Felonious Monk?

How Samuel Greene and his Blanco monastery fell from grace.

October 1999By Comments

THOUSANDS OF PILGRIMS VISIT THE CHRIST OF THE HILLS Monastery in Blanco each year to see the weeping icon, a painting of the Madonna and child that resident monks say has been seeping curative myrrh since 1985. Most townspeople will tell you they’ve been suspicious about this “miracle” from the beginning but kept quiet since it wasn’t hurting anyone. Besides, the visitors brought business to their small Hill Country town. Over the years the monastery has housed between two and twenty monks, nuns, and students and has kept a low profile within the community. Residents got only a glimpse of the monks—who were immediately recognizable in their black robes, beards, and long hair—when they drove to town to run errands.

Then, early this year, the Blanco County courthouse issued indictments against one of the monastery’s founders, 55-year-old Samuel Greene, known as Father Benedict, and 38-year-old Jonathan Hitt, known as Father Jeremiah, accusing each of three counts of indecency with a child. More bad news came in April, when Christ of the Hills was ordered by the Russian Orthodox church to dissolve, and in July another indictment was issued accusing both Greene and Hitt of six additional counts of indecency with a child. Barring a continuance, both monks are scheduled to stand trial on October 18. Think locals are surprised by the turn of events? Not at all. Rumors have persisted since the monastery was founded. In the beginning the talk around town was that the monks dealt drugs. Later, there were whispers about sexual misconduct, elder abuse, and brainwashing. But this trial promises to be the culminating moment of the monastery’s long, strange history, one that begins and ends with Sam Greene.

Greene has long carried the reputation of having a shady past. After being raised in New Jersey, Greene says that he started his monastic career as a Benedictine monk and received his training at the Westin Priory Monastery in Vermont. The priory’s representative, however, asserts that Greene, then twenty years old, was there only in 1964 and 1965 as a pre-novice postulant (the equivalent of sitting in on university classes but never actually enrolling). Just three years later he arrived on the San Antonio social-work scene, telling a reporter he had studied in Rome and Jerusalem and had worked with the Sioux in South Dakota and poor blacks in rural Louisiana. According to published reports, he also claimed that he had a master’s degree in psychology and had done work toward a doctorate. In 1968 he founded Galilee Ranch, arranging with the Bexar County Juvenile Court to place troubled young men under his care, though he wasn’t much older than the teenagers he counseled. He ran this operation for a few years until he found his other calling—one that would make his name known to every San Antonian with a radio.

He became “S. A. Sam Greene,” a real estate salesman who, from 1969 to 1979, inundated San Antonio’s television and radio stations with advertisements for land in the Hill Country. Not only were his ad campaigns ubiquitous, they were memorable—as hokey as they come, Greene himself has admitted. For instance, he dropped numbers redeemable for prizes out of a hot-air balloon as a way to get people to come into the real estate office and hear a sales pitch. He decorated his office with religious icons and told his co-workers that he was a Benedictine monk. Though the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Antonio says that Greene was only a layman and a volunteer, G. G. Gale, who worked with him at Lakecroft Real Estate, can at least vouch for his salesmanship, which helped Greene buy a large house in the upper-middle-class subdivision of Whispering Hills.

In the midst of this success Greene decided that he wanted to start his own monastery. In 1972 he and William Hughes—the current abbot of Christ of the Hills, who is known as Father Vasili—set up Ecumenical Monks, Inc., on a two-acre plot in San Antonio. Four years later they bought some land near Boerne, and in 1982 they moved to their current location: 105 acres of stunning Hill Country property. But in addition to their spiritual calling, Greene and Hughes also became real estate partners. With an agent named Alfred Bacon, the two monks formed HBG, which is still licensed for operation.

By the early eighties the monastery claimed to be Eastern Orthodox. A 1983 story in the now-defunct San Antonio Light featured a photo of Greene wearing Orthodox robes and holding a staff; announcing Greene’s new status as archbishop, it says: “Samuel A. Greene says he soon will become the spiritual leader for thousands on the North American continent.” Local clergy publicly denied the organization’s affiliation with the Eastern Orthodox church, which caused problems in 1985 when the monks proclaimed that the Madonna icon had begun to “weep.” Christ of the Hills had a miracle on its hands but lacked canonical standing. The monastery made unsuccessful attempts to join the recognized jurisdictions of Eastern Orthodoxy until 1991, when the monks were accepted by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR). Greene was forced to resign the position of bishop, and he and Hughes joined ROCOR through a correspondence course. Hitt did likewise, joining after study at the Episcopalian Seminary of the Southwest in Austin; All three were ordained as priests. Though ROCOR knew about younger novices who sometimes stayed at Christ of the Hills, it didn’t strictly enforce the policy forbidding minors to live on monastery grounds.

Meanwhile, as Blanco businesses reaped the benefits of the attendant tourism, rumors continued to spread through the community of 1,500 people. When the murmurs about elder abuse started to make the rounds, the monastery proved the accusations were false. But another accusation came up, this one involving weapons stockpiling. Then another, about James Tenny, a local carpenter who had been working at the monastery at the time he killed his common-law wife, in 1997. Townspeople began to fear that the monastery was responsible for driving Tenny to commit murder, but Father Pangratios, the monastery’s spokesperson, dismisses the rumors. “People like to make stories,” he says. “It’s just a part of life.”

By the fall of 1998, however, ROCOR had also heard the stories and begun to investigate. “There was a directive that two of our priests be permitted to interview the people associated with the monastery,” says Lin Hughes, ROCOR’s lawyer, “but they were not permitted to meet  privately with the people they wanted to interview.” In November Hitt and Greene received a temporary suspension from their priestly functions, Hughes says, based on “rumors that had come to the attention of the church.” Shortly thereafter, Greene moved to Colorado, citing health problems.

But in January the most serious charges were leveled against him and Hitt, when the parents of the complainant in the child molestation case went to the authorities. Though there is a gag order in effect, published reports say that the indictments stem from a boy who says that in 1997, when he was thirteen years old, Greene and Hitt exposed themselves to him and asked for sexual gratification. In July Greene returned to Blanco and turned himself in to the sheriff.

After the indictments were handed out, ROCOR came to its own conclusions about the monastery. Investigators had returned in April to look into several matters, one of which was the site’s commercialism. Besides the advertisements for the weeping icon in newspapers, on Val-Pak coupons, and in pamphlets distributed to Blanco businesses, the monks maintain St. Anna’s Espresso Bar on the grounds, as well as a gift shop selling the Monastery Kitchen line of foods “made with prayer and love,” Santa Claus knickknacks, and decorated boxes priced up to $400. “We were given the authority to do a full audit,” says Father Joachim, who participated in the ROCOR investigation, “but that information was denied to us.” Christ of the Hills monks said that because of the gag order, their lawyers had advised them against opening their books. That proved an unacceptable excuse.

When two ROCOR representatives went to Blanco a few weeks later, they dissolved the monastery and offered the twelve monks and one nun who live there the opportunity to move to other monasteries. All of the residents refused. “Our general reaction is, ‘Well, more persecution,’” says Father Pangratios. “We want to stay because we realize this is an assault from the devil.” Father Joachim suggests there may be another reason for their decision: Sam Greene. “Father Benedict, from my experience, has an incredibly strong personality and control over the monastery,” he says, “and I think they have great allegiance to him more than anything else.”

Despite the accusations and the upcoming trial, the monastery remains open, and about seventy people go to see the icon each weekend. When I visited this summer, Mother Seraphima was working in the gift shop and blessing visitors’ myrrh oil. Some people in the chapel were so moved they were visibly shaking after Hitt anointed them. One woman sat in the corner whispering prayers, her eyes closed, tears running down her cheeks, while Hitt stood solemnly in the front of the chapel and talked about the five calls from the mother of God. The fifth call was “Refrain from all judgment.”

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