For nearly 20 years, St. John the Forerunner Greek Orthodox Monastery has sat just off the highway near Goldendale.
Enclosed in woods, the complex is home to 22 nuns and novices who have devoted themselves to a life of worship.
But monastic life is far from the quiet solitude some may imagine -- the sisters are a growing bunch of entrepreneurs who stay busy running their own business.
St. John’s Bakery, Coffee & Gifts is the most public face of the monastery. The shop is located on the roadside of U.S. 97 and offers tourists and locals alike an opportunity to interact with the sisters and enjoy the fruits of their labor: traditional gourmet Greek pastries and other treats, Greek food, beeswax candles, hand-painted icons, jams and, new to the shop, goat milk and cheeses.
Items sold at the shop are all created by the sisters at the monastery and proceeds support their life there. The store, which opened in May 2002, has been so popular that the sisters are in the process of expanding their kitchen in order to accommodate their growing line of products.
“We felt like it was just too small what we’re trying to work in,” said Sister Myrophora, who has lived at St. John’s since 2001. “It felt like we couldn’t really keep up with our menu.”
The monastery was recently certified as a Grade A Dairy Farm and is raising a small herd of goats for milk and cheese. In order to sell those products to the public, the sisters found they needed more space.
The construction work, which is funded by a foundation created to support the monastery, is more than doubling the available kitchen space, adding new commercial freezers and refrigerators and creating a separate building for milk and cheese. The work should be finished this spring.
In the existing space, the sisters have to stop using the kitchen for making pastries and other foods on cheese-making day because of the risk of cross-contamination. The expansion will allow both activities to occur simultaneously.
All of the items created at the monastery -- including sweets such as baklava, biscotti, chocolates, and other Greek cookies, breads and cakes -- come from recipes brought to the monastery from Greece by its original three sisters, who still live there and oversee the work. The sisters also have been learning about cheese making from other Greek monasteries. “Greek cooking is very time-consuming,” said Sister Iosiphia. “We do it just like the ladies do at home -- from scratch.” She said it can be fun for those sisters who grew up in a Greek Orthodox home, because “we’re doing the same things as our moms and grandmas.”
The interaction with the original sisters helps keep the recipes authentic.
“We’ve really tried to perfect the foods and give them the most authentic taste, so people really get a good taste of what Greek tastes like,” said Sister Myrophora.
About four sisters are permanent bakery cooks, and the rest take turns helping in the bakery, milking goats, working in the shop and creating the other products sold at the shop. And while there is more than enough work to keep them busy around the clock, they are careful to maintain their focus on God.
“We try to keep a balance,” said Sister Iosiphia, who has lived at the monastery for nearly 16 years. “Our main goal is we’re here for the monastic calling.”
The sisters have turned down catering opportunities or other orders in order to preserve their spiritual lives, said Sister Myrophora.
“We do what we can with the hands we have,” Sister Iosiphia said.
She noted many people comment on how good the food at the monastery is, and said she reminds them that “the blood of Christ sanctifies all.” Our food is “made with prayer,” she said.
The deli-style shop is remaining open during the kitchen remodel, and visitors can still pick up lunch items and frozen, family-sized meals there from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday. There is limited seating available inside the shop, and in the warmer months the sisters put tables outside as well.
Among the most popular food items sold are the gyros, which is available with lamb and beef or vegetarian. The mousakas -- an eggplant and potato casserole -- is also very popular, Sister Myrophora said.
“We hope maybe someday to expand the store more to give more seating. It’s really pretty packed full,” she said. “We didn’t think it would get this full.”
If you go St. John’s Bakery, Coffee & Gifts
2378 U.S. 97, Goldendale
Store hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, closed for Greek Orthodox holidays