People Look East for Byzantine Beauty

Order Inspired by St. John Paul II and Blessed Miriam Teresa

Blessed Miriam Teresa Demjanovich
Blessed Miriam Teresa Demjanovich (photo: Courtesy of the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth )

Christ the Bridegroom Monastery in Burton, Ohio, is a Byzantine-rite community within the Catholic Church. 

Recently, it celebrated its fifth anniversary, as well as the beatification of Miriam Teresa Demjanovich — whose feast day is May 8 — last fall.

Currently, the monastery is undergoing renovation; and, back in October, the monastery opened its Divine Liturgy to the public.

In a lively conference call, Mother Theodora, along with Sisters Gabriella and Cecilia, talked about the beatification, their order’s charism and the Byzantine rite’s special witness for the Church.


Blessed Example

Mother Theodora celebrated the beatification by reading Blessed Miriam Teresa’s Greater Perfection book and her biography. Sister Gabriella added that she was praying for this new blessed’s intercession at a meeting in Parma, Ohio. Sister Cecilia commented about “reading her spiritual conferences for novices. They’re perfect for anyone. Blessed Miriam Teresa is a good example of breathing with both lungs (as St. John Paul II referred to the Western and Eastern Churches).”

Mother Theodora was inspired to start Christ the Bridegroom Monastery out of a desire to do something more and to follow God’s will. Sister Cecilia added, “I helped Mother get the monastery started five and a half years ago. I was discerning with another community. My heart was burning in me when Bishop John Kudrick (of the Eparchy of Parma) wrote a letter about establishing a monastery based on St. John Paul II’s The Light of the East.”

In this encyclical, the Pope shows how the Eastern and Western Churches can enrich each other.

Mother Theodora explained, “St. John Paul II said that the Church needed to breathe with both lungs. The West has a sense of structure, rationality and order. In the East, our gift is of mysticism. We need both. The West defines the teachings of the Church.”

Mother Theodora described Christ the Bridegroom’s mission by saying, “Prayer and hospitality are our charism — and a spousal relationship with Christ the Bridegroom. It is prayer, work and recreation in union with the Trinity.”

Sisters Gabriella and Cecilia explained that their monastery’s name shows that “everyone is called to union with Christ.”


Byzantine Rite

Union is a crucial concept to Mother Theodora and her sisters: union with Christ, but also union on other levels.

Mother Theodora said, “We are faithful to the Church. We love the Pope. We pray for reunion with our Orthodox brothers and sisters. We experience the pain of separation; we feel it acutely in the Byzantine rite. We offer up the suffering of our misunderstanding.”

Christ the Bridegroom Monastery belongs to the Ruthenian branch of the Byzantine-rite Catholic Church.

Currently, in the United States, there are 626 Ruthenian congregations, numbering more than a half million faithful. They belong to the Eparchy of Parma that encompasses a dozen Midwestern states.

Sister Gabriella explained the Byzantine rite, saying, “The liturgy started in Byzantium. It went to Russia by way of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, who invented the Cyrillic alphabet. It is one of the 22 Eastern Catholic Churches in union with the Pope. We don’t have a patriarch in Eastern Europe. We have a chant tradition that comes from the Carpathian Mountains. We have an experiential nature of the liturgy that engages the senses in an active way, with incense and singing. It draws us into the mystery of God.”


Spiritual Motherhood

In The Light of the East, Pope St. John Paul II praised the witness of nuns, saying that they reflect the “motherhood of God.”

Sister Gabriella explained how their lives exemplify that: “We follow the theology of the body. We recognize the unique dignity of male and female.”

Mother Theodora described what kind of woman is suited to this kind of monastic life: “Joy would be a big one, to give your life totally to Christ. Deep joy is foundational in monasticism. We are seeking someone willing to embrace monastic virtues, community life and liturgical life, seeking a life of prayer and service to others. It is about union with Christ, our Bridegroom. When I was discerning, that’s what God wanted [of me].”

Sister Gabriella joined the monastery three and a half years ago. She had worked as a tax accountant in Akron, Ohio, but felt a need for more: “I felt I had more love to give than to one person. I had dated, but I felt stifled.”

Sister Gabriella had grown up under the Roman rite but was introduced to the Byzantine liturgy and its vespers and was intrigued. After graduating college, she visited various orders. She found that “the Eastern way of prayer was how my heart was speaking to God.”


Franciscan Influence

Bishop John Kudrick, a Third Order Franciscan, heads the Eparchy of Parma. He described what makes the Byzantine rite unique, saying, “Our emphasis is on the fullness of the liturgy. Our theology can be claimed as Franciscan, incorporating creation and bodily movements. We take flowers and bless them. We bless bread for those who can’t receive Communion. Our iconography inspires people to prayer. Our theology is in the iconography. There is an acknowledgment of creation as a way of approaching God.”

In 2008, Bishop Kudrick noticed the declining number of Poor Clares in his eparchy and wanted to create monasteries for men and women, finding inspiration in The Light of the East. Mother Theodora responded to his invitation; she and Sister Cecilia proposed the monastery’s name.

As Bishop Kudrick said, “In Ephesians 5, St. Paul exhorts husbands to love their wives as Christ loves the Church. As representatives of the Church with female characteristics, they have nurturing elements. Our nuns are called ‘Mother.’ They are called to be women; they don’t deny their womanhood in presenting the Gospel.”

For Bishop Kudrick, Christ the Bridegroom Monastery serves a missionary purpose: “It is contemplative, but not cloistered. They are a witness to Christian life. They are a place of pilgrimage. People can come to a place where people love and pray together in an intense way. They evangelize by participating in the evangelical works of the Church. There’s a lot of noise in the world that is very distracting. The monastery is a veil which blocks out those distractions. The monastic is privileged with that opportunity for silence.”


Anna Abbott writes from Napa, California.