Monastery of the Holy Spirit opens new visitors center

Staff Photos: Erin Evans. Father Gerard Gross points out the founding monks of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in a photograph on display at the new Monastic Heritage Center.

Staff Photos: Erin Evans. Father Gerard Gross points out the founding monks of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in a photograph on display at the new Monastic Heritage Center.

CONYERS -- The monks at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers want to live a quiet, contemplative, cloistered life, but just like everyone else, they have bills to pay.

In the recent past, they've generated income selling fruitcakes, chocolate, religious items, books and bonsai trees. With an aging monk population and an increase in the cost of living, those efforts simply aren't enough.

The monks' solution? Bring in more visitors, increase retail sales and educate the public on monasticism -- goals the monks hope to accomplish with their new Monastic Heritage Center. Five years in the planning and carrying a $6.8 million price tag, the Monastic Heritage Center opens to the public on Saturday, May 7.

"It's a season of renewal. We are trying to renew our industries, renew our capacity to support ourselves and renew our commitment to a cloistered, contemplative life," said Father Francis Michael Stiteler, abbot of the monastery.

Located within walking distance down a path from the monastery, the 17,000 square-foot center is comprised of several buildings arranged in a square around a central courtyard, a design which mimics the monastery itself.

A gift shop features high ceilings, exposed beams and medieval-style lighting resembling candles on a chandelier.

Moving around the square from the gift shop, visitors find a cafe, which sells pre-made sandwiches and drinks. The refectory is furnished with long tables and benches made of dark colored wood, similar to what the monks use for dining.

Next to the eating area is a greenhouse and brick barn, which serves as the source for an expanded bonsai and nature gift store.

A short walk further around the square leads to a welcome center which houses two rooms where visitors can watch videos about the monastery. Also in the welcome center is a row of nooks, each one describing different periods in the history of monasticism, from Buddhist monks to Christian monks.

The square is completed by the historic brick barn where the monks first lived when they settled in Conyers in 1944. The renovated barn is a series of displays depicting the life and history of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, complete with photos and artifacts, including the cement mixer used to build the current monastery buildings of worship and residence.

A chapel created by rounded walls is also in the barn and gives visitors a place to contemplate and pray.

"I'm cautiously optimistic in terms of whether we'll be able to support ourselves. I'm not cautiously optimistic about the thing itself. I think its going to invite more people to come and see the monastery and learn about the monastery and learn about monasticism," said Stiteler.

Stiteler said that while the monastery receives about 70,000 visitors annually, there are many more groups waiting in the wings to visit -- the monastery just hasn't had the facilities to accommodate large groups of people.

With plenty of bathroom facilities, food, parking, and seating areas, and extensive informational displays, the center will now be able to comfortably handle tour buses.

"I think it will be much more attractive for people to come and spend time," said Stiteler.

The geographical placement of the center being a short walk away from the monastery also protects the monks' efforts to live a life of solitude, said Stiteler, something that been infringed upon in the past with the former gift shop and bonsai greenhouse just yards from the chapel and living quarters of the monks.

"The point was to welcome guests in a way they could have their own space and we could have our space and as they proceeded to our space they would have both a sense and an invitation to get quieter along this prayer path," Stiteler said.

Stiteler said that the intent of the monastery is to help people "connect with God."

"Monasteries by nature are places that are open to the spirit and for those trying to nurture their spiritual lives, regardless of their affiliations. It's just the way it is," Stiteler said.

"People may have no faith whatsoever but they want to talk about God and what is the meaning of life. We talk out of tradition but we try to be sensitive to who they are on religious spiritual ground."