St Antony’s Coptic Monastery

posted in: Adventure Stories | 22
The intimidating gates at the entrance to St Antony's Coptic Monastery in Newberry Springs, CA.
The intimidating gates at the entrance to St Antony’s Coptic Monastery in Newberry Springs, CA.

Impulse to Stop – St Antony’s Coptic Monastery

On our way back from the Rock n Roll half marathon (our first one!) in Las Vegas in 2013, CrtrGrl and I took a random exit in the desert in order to check out an abandoned water park. One of my side projects has been photographing abandoned or decaying structures. Right off the freeway, we saw a sign for St Antony’s Coptic Monastery and decided on a whim to head there first.

The sun sets over the church at St Antony's Coptic Monastery. It looks like something you'd find on Tatooine.
The sun sets over the church at St Antony’s Coptic Monastery. It looks like something you’d find on Tatooine.

Two miles out a dirt road, we left civilization behind. There were a few scattered hovels along the road with piles of abandoned junk in between. As a result, we wondered if it was still a good idea and whether we’d be welcomed. We cracked a joke about being invited to dinner, not being sure if we’d be the meal. Dark humor, it’s what we do best. Then we were passed by a fast moving UPS truck. It was a good sign that we weren’t completely off the grid.

Shortly, we came to the monastery front gate. It was wrought iron and painted black. On one side of the gate was a sign warning that it was private property and trespassers weren’t welcome. On the other side was a sign welcoming us to St Antony’s Coptic Monastery. I took some photographs of the open gate, unsure whether we should drive into the fenced compound.

The gated entryway to St Antony's Coptic Monastery.
The gated entryway to St Antony’s Coptic Monastery.

Decision to Enter – St Antony’s Coptic Monastery

Seeing that the UPS truck made it out of the compound unscathed and knowing this was an opportunity for a unique experience, we decided to be brave and slowly drove through the gate. After passing fields of crops, we saw the new church that they had built. It looked like something that belonged on Tatooine, though unfinished, surrounded by dirt and with a newly paved parking lot. We debated whether to stop and take pictures or seek permission first. Wisely, we continued on, looking for someone to ask.

Further into the compound, we came to some administration buildings and saw a man with a long beard in black robes and a black hood… on a cell phone. That was another good sign. I went into the bookstore seeking permission, not really knowing what the Coptic Orthodox Church was about (was it a cult?) or whether women were even allowed at the monastery.

The main sanctuary inside St Antony's Coptic Monastery, looking toward the dais.
The main sanctuary inside St Antony’s Coptic Monastery, looking toward the dais.

Inside the bookstore were two customers of Middle Eastern descent – a man and a woman. At least one question was answered. The bookstore clerk was also Middle Eastern. After he finished helping the couple, I shyly asked if it would be OK if I took some pictures of their church. He said he would need to ask the head father first. I hesitated, not wanting to get in their way or be rude, then agreed.

Fortunately, the head father was just outside talking to the couple that had been in the bookstore. He asked what I wanted to take pictures of. I told him, “Just the outside of the church”. I waited, cringing, waiting for his response. Then he smiled warmly and said that the inside was much more beautiful and that we should let ourselves in.

Invited Inside – St Antony’s Coptic Monastery

I walked back to the truck where CrtrGrl was waiting on pins and needles. As I was giving her the good news and we were pulling out of the parking lot to head back to the church, the bookstore clerk walked over to the truck. I thought to myself, “Uh oh, here’s where we find out that we’re not welcome”. Instead, he told us that they were having dinner at 5:30 pm and invited us to stay and sup with them. It was around 2 pm at the time and we were tired from running the half marathon the day before.

I politely declined the offer for dinner, but in the back of my mind, I knew that dining with orthodox Coptic monks would be a real learning experience, still not sure what religion they were. CrtrGrl and I were both struggling with how much of an opportunity it was, a bit scared for what it would entail, but not really wanting to hang out for 3 hours with a long drive still ahead of us.

CrtrGrl & Scott inside the main sanctuary of St Antony's Coptic Monastery. Photo by Father Anastazi.
CrtrGrl & Scott inside the main sanctuary of St Antony’s Coptic Monastery. Photo by Father Anastasi.

We drove back to the church and I started photographing it from the outside. Behind the church, we found the dedication stone to Father Moses the Black (a desert father), after whom the church was named. Next to it was a tree with notes stuffed into the bark and branches. We found an unlocked door on the side of the church and let ourselves in.

In the first room we entered, we found the baptismal font with a beautiful tile mosaic. The room was still under construction and being used for storage. Based on this room, we assumed we’d be able to explore the unfinished church on our own. We proceeded to the main entrance and the quad wooden carved doors to the main sanctuary. As we opened the doors, we were taken aback at the completed and fully decorated church inside. It resembled a Catholic Church with two rows of pews, a central dais and murals adorning the walls. I opened two of the doors in order to let in some natural lighting.

Unexpected Company – St Antony’s Coptic Monastery

While we were looking into the main sanctuary, I noticed a car pulling up into the new parking lot outside. In comes the head father, dressed in all black robes, black hood and a long, peppered, gray beard. Concerned that we had done something wrong, I approached him and thanked him again for letting us photograph their beautiful church. Then he invited us into the main sanctuary.

He introduced himself as Father Anastasi, smiled warmly and asked us if we would mind telling him what our religious background was. I smiled hesitantly and said that I was raised Presbyterian, but that I was now an atheist. Consequently, he looked slightly taken a back, then smiled, laughed heartily and gave me a hug. He asked CrtrGrl the same thing and she responded that she was raised Catholic, and hesitantly said that she was also an atheist. He gave a friendly smile again and laughed.

Father Anastasi meets with students at St Antony's Coptic Monastery.
Father Anastasi meets with students at St Antony’s Coptic Monastery.

Dialogue and Explanations – St Antony’s Coptic Monastery

We spent the next two hours with Father Anastasi. He explained that the Coptic Orthodox Church was one of the original Christian churches, similar to the Catholic Church, the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches, but they were the orthodox church in Egypt. For CrtrGrl, he explained the nuanced differences between the Catholic Church and the Coptic church. We talked about faith and evidence, toeing the line between being open and asking hard questions, not wanting to be rude as a guest in his house. He explained that as monks, they take a vow with three parts – poverty, chastity and obedience.

After taking off our shoes, he took us up onto the dais. He told us the stories behind all of the murals and the symbolism in them. Two young men joined us in the church and followed us in our conversation with Father Anastasi. They were considering becoming monks and were excited just to have time with him and hear him speak. We never felt like he was preaching to us. It was more of an exchange of ideas.

Around 4 pm, he realized that we might need to get on our way home. As the daylight was waning, he offered to turn on all the lights inside the church and let us take whatever photos we wanted. He invited us to come back some time and stay at the family retreat they have a couple of miles away. Last, he asked if we wanted him to take a photo of the two of us in the church. I showed him the shutter button and a few pointers and he took a couple of good photos of us. I gave him my business card and he wrote down his name and phone number for us.

The sun is setting as we leave St Antony's Coptic Monastery.
The sun is setting as we leave St Antony’s Coptic Monastery.

After taking our pictures, we heartily thanked him and left. On the way home, we talked about what we’d learned, how humble Father Anastasi was and what a great experience it was. We were thankful that we’d overcome our fears and driven through that open gate. We talked about making a trip back out and staying at the retreat. Some of the best experiences (and photographs) come from exploring and being open to the possibilities.

 

In the comments below, please share a positive experience you had only because you overcame your apprehension and fear!

St Antony’s Monastery on Facebook

St Antony’s Monastery Web Site

43725 Bragdon Road

Newberry Springs, California 92365

 

 

More photos of St Antony’s Coptic Monastery:

22 Responses

  1. Wonderfully written. The photos & story brings me back to that amazing experience. Much thanks to Father Anastasi for opening up the doors to his home & for making us feel so welcome.

  2. Mark Pidcoe

    Awesome story guys! Glad you had such a wonderful experience there. I’m an avowed agnostic, but I understand the role that religion has played in the development of our world and societies. And my own studies into the Coptic’s has been more from the historical perspective, as they are one of the oldest Christian sects with a very rich history without much of the bloodshed associated with the Roman Catholic version. Great Photos as well.

  3. Mira Maximous

    Absolutely beautiful story. My name is Mira Maximous, I am a Coptic Orthodox and I am thrilled that you were led to experience our monastery. Ironically, the “beautiful tile mosaic” you mentioned in your article was made by my dad, Victor Maximous. What I loved about your story is that you both have such an open, loving, and humble heart. Your story really touched me because your hearts are so pure that you were able to feel the love that illuminates from Father Anastasi. I believe that our life is a journey and throughout the way, we are blessed with meeting people who truly make an impact on us and leave us with such a lasting impression. There are people that after you spend time with, you feel like you have just been in the presence of God Himself because they just reflect His light and love and maybe be able to find God Himself in our own lives and experience that unexplainable unconditional love for ourselves. It’s a journey and through this article, I am thankful that I got the opportunity to learn from you. I found it very cute how both of you were so respectful and so careful not to intrude but I am so happy that somehow and someway, you found yourself where you did. Anytime you come across another Coptic Orthodox Church, know that you are so welcome, you can consider every single one of them your home. There are so any beautiful ones all throughout the United States. If you would like, it would be an honor to be able to give you a tour of any Coptic Church you would like, even if you would like to see all the different ones here in Southern California, I would love to get the blessing of showing you and experiencing them again through your eyes and your camera lense. My phone number is 909-239-1794. I can’t thank you enough for writing this beautiful article, I am so encouraged by it. May God bless you in every way as you certainly have been a blessing to me through this beautiful story!

  4. Excellent story, I’m actually Coptic orthodox and have visited the Monestary numerous time from New York. I’m glad to see that you’ve enjoy the Monestary as much as I do. Father Anastasi is a great man and I’m glad to hear that he was there to welcome you. May God lead you back to this great place for many years 🙂

  5. Thaddeus

    Hey man, when were these photos taken?

  6. Sylvia Martignani

    I went there too with my parents. We are Coptic Orthodox too. We love that Monastery. They have excellent food too 🙂 St. Moses the Black was a criminal then he found God and became an amazing saint which is why a lot of us can relate to him since we are nowhere near perfect. Thank you for the beautiful photos honoring one of our monastaries. Please try to visit Egypt, particularly Alexandria where our Pope resides. The cathedrals there are gorgeous much like Rome and Italy l where there are amazing churches. Love this! Good on you for overcoming your apprehension. So proud ???

  7. Beautiful photos! That beautiful church is actually St. Moses the Strong church on the grounds of st Anthony monastery. He is a very prominent Saint/monk in our church who performed many miracles and still does. It was built because he appeared to a woman in hardship and told her this hardship will pass. When it did and the woman told the abbot of the monastery, they built that church in his name. St Moses appeared many other times at st Anthony monestary after that. It is hands down one of the most beautiful Coptic churches I’ve ever seen 🙂 thanks for the beautiful pictures!

  8. Sherif kaiser

    Great Blessings. I am coptic orthodox and I have never been and now you made me want to retreat there.Thanks for sharing.
    Sherif Kaiser
    Berryville, VA

  9. Maggie Saleeb

    Awesome pictures. Fr Anastasi is an absolute LEGEND!!

  10. peter botros

    I have been living in the states since 1981 and visited that monastery many times and stayed many nights as well
    for the record I have seen a miracle there one time in the week of St. Mary in august few years ago with a group of some visitors,
    while we were sitting at night in the entrance of the old church we saw a big red light as if it was a fire from the old wooded church of St . Moses the black , we ran fast on foot and some took the truck there to put the fire off, then by being there we saw nothing but a small candle, we were far from the church about at least 500 yards and we were surprised to see the source of that big light just a candle, we prayed for ST. Moses and it was a blessing for me till now, to confirm that ask Father Moses who is a senior monk for many years.

  11. Wow, I am so overwhelmed by all of the comments! Thank you, everyone, for taking the time to read our story and share your thoughts with us. We’re happy that this story has touched you as much as the experience touched us!

    Mira Maximous – We may just take you up on that offer! It sounds like it would be fascinating. 🙂

    Thaddeus – This was in November of 2013. I took a while to write up the story and share it… CrtrGrl has been encouraging me to share it for a while now!

    Thanks!
    Scott

  12. Man in the House

    Great story. Beautiful photos. I am jealous of the two of you. Even though I’ve been to the monastery many times, your visit was extra special.

  13. Nahla Dous

    CrtrGrl and Scott McGee,
    I would like to echo the sentiment of my Coptic brothers and sisters. I too am Coptic, residing in the Los Angeles area for almost 40 years. Our churches and monastery are always opened. You and others are more than welcome to come, visit, dine with, and hopefully establish friendships. Your story was so touching. I’ve known Father Anastasi for more than 15 years. I’m so glad you’ve had the rare opportunity to interact with him. Kindly consider revisiting as well as visiting our churches. May your life continue to be opened to infinite love and peace.

  14. Viola Hanns

    Makes me proud to be an Coptic orthodox… They are truly living the definition of Christianity. This is what Christianity is all about

  15. Amir Boghdady

    Great story, I am glad that you had an amazing experience with an amazing father

  16. This is a very descriptive and great story. I’ve been wanting so bad to know more about the Coptic Christians. I am so thankful for this story because it was so detailed and made me as if I was experiencing the church with you guys. I am so happy and excited to know more about these courageous Christians that were and are persecuted each and everyday. May they be safe. And God bless all.

  17. I am Coptic Orthodox and proud..I commend you on your bravey to explore an unknown place with unknown cuture/religion to you 🙂 but i am not biased! and i can tell you how peaceful it is to be there…i hope its educational to our commuinty in the U.S.

  18. During the renovations, archeologists uncovered the ruins of the original monks’ working quarters from the h century. The remains are now covered by a glass floor and are viewable by visitors. Coptic leaders, the patriarch , the metropolitans , and the bishops have always been recruited from among the desert monks.

  19. Ehab Mosaad

    I really enjoyed your article. I’ve been going to the monastery since I was a young boy. I’m 42yrs old now and some of the monks remember me from back in the day. The monks are very welcoming and humble. They inspire you to be close to God. Thanks for writing your experience with the monastery. It is a very pleasant and peaceful place. I’m glad you entered the gates.

  20. During my 2015 solo traverse of the Mojave Desert—it was a research trip for my biography of Colin Fletcher— I stumbled upon this monastery. I could see the white gleaming domes of the sanctuary six miles away. Already a couple hundred miles into the journey, I was walking from Alvord Mtn. that day, heading toward Coyote Lake. I thought I knew what to expect from the desert but St. Antony’s was a complete surprise.

    The fathers welcomed me with open arms. “You are a desert pilgrim,” they said. They fed me, let me shower and refill my canteens. Then offered a clean bed for the night.

    I had already overcome my doubts about being able to tackle the desert but was still very apprehensive that I would be able to write Fletcher’s biography. However, many remarkable events surrounded the project including meeting Father Joseph at St. Antony’s. He assured me that since I was able to walk alone all the way to the monastery from the Colorado River, I certainly could finish writing a book.

    He was right!

    • That’s a great story Dr Wehrman. What a welcome sight St Antony’s that must have been. Thank you for sharing your experience while crossing the Mojave Desert! 🙂

      Scott

  21. KayrndeLea Brummett Mahair Every effort helps

    Tjis was agreat story which lay blame at no one’s door. This is a true tragedy, but out of tragedy comes insight. And in this case the insight is deep and acknowledged. That there can be forgiveness is an act of which I am incapable. I hold those who committed this horrendous act with disdain and horror. But the human beings directly involved express nothing but forgiveness and compasdion. Were that I was so evolved.

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