catholic Mass), one enters a spiritual realm which engages all of the physical senses. Services are conducted in a mixture of English, Russian, and Greek in recognition of the Orthodox Church’s diversity and unbroken history, which dates back to the Apostles. The monastery’s luxuriant garden, which is an eclectic mix of citrus, palms, redwood trees, trumpet vines, geraniums, roses, and wisteria, extends the chapel’s sense of sanctuary into the natural world.
Holy Assumption Monastery is home to approximately a dozen American nuns whose activities are overseen by an Abbess. During the service, the nuns sing three-part (no bass being present) liturgical music or assist the priest as needed. These ladies in black are among the wisest people I know, perhaps because they do not read the newspaper or watch television.
What is so marvelous about parish life is the fact that, following Divine Liturgy, the parishioners and visitors enjoy lunch with the nuns and the priest in the monastery’s airy dining room. While the parishioners may have different ethnic backgrounds and political opinions, all are united in a shared belief in something greater than themselves which creates a sense of harmony sadly lacking in the modern world. During one such gathering, I asked Mother T., how I should respond to friends who express economic and political opinions with which I do not agree — adding “If I say nothing, it would be tacit acceptance of their opinions, and if I object, I would make enemies of my friends.”
Putting her reassuring hand on my shoulder, Mother T. responded: “Now, Lance, you need to take the longer term view. As Christians, we know how it is all going to turn out; besides, the devil rules the world and you are not going to throw him out. So why don’t you just try to be a better person?” To which I responded, “Oh, Mother T., it is so much easier to argue with my friends.” That, in a nutshell, is the world’s problem and our personal challenge.
The monastery garden includes a low, wooden tower in which I often observed the choir director playing the bells with joyful enthusiasm. When the Church sent her back to New York to pursue a seminary degree leading to a Ph.D, I wanted to give the young woman a going-away present in recognition of her many positive contributions to parish and monastery life. This is not easily done, since the nuns take a vow of poverty. I therefore wrote the following poem which I framed and gave to the Abbess to dispose of as she saw fit, which I assume she did.
A slender figure, clad in black,
emerges from the chapel door.
It is Sister M.!
She dashes down the garden path
to the wooden tower.
with pale countenance sweet,
strike the fluted metal,
make the chapel bells ring.
Ding-a, ding-a, ding-a, ding!
Ding-a, ding-a, ding-a, ding!
with white hands a-flutter,
pull the cords down hard,
make the old bronze sing.
Ding-a, ding-a, ding-a, ding!
Ding-a, ding-a, ding-a, ding!
Clang, clang, clang!
Thus, the chapel bells rang,
singing songs “bell” canto
in the morning call to faith.
The church and monastery, like many of today’s religious institutions, struggle to maintain economic self-sufficiency. The monastery is funded by private donations and a variety of programs run by the nuns under the direction of the Abbess. These programs include the sale of religious items (e.g., icons, crosses, and books), simple wooden coffins, and baked goods. In this regard, a small, storefront bookstore is being built, which, when complete, will sell the aforementioned items, including a number of children’s books written by the Abbess which use animals to demonstrate simple moral principles, much like Aesop’s Fables. St. Simeon, on the other hand, lacks the manpower (or, should I say, nunpower) to engage is such fundraising activities.
Therefore, as a matter of economic survival, the church partnered with the monastery to produce two different kinds of sacramental wines for use during communion and for sale to other religious institutions and commercial ventures. The more expensive of the two wines, called Kagor by the Russians, is made from 100 percent Malbec grapes. Only 300 cases of this premium wine are still available. I am told the wine is of such high quality that it is the only California wine served in the Orthodox Church in Jerusalem.
The second and less expensive wine, which is a California red labeled Alicante blend, has been completely sold out. The more recent 2014 vintage will become the new standard wine, which will be bottled and offered for sale in September of 2017, and a 2015 vintage of the premium Kagor will be bottled for sale in 2018. These church wines, both past and present, are sweet and resemble an aged port. While a few dessert wines are produced by Napa Valley vintners, one does not generally associate sweet wines with the Valley, which is primarily known for its dry varietal wines. This makes the church wines special. While sweet and velvety, they are not cloying and have great warmth and clarity. Normally served at room temperature, the wines may be mulled, with the gentle warming increasing their sense of depth and richness.
I have written this article in order to share my deep affection for St. Simeon and the Holy Assumption Monastery, which I encourage others to visit. St. Simeon is located at 1421 Cedar Street and Holy Assumption Monastery at 1519 Washington Street. The monastery currently welcomes visitors, as will the church upon its repair. Divine Liturgy begins at 10 a.m. each Sunday. Information about the monastery, including its calendar of services, may be found on the web at holyassumptionmonastery.com. Information about the wines may also be found on line at calistogaorthodoxwine.com. Wines may be ordered via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 942-4658.