Chef Petr Balcarovsky, 35, supervises the weekly tea ceremonies and dinner service at the Royal Eagle. Though not particularly religious, he says he likes the quiet reflection and lovely setting of the monastery. / Regina H. Boone, Detroit Free Press
HARPER WOODS, Mich. -- This is how the royals lived.
An antique teapot is placed on the white linen tablecloth before the guests. Lox and beef canapes are presented on a three-tiered server. The voices of chanting monks fill the background.
Like everything else at the Royal Eagle restaurant, from the massive 17th-century carved wood buffet to the china cabinet full of silver goblets, this tea ceremony is meant to evoke a whisper of the lost elegance of the last Russian royal dynasty.
"It was very classy," said chef Petr Balcarovsky, who runs the Royal Eagle. "Kind of a high-scale era when people were focused on a lot of beautiful and unique and genuine things, and the Russian Court was very much focused on getting high-quality items put on their table. They always spoke French. It was a very refined society."
Just up the garden path, a short walk from the restaurant, a black-robed monk sits in his small cell. The decor is nothing but a bed, a dresser and the icon of a saint hanging on a plain wall. He serves himself a piece of toast and a cup of tea. Sometimes, there might be jam or peanut butter on the bread.
This is how the monks live.
"We eat a lot of peanut butter," John Belkoff, known as Father Pachomy, said with a laugh.
These contradictions share the same home, itself a place of contrasts - a Russian Orthodox monastery in the middle of a residential neighborhood in Detroit's suburbs.
St. Sabbas the Sanctified Orthodox Monastery is usually a quiet haven of solitude for a handful of men who've devoted their lives to being monks. But twice a week, in a restaurant on its grounds, a seven-course Russian tea ceremony is offered to the public in the grand style of the Romanovs, the last royal family of Russia, who were shot to death by the Bolsheviks not long after the Russian Revolution in 1917. An even more extravagant dinner is held once a week, at which a monk plays the violin or piano for the guests.
It might seem strange that such a lavish lifestyle is celebrated by monks who've taken vows of poverty and who don't even get to eat the gourmet food served in the family's honor. Years of Soviet propaganda and the hindsight of history have tarnished the image of the Romanovs and cast them as aloof aristocrats who lived luxuriously while the peasants starved.
But here, among the monks, the family is not just remembered, they're revered as saints, martyrs to a mob.
"It's nostalgia for a time of opulence and power," said Belkoff, 50. He sat in the Royal Eagle under the watchful eye of the czar, who stared out placidly from several family portraits and pictures on the wall.
"I think it's like a storybook. An unfinished storybook. And the fact that it happened so sadly. How could such a tragedy happen? How could people kill their czar?"
A vow to stay
The long-bearded monks appeared suddenly in this quiet neighborhood 15 years ago. Belkoff, who was born in Michigan but whose father was a native Russian, had led a small congregation at Holy Cross Russian Orthodox Cathedral, a nearly century-old box of a church on the corner of a rangy eastside block in Detroit that grew more dangerous by the year.
"The neighborhood was changing," Belkoff said.
Things got so bad, and so many parishioners had their cars broken into during services, that Belkoff and a devoted few left the church behind, settling in a house in Eastpointe with a plan to start a new parish there.
But after a fruitless search for a new home, Belkoff was inspired instead to start a monastery, and soon found a home for sale on a quiet side street in Harper Woods.
The monks bought the house. Then another. Soon they owned eight on the same street. They rehabbed them all, creating a magnificent chapel in one, monastic cells in another, a restaurant in an old garage. They connected them with winding gardens, topped them with onion domes and crosses, and corralled them with a white picket fence.
Most neighbors welcomed this alternative to the aging rentals and the rowdy neighbors who sometimes moved into them.
A few didn't, though. One or two longtime homeowners voiced their displeasure before the Harper Woods City Council as the monastery grew, while other, less civically engaged residents expressed their disapproval by blaring bass-thumping music during services. The monastery often replied with a loud ringing of their bells, creating a sonic war between the sacred and the profane that has drawn a police car a time or two to halt the battle.
Bernice Reed likes the bells, though. Her house lies right in the middle of the row of monastery houses, which now surround her, and the bell tower hovers by her yard.
"They're real good neighbors," said the retiree. "They're so respectful. They treat me like I'm a part of the monastery." When the monks plant flowers, she noted, they bring some for her too.
City officials have welcomed the beautification the monks have brought to their block.
"I remember the first house that they got," said Harper Woods Mayor Ken Porter. "It was a really run-down, shabby house, and they just rehabbed that beautifully. I go by there and think wow, they've really done a good job."
But parts of the city have declined in recent years. One of the houses the monks bought had been a drug house before the sale. And there have been a couple of shootings nearby, the monks say, including one just across the street.
"The neighborhood is changing," Belkoff said, echoing what he once had to tell his congregation at the old church in Detroit.
This time, though, they're not moving.
"This is a monastery, not a parish. The monks are stuck here," Belkoff said. "So it doesn't matter who's around. They made a vow and they can't go. But we'll be all right."
A quiet, demanding life
A monk's life is simple but demanding. Wake up long before the sun does. Go to church. Have tea alone in a cell. Back to church at noon.
Then the monks, who are vegetarians, have a common meal of salad, beans or rice, followed by hours of chores like cleaning, painting, weeding the gardens, mowing the lawn. Then come the evening prayers, a pause for a short break, then more church, and then a night of silent prayer alone in a cell. It's not glamorous.
"This is really hard," Belkoff said. "And you've got to really like going to church."
Roughly half a dozen monks live on the property in lives stripped bare. They have no TV, no stereos, no radios. There's just a single computer on the property, which the monks can use once a week to check email.
They hold services every day in English and Old Slavonic in the magnificent monastery church, which draws about 200 parishioners to stand under its baroque chandelier and within the icon-covered walls.
Rules are strict for visitors. Women can't wear lipstick, perfume or anything remotely low-cut. Men can't wear hats, shorts or T-shirts. Nobody can chew gum. And everybody should talk quietly.
The chef lives here too, in a little apartment above the main house. Balcarovsky isn't a monk, doesn't pretend to be particularly holy, but he said he likes the quiet reflection fostered by such a lovely setting.
"After I was here awhile, I kind of realized you don't need much to live," said Balcarovsky, 35. "It's kind of nice to be back to the basics."
A hint of paradise
It's meant to be like a glimpse of heaven here.
The rose-bordered paths, the ponds shimmering in sunshine, the soft tolling of the bells, are all meant to convey a hint of what paradise might be like, to prepare the devout for what lies ahead.
"The whole point of a monastery is to transition us into eternity, to a quiet, peaceful realm," Belkoff said. "So everything in a monastery is beautiful, peaceful, serene, to represent paradise so it'll be just one step jumping into paradise when that time comes. We all have to go at some point, and some people decide they'll deal with it when the time comes, and then there's going to be an enormous culture shock for them."
Belkoff sat in a gazebo on a spring morning with a glittering mural of Jesus behind him. The monks created that themselves, a tiny tile at a time. They and their parishioners made everything here, including the hand-painted icons that line the walls of the church, the gold-leafed panels, the gilded lamps, the cloth-draped altars and the restaurant that summons the memory of a different kind of paradise, when the royals and the church were two poles of the same ruling axis, and life for a monk was good.
"The world is a mess, people are violent, everybody I run into outside the walls of the monastery, their lives are completely upside down," Belkoff said. "They have an alcohol problem, or a drug problem, a relationship problem, a work problem. They have a lot of problems."
Black-robed monks wandered silently past. The flowers were just beginning to bloom. And the only sounds were the chirping of the birds and the trickle of water into the ponds.
"Our big problem at the monastery is when ladybugs are going to eat the wrong plant," he said, laughing. "I mean, it's a different perspective. It's a quiet, peaceful existence."
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Read the original story: Vows of poverty amid a celebration of royalty