First mentions of women giving up marriage, family life and motherhood to serve God and neighbor go back to the apostolic times. In the ancient world where women were only identified in family context, doing so was nothing short of a social revolution.
These women played an important role in the spread of Christian faith performing charitable work and turning their homes into shelters and places of religious meetings. In Early Christianity many of these women accepted martyrdom for refusing to comply with the Roman law of mandatory marriage.
The Greek word μοναχικός means ‘alone’. First Christian monastics lived as religious hermits. Amma Syncletica of Alexandria (c. 270 – c. 350 CE) was among first examples of female hermitic monasticism. After giving all her wealth to the poor she chose to live a secluded life of a hermit. Her example was followed by her sister and other women who became her disciples in Christ.
First organized (coenobitic) monastic communities are usually associated with the name of St Pachomius (Ca. 292-348), a contemporary of St Anthony. By the efforts of his sister, St Pachomius founded the first convent, a monastic community for women.
Below are some of the world’s prominent Eastern Orthodox convents.
Žiča Serbian Orthodox monastery was built in early 13th-century by the first King of Serbia, Stefan the First-Crowned and the first Head of the Serbian Church, Saint Sava. Recently it celebrated its 800th Anniversary. Being the first seat of Serbian archbishops and the coronation church of Serbian kings, Žiča with its fascinating architecture is an exceptionally important cultural monument and a vibrant center of monastic life in today’s Serbia.
Ormylia Greek Orthodox Convent of the Annunciation located in Chalkidiki (Greece) is a courtyard of Simonopetra Monastery on Mount Athos. It is inhabited by more than a hundred nuns making it the largest convent in the country. The monastic community of today’s Ormylia was founded by Archimandrite Emilian (Wafidis) in 1972 and was originally located in St Theodore Monastery in the Meteora. The construction of the convent as we see it today was finished in the early Nineties. Besides running an icon painting and a sewing workshop, Ormylia operates a Spiritual and Social Support Center and a Medical Center specializing in diagnosing cancer in early stages.
Since the late 11th century monasteries and convents have played a large part in Russian history serving as defensive structures and learning centres. According to historical data, convents made up 13–19 % of monastic communities in 11–15th century Russia. Majority of them were completely or partially destroyed during the Mongol yoke, the Time of Trouble, Polish, Swedish, French and other wars. All of them (with the exception of one) have been shut down by the Bolsheviks during the times of religious persecution in the Soviet Union. They were later reopened and rebuilt during the revival of the Russian Orthodox Church following the Communist era.
Convent of the Savior and St. Euphrosyne was founded ca. 1125 by St Euphrosyne of Polotsk. The convent’s cathedral church of Transfiguration has survived several fires and still stands today enshrining outstanding 12th century frescoes that have remained mostly uncorrupted. Convent of the Savior and St Euphrosyne is one of the most prominent historical monuments in present day Belarus. It is also an active monastic community with over 50 nuns.
Holy Trinity St. Seraphim-Diveyevo Convent founded in the mid-18th century presents a magnificent temple complex and a major pilgrimage site in Russia. Its name is closely associated with the life of the revered Seraphim of Sarov who served here as the elder for the convent nuns. The community became home for the relics of St Seraphim in 1991. They were transferred here after being rediscovered in St Petersburg’s Museum of Atheism.
According to various sources, Orthodox population reaches 3 to 6 million in North America. It consists of people with Russian, Greek, Ukrainian, Serbian, Romanian and other cultural backgrounds as well as converts from other denominations. North American Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church was the first Orthodox diocese to appear in North America. In 1949 a poor immigrant community in NY state lead by Fr Adrian Rimarenko founded a Russian Orthodox Convent.
Novo-Diveevo Convent of the Holy Dormition is a large monastic community with a full cycle of worship located only 20 miles from NYC. The sisters of Novo-Diveevo run a bakery, an apiary, a library and a candle factory. The Convent is also home to a Russian Orthodox cemetery with over 8000 graves.
Holy Protection monastery founded in 1935 is the oldest Orthodox convent in Canada. It was originated as a men’s community and was later transferred to Russian Orthodox nuns arriving from war-torn Shanghai in 1949. In 2007 the Convent left the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad and joined the semi-autonomous metropolia of Greek old-calendarists known as “Church of the Genuine Orthodox Christians of Greece” or the “Hellenic Orthodox Traditionalist Church of America”. Hidden in the plains of Alberta, it remains a contemplative community of eight religious sisters.
Photo from worldfortravel.com
Gorny or Gornensky Convent in Ein-Kerem was founded by the Russian Orthodox Ecclesiastical Mission in 1874. Ein-Kerem is a place where the Most Holy Theotokos came to share the Good News of the Annunciation with Elisabeth, mother of St John the Baptist. Church of the Visitation, the first Convent temple was consecrated in 1883. The second church of the Holy Trinity has been left unfinished due to the beginning of the First World War. It was rebuilt in 2007 and consecrated in the name of All Russian Saints. Today Gornensky Convent houses 60 monastic sisters.
These are only a few of many large Orthodox convents that are widely known in the world today. Despite being the smallest known social group, the monastics continue their mission making monastic communities spiritual and cultural centers and true jewels of modern Christianity.
The history of the biggest convent in Minsk (Belarus) - Saint Elisabeth Convent.