A SECLUDED VALLEY road in rural southwestern Wisconsin's Crawford County is the unlikely base for North America's largest icon factory and distributorship. Last year, St. Isaac of Syria Skete sold and shipped some 43,000 icons. This year the goal is to sell 50,000, and 70,000 next year. The “skete” of St. Isaac of Syria Skete comes from Scetis, a great early Egyptian monastic center. Askete combines elements of a hermit's life with a more communal existence.
While St. Isaac's business is making the monastery self-supporting, there's more to this business than making money. Father Simeon, a 50-year-old Orthodox monk who founded the monastery and directs its icon business, wants to make quality Christian art reproductions affordable to everyone. Father Simeon was born and reared Jewish in Chicago. In the mid-1960s, he was an English and philosophy major—and one of the first hippies—at the University of Illinois. Then came his conversion. “God decided to knock me over the head, a great surprise from which I have yet to fully recover,” he says. Nearly three decades ago, he began pursuing the religious life, and through the years has lived with other monks in several monasteries. Eventually he joined a small and traditionally-minded Orthodox association called the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad and for more than a decade lived in a monastery in Texas.
Even after living as a monk for many years, he says the journey toward holiness is a day to day struggle. Father Simeon came to Wisconsin about 10 years ago to visit his brother who lives in Crawford County. Immediately, he fell in love with the region's natural beauty, which he found conducive to a life of prayer. He remodeled a ramshackle tobacco shed into living quarters, which today serves as a chapel. For the first few years he lived in extreme poverty. With the arrival of another monk, Father Menas, a community began to develop. Although Father Menas departed recently to join another monastery in the Southwest, and today there are seven—four men and three women—living a religious life at St. Isaac's. They wear the traditional black garments of Orthodox monks and nuns. The monks grow beards and draw their long hair into ponytails.
At St. Isaac of Syria, communal activities center around the chapel and the icon factory. Three very primitive individual cells for hermits— Father Simeon lives in one—are located about a half-mile into the woods. Like the famous monasteries on Mt. Athos in Greece, no women are allowed on these grounds, while male visitors may only come by invitation.
The idea for producing icons came shortly after Father Simeon founded St. Isaac's when he was confronted with the practical question of how to support himself. “There are no czars or emperors around anywhere to support the likes of what we're doing,” he says. The business was launched with about $100 in 1989. They bought their first boards of birch veneer plywood, used a friend's woodworking shop, and mounted a few icon reproductions. They then tried to sell their wares to Catholic religious goods stores in Chicago. They were turned down, but on the way home received a $600 order from a Milwaukee company. Their new business was off the ground.
Today five of the 11 mobile homes on the monastery's property are joined by decks and roofs. The structure serves as factory and office headquarters. Being creative with used mobile homes was the only way the business could get started, explains Father Simeon, who by his own account, has become a master scrounger.
That thriftiness doesn't get in the way of the production of high quality copies of icons. A state-of-the-art color copier, purchased two years ago, allows the monastery to produce 20-30 percent of its own prints. Any art of this type that's more than 100 years old is public domain, and can be reproduced at no charge. Some icon prints are purchased in Greece, Italy and.
St. Isaac of Syria Skete offers reproductions of 600 different icons, with plans to add 150 more. They come in ten sizes, with $6 being the least expensive. The most popular size, 8” x 10,” costs $20.
The business utilizes modern marketing methods to sell their work. Soon, they hope to make their catalogue available on the Internet. Sales are somewhat seasonal, says Father Siemon, with the high point coming in the pre-Christmas season.
Icons—which Christians in the East have long looked to prayer aids—have become increasing popular in the United States, especially since the downfall of communism in the former Soviet Union has made hundreds of new icons available in the West. Father Simeon cites God's providence, rather than his own cleverness, for launching a business that is right for the times.
Still, the icon business at the skete, while showing great promise, has yet to become a big money maker. If and when it does, Father Simeon has blueprints ready or a new church. The plans also include a display room so that all icons can be viewed in one place. Though Father Simeon would like to see that happen without delay, he's been a monk long enough to surrender his own plans and allow God to lead the way.
Patrick Slattery is based in La Crosse, Wis.