Volunteers rally to help St. Herman’s Monastery following gun scandal

by Chuck Hoven

(Plain Press, March 2011) At their February 24th meeting, residents of the Franklin/Clinton Block Club received an update on efforts to make sure St. Herman’s Monastery and House of Hospitality continues its vital mission in the wake of a recent controversy.  In early February, the Plain Dealer and local television stations reported that Cleveland Police discovered a large amount of weapons and ammunition owned by Reverend John Henry, the Abbot of St. Herman’s Monastery at W. 44th and Franklin.

Franklin/Clinton Block Club Chairman Bill Merriman said that when guns were found in the neighborhood, people were very concerned. He said working to assure the monastery continues its mission brought neighbors together to help sift through some thorny issues.

Ward 3 Councilman Joe Cimperman told the block club that Cleveland Police followed up after being alerted by Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms federal agent about a man buying guns and ammunition late at night from Walmart. When they investigated, detectives found a large number of guns and ammo stored in vehicles in the back yard of the monastery at 44th and Franklin and in vehicles behind a group of row houses across the street from the monastery. The monastery and the row houses across the street are owned by the Little Brothers and Sisters of Divine Compassion – the Board of St. Herman’s Monastery. Cimperman noted that guns were also found on a Trumbull County Farm — also a property of the Little Brothers and Sisters of Divine Compassion.

Cimperman said while Father John Henry had not committed any illegal act, the concern was that the guns and ammunition were just sitting in vehicles and were not secure.  Cimperman said that of 254 guns owned by Rev. John Henry, 250 were found with his assistance.

Cimperman said a number of City of Cleveland inspectors from Building and Housing, Zoning, Fire and Health Departments have gone over the buildings involved and found some violations most of which have been rectified.

Cimperman said officials of the Orthodox Church were called and eventually the Board of Trustees of the Little Brothers and Sisters of Divine Compassion was contacted. Board members include an Orthodox priest, the Rev. Bob Begin of St. Colman Parish, Retired Lutheran Minister George Hrbek, Retired Housing Court Judge Bill Corrigan and Rev. Abbot John Henry.

According to the St. Herman’s website the Monastery was founded on September 27, 1977 by Father Abbot Gregory Renolds and Abbess Mother Mary Blossom. Rev. Hrbek explained that Fr. Gregory admired the mission of the Catholic Workers and wanted to start an Orthodox Worker Movement. He started St. Herman’s Monastery and House of Hospitality to provide a religious retreat to serve the poor, the homeless, and those struggling with issues such as alcoholism and drug abuse.

Rev. Hrbek says those living at the Monastery embrace a life that includes orthodox religious services four times a day – 5 a.m, 11 a.m., 4:30 p.m. and 7: 30 p.m. He noted that many long time residents that came to the monastery to get off the street have found a spiritual home in the monastery and continue to embrace and be part of this daily religious practice.

With the help of long time residents and volunteers, Hrbek says St. Herman’s Monastery continued to operate without missing a beat.  Hrbek marveled at the accomplishment. He said St. Herman’s feeds about 100 people a day, provides showers for 20 people a day in the winter and more than twice that in the summer and provides food baskets for 40 families at the end of the month. All this is accomplished with no paid staff and no public or foundation funding. Hrbek says St. Herman even pays property tax, even though they are legally exempt.

St. Herman’s Monastery is aided by “an unbelievable community of supporters”, said Hrbek. He singled out Rick Howard, a volunteer from Brunswick, “ who has stepped in to take leadership to assure the services continue.”

Hrbek said plans call for Ron Register of Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry (LMM) to step in as site manager. Register has worked at LMM’s 2100 Lakeside shelter for the past 3 years.

Register said as the new manager of St. Herman’s he is committed to maintaining services at the site. He said he would be working closely with Rev. Doug Horner of nearby St. Paul’s Community Church, a partner with St. Herman’s in the neighborhood ministry. He hopes to be able to tap a database of over 10,000 volunteers registered with St. Herman’s.

One initial focus involves cleaning out the upstairs of the monastery and the three row houses across the street. Register said the row houses were filled from floor to ceiling with things collected by Father John Henry, with just small spaces carved out for people to sleep. Hrbek said volunteers led by neighbor Dwaine Drotar were relaying items down the stairs of the monastery, sorting out usable items and placing debris in the dumpsters. Hrbek urged those wishing to get exercise to volunteer to help with the cleanup. He noted that the monastery offered a free lunch of very healthy food for volunteers.

Other tasks involve finding titles to vehicles that need to be cleared from the properties. In addition to helping with the cleanup, Howard, who has tended the garden next to the monastery, promised to continue working on the monastery’s outstanding garden.

Hrbek said Fr. Vladimir Ivanov, who has worked with Rev. John Henry at St. Herman’s for many years, is in the hospital suffering from pneumonia and other ailments. While Father Vladimir hopes to return to the monastery, it will probably be on a limited basis, says Hrbek.

Hrbek shared some of the history of Father John Henry. He said John Henry had a conversion while serving in the military and became a conscientious objector. He came to St. Herman’s and joined the monastery at age 28. Hrbek says after 30 years of service at St. Herman’s he believes John Henry is burned out. Hrbek said many of the guns that John Henry owned were inherited from his father, who recently passed away. John Henry came from a well to do family that once owned a dairy at Woodbine and Fulton. Rev. John Henry’s father was a career military officer who had a considerable gun collection. Hrbek said the guns belonged to Rev. John Henry and those he purchased, were purchased with his own funds.

Hrbek explained that hoarding is a compulsive behavior. He said evidence of hoarding behavior was found with many other items packed into the upper floors of the monastery and the row houses. He said the farm in Trumbull County had 28 tractors.

Hrbek said that in consulting with a lawyer, the Little Brothers and Sisters of Divine Compassion’s Board of Trustees learned that they were responsible for the Monastery and its operation. He said they determined Rev. John Henry needs to be separated from his ministry and that St. Herman’s would also benefit from relieving him of the responsibility of running the monastery. Hrbek said the orthodox priest on the Board of Trustees is working with the Orthodox Church to find an environment, probably in New York State, that will be helpful to Abbot John Henry.

Hrbek says the Board has taken official action to remove Fr. John Henry from the responsibility of running the monastery. The Board of Trustees of the Little Brothers and Sisters of Divine Compassion plans to expand its membership to help improve access to the Board.  The Board of Trustees plans to meet with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and determine what role the local Orthodox Church want to play in the future of the monastery.

A local resident said, “There is a very active group of supporters of St. Herman’s in the immediate neighborhood.” He noted that many residents that came to the neighborhood as part of the Catholic Worker movement were happy to see the services St. Herman’s was providing in the neighborhood.

Councilman Cimperman offered a story indicating the loyalty St. Herman’s has earned over the years. A general contractor, of a large construction project on the East Side of Cleveland, approached Cimperman offering his assistance to St. Herman’s.  Cimperman said the construction manager told him that 10 years ago when the manager was dead drunk and no other shelter would help him, St. Herman’s took him in and helped him get back on his feet again.

Bill Merriman urged neighborhood residents to build a better relationship with St. Herman’s Monastery and a greater understanding of its mission. He hoped neighborhood residents could build relationships with St. Herman’s residents and volunteers that will develop into closer friendships over the years.

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