Kim and Kelly Stewart carve a turkey in their new Castle Rock, Washington, home, as they serve as caretakers — stewards — for the Maronite monks' monastery.
Kim and Kelly Stewart carve a turkey in their new Castle Rock, Washington, home, as they serve as caretakers — stewards — for the Maronite monks' monastery.
CASTLE ROCK, Washington — A hot summer afternoon here at what will become the Sacred Heart Monastery, one of only two Maronite Catholic monasteries in the United States, feels a world away from Portland.

A different world than the busy lives most people lead, agrees Abouna (“Father” in Arabic) Jonathan Decker, prior of the new monastery, who spoke at a June fundraiser about how difficult it is to move from the cloistered world out into the work-a-day world of worry and deadlines.

A monastery’s worth

Abouna’s goal for the monastery is for it to become a light in the darkness, particularly for priests. “It will be a place for them to become refreshed,” he says.

The monks will work on the land, raising beef — “holy cows,” quipped one supporter at the fundraiser.

Adoration, reparation and constant prayer will be evangelistic, say supporters, pointing to cloistered St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower, co-patron saint of missionaries.

A Portland Catholic couple’s lives have become entwined in the endeavor to bring the monastery from architect’s plans into life. The two have become a key support for the monks’ work in — and outside — the world.

Back in early 2014, Abouna, then pastor of St. Sharbel, asked parishioner Kelly Stewart if he could stick around after Mass on one of the last Sundays that Abouna would be at the Southeast Portland parish.

Abouna had managed to found a Maronite monastic community in 2011. The monks lived first in Portland and then in Beaverton. They had just purchased 65 acres of farmland outside Castle Rock, in southwest Washington. There they planned to build a chapel and quarters for 20 monks and retreatants.

Abouna asked Stewart if he and his wife would consider moving to the land. Someone needed to be there to watch the place and oversee the building of the monastery as it progressed.

Stewart, a talented artist, had just retired from a job as a diesel mechanic. Before that he’d worked as a tattoo artist and a set designer in Hollywood. He had also painting the large image of St. Sharbel at St. Sharbel Church.

“Yes,” Kelly Stewart remembers immediately telling Abouna.

“Give us a week to think about it,” his wife, Kim Stewart, recalls.

That was three and a half years ago, and the Stewarts are now as deeply settled in a Maronite religious community as two lay people could be.

Faith journey

It was the latest step in their journey toward and within the Maronite parish, which follows the Maronite rite, separate from the Latin rite but loyal to the pope and united and equal to the Latin-rite church.

The Stewarts, who describe themselves as very conservative, were finding themselves dissatisfied with their Latin-rite Catholic parish. They still loved the people there, but were not finding the spiritual nourishment they longed for.

Kim Stewart was working as a flight attendant for Horizon Air, and a pilot on one of her flights was Maronite. He told her that she and Kelly should visit St. Sharbel.

The Stewarts learned that all Catholics can receive Communion at the Maronite-rite church, so they visited.

Both found what they were searching for. “There’s nothing like the holy mysteries with the monks,” says Kim, a convert to Catholicism, referring to the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

She remembers that Kelly, a cradle Catholic, “fell head over heels” for the Maronite rite.

“The prayers in the Maronite Church are like love letters,” he explains. “They don’t try to speed it up.”

So even though the Stewarts were relative newcomers to St. Sharbel, when Kelly retired about the same time that the monks bought the Washington property, Abouna knew whom to ask.

Kim Stewart admits that the move was a sacrifice as well as an opportunity. She’d thought she was going to live in their Northeast Portland home, a block from her adult daughter, for the rest of her life. “But everything worked out,” she says.

The couple bought a log cabin 20 minutes down the road from the monastery for themselves and their dog, Jack, for after the monastery is built and the monks move in.

Writing on the walls

At that point Kelly’s work will transition to filling the monastery’s walls with holy art.

“They said they don’t like blank walls,” he says of the monks. “They showed me some photos of a Russian monastery and asked if I could do that.”

Kelly could.

He’d be happy to paint every square inch of the new monastery’s walls and ceilings with images of saints, the life of Christ and angels — an art form that goes back as far as the Roman Empire.

In the meantime, the couple are happy being a part of building.

Drilling for a sign

On June 23, Williams Drilling bore a hole into a hillside meadow a short walk from the hilltop spot where the monastery will stand. It was the feast of the Sacred Heart, and the drilling was for Sacred Heart Monastery.

Everyone was hopeful, but perhaps not optimistic about finding enough water. At a nearby drill spot, there were only 4 gallons a minute at 410 feet down. That was enough for the current house, where the Stewarts live, but wouldn’t be enough for 20 monks.

On the feast day, the driller struck water, 10 gallons a minute, at a depth of 380 feet.

Kelly phoned the monks, who were at their temporary home in Beaverton. The men went into their chapel to pray.

The driller decided to go just a bit deeper and quickly registered 15 gallons a minute.

The water was just one of many needs being checked off the list for the time the monks will move to their new home — they’ve already got the money in hand to build the shell of their structure. But a shell isn’t a home. The time of the move is still in God’s hands, says Abouna.

And until then, the Stewarts will keep an eye on the place.