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