St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary (SVOTS) has welcomed women students since the early 1960’s, and its female alumni have gone on to be chaplains, professors, teachers, counselors, missionaries, choir directors, writers, scholars, and lay ministers in the Orthodox Church. No student body in the past, however, has been joined by more than a few women at a time - until this year, when eight women enrolled, bringing the total number of women currently attending SVOTS to fourteen.
The fourteen women currently studying at St Vladimir’s Seminary come from a wide range of cultural, professional, and educational backgrounds. All, however, are united by one conviction - living, learning, and praying at St Vladimir’s Seminary will form and strengthen their hearts, minds, and souls to serve the Church to the best of their ability.
This student spotlight series on the women at St Vladimir’s Seminary will be presented in three parts, highlighting their varying paths to seminary, their experiences as students, and their ideas and hopes for future service in the Church.
Part One: Starting Points
In this first installment, women studying at St Vladimir’s Seminary speak about their lives prior to coming to Seminary, sharing their personal paths towards vocations in the Church. The two questions discussed here are:
What is your pre-seminary educational/professional background?
Please tell us about your personal journey into/within the Orthodox Church.
Sophia Mitchell Matias
Prior to attending St Vladimir’s Seminary, I was working as a Trauma Staff Chaplain. I completed 4 units of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). I also have a Master of Arts in Marriage, Couple, and Family Therapy and my undergraduate degree is a Bachelor of Science in Biblical Studies.
I was raised in a Protestant (Pentecostal) church. During the time when I was working on my undergrad, I felt like I had more and more questions about Christ and the Church he gave his life up for. Time went on and through life’s circumstances, I came to a crossroads in my life and decided to finally leave the only church I knew. Two years later, I was introduced to the Orthodox Church. At first, I was put off by all of the visual things I saw that were so different from the Protestant church. However, in a moment of prayer, I asked God to lead me to the place he wanted me to be. I once again attended a service in an Orthodox church and this time, my eyes felt like they were seeing heaven - the sounds, the smells, the icons. Everything that had previously turned me off was now drawing me in. I cried every time I attended a service. I knew I was experiencing something, but my intellect could not yet understand what it was experiencing. The only thing I did know was that I was where God wanted me to be…
Prior to studying at St Vladimir's Seminary, I completed a low residency Master of Fine Arts in creative writing at Seattle Pacific University. My undergrad was in applied linguistics at Ashford University online. Much of my education I acquired while I was in the military, where I served for six years.
I converted to Orthodoxy while I was in the military. After I completed my tour of duty, my priest told me that he would be happy to refer me to the Antiochian House of Studies program, because he could see that I was hungry to learn more about the faith that adopted me. I decided it made more sense at the time to pursue the creative writing MFA, but I ended up spending a month on the St Vladimir's Seminary campus near the end of that program as a visiting scholar. Although I had no serious intentions of becoming a student here when I arrived, I was so impressed with the student life that within a few days I knew I wanted to return as a full time student.
Mother Veronica Abaskharoun
I received all my education in a French school in Cairo and continued with an undergraduate degree in French and English. Afterwards, I was appointed by the university to continue post-graduate studies in French. I was teaching French as a second language and completed a Masters in the field of French linguistics within the context of direct communications, for I have always been interested in the topic of “communication between people, from different ages, culture and backgrounds”. After resigning, I worked as the head of a French department in a school in Cairo, at which point I began my life as a consecrated servant. I continued with this until 2011, when I moved with a few of my fellow consecrated Sisters to the US to begin a new ministry here. The Monastery of St Macarius was formed in 2015 under the omophorion of Archbishop Benjamin of the OCA Diocese of the West.
I believe that it is possible to physically be in church and yet not be truly present—present only superficially. I think that is important to have a spiritual mentor who can hand on the genuine Orthodox life in Christ and guide one in their life-calling. It does not matter whether you are married, single or monastic, but that your life is consecrated to the Lord, reflecting His presence and working for His glory.
Mother Cassiana Colchester
I studied a BA in Theology at Edinburgh University from 2014-8. Immediately after I graduated, I moved to the US and joined the Monastery of St Macarius the Great in Arizona.
I grew up charismatic Evangelical, and in my teens went very far from the Church down hedonistic byways. However, my hunger for God led me to explore different forms of 'spirituality'; I was especially interested in Zen Buddhism, and was considering becoming a Buddhist nun. By God’s grace, I was led to my spiritual father, who introduced me to Orthodoxy, and I realized that the peace and depth I was looking for in the other paths was in Orthodoxy. I loved listening to Orthodox hymns, reading the Fathers, meditating on the Scriptures, and praying the Psalms. Soon I felt the call from God to give my life to Him as a monastic.
Julia Yingnan Ji
I encountered Orthodox Tradition in The History of Early Christianity class taught by Father John Anthony McGuckin, as a doctoral student from the Adult Learning and Leadership Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. The Orthodox Christian witness lived out by Fr. John and St Gregory Eastern Orthodox church community as I experienced, led me to believe the Orthodox spiritual tradition shaped and enabled these Christians to be so. The first witness I experienced was: the consistency and authenticity lived out by Fr John McGuckin. As his way of being in the world, Fr John is always the same person across all the settings he is a part of, as professor of Byzantine history and culture and early church history, or priest of an Eastern Orthodox church, or a person without any role. I was blessed and inspired deeply to see this way of being lived out in front of me, the very way that I always desired for and tried to live Myself.
With a desire to see what Fr John believed in that shaped him in the way as described above, I followed him to the church he founded, St. Gregory Eastern Orthodox Church. It is a community with smile – living out hospitality. Whenever I was next to one of the members, they took time, to slow down, to talk with me (while it did not necessarily take a period like 10 minutes, it was a genuine interpersonal engagement). While it’s not always perfect, and thankfully it is not—God shows me a human condition shared by all—imperfect and limiting, just as myself (very possibly I am worse), in general, it is my experience among the different Orthodox communities that within the tradition of Eastern Orthodox, it is a norm to live life in communal way manifesting characteristics of a functional community, relatively.
I then did guided research under Fr John’s guidance which yielded my qualifying paper for my doctoral degree (paper entitled: Education towards the Development of Vocation and Calling: Individuals’ Pilgrimage of Identity Formation in Christian Faith Community). At the same time I was baptized into the Tradition by Fr John and became a member of the St Gregory community.
My life unfolded: I finished my doctoral study at Teachers College, Columbia University. Further dedication to adult religious education, spiritual identity formation, and leadership development led me to become a fellow of Trinity Union Fellows towards global faith leadership and studying a Master of Sacred Theology at Union Theological Seminary. At the same time, I taught Lifespan Development as adjunct faculty at College of Education, Seattle University.
Commitment to the purpose and mission of St Vladimir’s Seminary, as well as deep belief in the power of formation in an Orthodox Christian spiritual community, brought me to join the St Vladimir’s Seminary community, to partake and live out the mission as a Th.M. seminarian. That is, to train in academic rigor, strive to grow spiritually, to serve the Lord Jesus Christ, His church, by bearing witness to the Lord.
I am from Serbia, and I graduated from the Orthodox Theological Faculty of the University of Belgrade. Before my BA program, I went to ballet school. I was also a professional dancer in the KOLO Folk Dance and Song Ensemble of Serbia.
Considering that I was born and raised in a country where 85% of the population are Orthodox Christians, I have always had a connection with the Church, and that was exactly my path through which I developed my love for and interest in theology.
I did my undergraduate studies at Temple University and obtained a Bachelor of Science in Human Development and Community Engagement. I then went on to Widener University for graduate studies and obtained my Master of Social Work degree and soon after graduation passed the state licensing exam. I was then a Licensed Social Worker and worked as a Licensed Outpatient Therapist at Penndel Mental Health.
I had the blessed opportunity to be raised in the Malankara Orthodox Church. I had many questions about the faith growing up and wanted to know more along the way. There was a time in my life though where I felt disconnected from Christ and the Church. I felt that this was not where I was born to be. I then looked into other religions and even went with friends to their places of worship (different denominations’ churches, gurudwaras, temples, etc.) to find where I felt I belonged. I continued to go to my church during this time though and it was during one of these services where I broke down in tears realizing that what I was looking for all this time had been right in front of my eyes. As I watched and listened to the priest beating his chest and crying out “Answer me O Lord,”* I understood that the answers to my questions about my belonging were right there. I was placed in the Orthodox Church for a reason and my love for the Church only grew as I continued to find my place within the faith. It is because of this experience that I even wanted to join seminary. To find my place in the Church, to understand my faith and beliefs in depth, and to bring more women to serve our Church one day.
*(The Priest, in the Malankara Orthodox Church, says this during the Epiclesis of the Holy Spirit reminding us of the prayer of Elijah on Mount Carmel to send down fire from heaven upon the sacrifice [1 Kings 18:36-39])
Mother Devorah Salamon
I received my bachelor's in Women's Studies from the University of Riverside, California. And afterwards I worked in Congress as a constituent aid for about five years, helping those who lived in the area that my congressman represented with different casework they had with different federal agencies. From the very beginning, it was very dissatisfying. I did enjoy the work I was doing, in that I was helping people to the best of my ability, I had some really great coworkers, and there were always very stimulating discussions going on. But I just personally didn't feel that I was fulfilling anything, and I was not being fulfilled. And apart from the job itself, I was 21 when I started, at the age when I was thinking about the path I would take in my life. I really liked going to the monastery (St Macarius Orthodox Monastery) and receiving guidance, so slowly and gradually that formed my inner volition to enter the monastery. In the end, after living in DC for those five years, I moved back to California to join the monastery.
I'm Egyptian, and I was raised Coptic Orthodox, but the community that I wanted to join was Eastern Orthodox, so I switched over when I became a monastic.
I was inspired after I heard about the opportunity for monastics to go and study at St Vladimir’s Seminary - it seemed to be something that would be very beneficial and exciting. I prayed about it and asked for guidance, and eventually, all things pointed to me coming here, and I had the blessing to do so. I went ahead and took it as a new adventure and chapter in my life.
Before I came to seminary, I did my undergrad in chemistry, with a minor in biology at the University of Redlands in Southern California, about an hour away from Los Angeles. I finished my undergrad and went straight into here. It was a super spontaneous decision.
I started going to St. Andrew Orthodox Church in Riverside, California, where Father Josiah Trenham serves, and the parish life there created a huge impact on me. Fr Josiah regularly gives lectures on different topics like heaven on earth, monastic communities, and so on, and I just got really interested in attending the services and being surrounded by the community. Then I became more interested in reading Orthodox books.
I'm also part of a group called ROYA, Romanian Orthodox Youth of the Americas; I've been in that organization since 2013. But I feel like I was not really involved as much in the Church as when I started visiting St. Andrew. Being at that parish really propelled me to take more responsibility in my life and my relationship with God. So then after I graduated with a chemistry degree, I realized that even though I enjoy learning chemistry, in the long run, I don't see myself in a lab. I don't see myself making medication that could potentially harm someone. The main question I had was, how can I really help myself spiritually and other people? Because in the end, our relationship with God can be more healing than any medication. And so I thought that I could find answers on how to do better in that aspect here at seminary.
I went to law school in Georgia, and starting in my second year of university, worked as a lawyer, first in the Parliament of Georgia, then for a clinical trial logistics company. Working in the Parliament involved working closely with a lawmaker, reviewing legislation and providing legal opinions. After he resigned from parliament, I began looking for work that would enable me to make positive changes, which led me to working in logistics for clinical trials for life-saving drugs, treating cancer, diabetes, and other serious diseases. I really enjoyed clinical trials, because even though I had a really small part, it feels great doing something that's going to affect humanity in a positive way. I also worked as a journalist, as a TV presenter, I had my own show. I interviewed police officials, politicians, theologians and so on. The program discussed what was going on in the country.
It seemed like it was a great career, but I just wanted to come and study theology. Because in the future, I want to serve as a peacemaker for the Peace Corps or another similar organization. I thought that studying theology would be really fulfilling and at the same time, good for my future career. So I just decided to do that and also experience life in America. I decided to come to St Vladimir’s Seminary because my cousin had studied here for three years. So it came naturally, because when I decided that I wanted to study theology, he recommended St Vladimir’s Seminary and he gave me all the insights and described everything in detail. That really helped me feel confident that I could get the best education here.
When I was a child, I used to go to church every week or so. Then I stopped going as often; what's happening in Georgia politically and what a lot of priests were doing is hard to describe. I never really agreed with that, so I just stopped. And then later, I started reading theology, just to understand whether what they were talking about was correct or not, and I discovered that some of what I was hearing was not right at all. But then I became strong in my faith again, when I discovered that this is a true faith and this is the reality.
I have a bachelor's degree in Medieval and Byzantine Studies and Theology and Religious Studies and with a minor in philosophy, from the Catholic University of America, and a master's degree in philosophy, also from Catholic University. And then, in terms of occupation, I worked in the university library there for six years. I was an editorial assistant and book review editor for the review of metaphysics while there. Going way back, I worked as a fair maiden in a medieval dinner theater. And I was a medical scribe for a pediatrician for two years before I came here.
When I was six, my family started attending church, a Protestant church up in Anchorage, Alaska. And we went from never being at church to being there five nights a week. My mom and I were baptized and my dad got a really clear sense that God wanted him to go back to school. So we moved to Missouri, where he studied Near Eastern archaeology and Religious Studies, and then he did his masters with a focus on Syriac Patristics. We attended an Orthodox church once while we were in Missouri, and then moved to Virginia when I was 15. My dad chatted with an Orthodox priest in the area for a couple of years.
Maybe in my junior year of high school, he said to me, I really think that this is the real church. I really think that this is the truth - true to the early church. This is where we're supposed to be. But if you want us to wait, we will wait until you go to college. We won't drag you out of the community we are in right now.
I hated the liturgy - I did not want to become Orthodox. I did not want to leave the church we were in, but I said yes anyway, because I trusted my dad. I trusted his judgment. So my little sister was baptized, and all four of us were chrismated in November of my senior year of high school. And then I went to college. Honestly, I think what saved my being Orthodox was the fact that my three roommates my freshman year of college were all devout Catholics. I lived with two of them for the next three years, too, and having that traditional sort of Christian environment helped keep me grounded.
I didn't really go to the Orthodox Church my freshman year. I started attending again on Sundays in my sophomore year, and then moving through the years, I was attending regularly and learning more and more about the Orthodox faith.
After I finished my masters in philosophy, I did not want to do any more school. I was looking at the Peace Corps, but the Peace Corps really wants you to be areligious, and that was not okay - I couldn't do that. Then someone at my church reminded me of OCMC. They were recruiting for a campus ministry position in Sweden. My dad went back to school when I was eight, so I grew up in college ministry, and I really love working with college students and young adults, so I started pursuing that.
In September 2019, as I was still preparing to go to Sweden, I realized that if I was going to be in the mission field, especially as a single missionary, I wanted more grounding in the liturgical rhythms of the Church. I'd been Orthodox for eight years at that point, but I wanted more, which is how I ended up coming to seminary. Part of why I applied for the M Div, instead of the MA, was because it just didn't feel like two years was long enough. I wanted the spiritual formation, I wanted the daily services and the community obediences, and I wanted the pastoral formation, as well.
Read Part Two
Read Part Three