[Part 1/2] About 12 miles from the prison in Florence, Arizona, there’s a monastery, a mysterious Greek Orthodox monastery called St. Anthony’s.
For the last 8 months, the Eyewitness News 4 Investigators have been looking into questions over the monastery’s money and allegations that the monastery is tearing families apart.
Tonight, wearing the required clothing, we take you inside this “Monastery Mystery.”
It’s all very surreal at St. Anthony’s Monastery in Florence.
On the 106 acres of land, around 50 monks do their daily chores, duties they are assigned under their spiritual leader, Father Ephraim.
Ephraim is a man who remains much a mystery, refusing our request for an interview, but we were allowed inside the monastery.
We were instructed to keep away from the monks and to follow our guide for the day, Father Anthony.
There are parents across the country who say the monastery has control over their children.
The grounds are open to the public, but, the parents believe, the monastery is a mental prison. Several of them paid their way to Tucson to try and explain it to The Investigators.
The mothers and fathers of Scott Nevins, Niko Pantanizopoulos and Paul Aleck.
MARY LOU ALECK: I’ve sort of remained in the church, trying to work within the church to, maybe, get my son out. Or that he would, somehow, see the light. The church has just been reluctant to move in.
JOANNE PANTANIZOPOULOS: We know there are many more out there, afraid to come forward. Um, what are they doing for these families?
The parents say they’re most discouraged by the personal account of a former student at St. Anthony’s Monastery. David Smith says he, at one time, was brainwashed.
DAVID SMITH: When you’re in it, it seems very normal. You’re slow-cooked, basically. They teach it to you slowly. They introduce you to one thing at a time and it builds over time.
In these chapels, he says, they teach young people to disconnect from their families.
He says there’s anti-government rhetoric and, he says, there’s a mystery over money.
A mystery many have asked The Investigators to reveal.
TEDESCO: How much money was spent building the monastery in Florence?
FATHER ANTHONY: A few thousand dollars.
TEDESCO: How much?
FATHER ANTHONY: A few thousand, I don’t know how many.
TEDESCO: A few thousand? Wouldn’t you say closer to millions?
FATHER ANTHONY: Probably.
We took a 2-and-a-half-hour tour and found elaborate landscaping, hand-carved altars and high-dollar artwork.
A licensed, custom home contractor also walked the grounds. His rough estimate put the monastery’s value at about $13 million, excluding the land.
KELLY COPELAND: Churches are probably in the neighborhood of five to six million. Out buildings, which I count all the dormitories, the kitchen and those areas, was probably another five-to-six million. Then, you’re probably in the category of landscaping, which is easily a million dollars.
And that’s just one monastery.
Father Ephraim has another monastery, southeast of Tucson, on 481-acres. His followers say he wants to build 100 monasteries in the United States.
Everyone wants to know, where is he getting the money?
TEDESCO: Where is the money coming from? From overseas? Within the United States? Where is this coming from?
FATHER ANTHONY: From the United States. From people… From believers. I don’t know from where.
Take a look at this map. Ephraim has at least 18 monasteries so far, all built along the outer portions of the United States in the last 17 years.
Father Anthony will only say, they’re built on anonymous donations and mortgages.
TEDESCO: How much do you owe?
FATHER ANTHONY: How much do we owe? I don’t know exactly.
Religious experts say they’re skeptical about what they see as financial secrecy.
BRADLEY NASSIF: If you look at a person like Billy Graham, where his reputation is sterling, there’s full, open and public disclosure of his funds and we should expect no less from the Orthodox church.
FATHER ANTHONY: I feel sorry for those people, really. You know, we never stop praying for those people who have those evil thoughts in their minds.
On the surface, St. Anthony’s Monastery is an intriguing tourist stop, but beyond the four chapels, the citrus orchard, and the expansive living quarters, there’s the parents’ pain and confusion.
At least three families claim they’ve been torn apart. They’re calling for an investigation, for the archdiocese to get involved.
ASHLEY NEVINS: Let’s get this above the board, out in the open, into the light so we can all know. If it’s clean, it’s clean. If it’s not, it’s not. Then we know.
Religious experts say, it needs to be an open investigation.
BRADLEY NASSIF: I would encourage the bishop to be the bishop, stand up for the gospel, at all costs, and, If necessary, if they refuse to follow the gospel, they should do their duty and excommunicate them.
We have been contacted by hundreds of supporters of the monastery who say all of the claims are false and that their children are happy in the monastery.
We also got an e-mailed statement from the archdiocese. While it doesn’t address our question about the money, it does deny that St. Anthony’s Monastery uses anti-Semitic innuendo in any of its teachings.
According to the chancellor, the Metropolitan of San Francisco has “made visits to the monasteries to meet with their leadership and the monastics and has met with some of their parents.”
The chancellor says, “We have not found evidence of anti-Semitism in practice at any of our monastic communities or parishes.”
The archdiocese also says it will continue to seek out the truth and will enforce the right of any monastic or novice to leave their monastery if that’s their choice.