Coptic Christian nuns 'dead to the world' establish first monastery in Australia for women to foster spiritual life
Updated Wed at 7:45am
PHOTO: Mothers Antonia (L) and Veronica at the Woodend manor that is now a Coptic monastery. (ABC Central Victoria: Larissa Romensky)
To read the story on the ABC site & see more of Larissa Romensky's beautiful photography please go here
When Mothers Antonia and Veronica first stepped out in their head-to-toe black religious habits on the streets of Woodend, people would stop and stare.
With only their faces and hands exposed it was an unusual sight for many of the locals.
"It's human nature to look at something that's different. We don't mind if people look at us," Mother Antonia said.
"The body is no longer important, how we look is not important.
"We've died to the world. Everything that the world offers we are not a part of," Mother Veronica said.
Living a cloistered life means the nuns rarely leave their newly created Archangel Michael Monastery in central Victoria, except when necessary.
"We avoid it as much as possible," Mother Antonia said.
The monastery is also a retreat for women, for those wanting to "foster a spiritual life with God".
"To find some peace in a world where peace is slowly diminishing," Mother Antonia said.
The 20-room monastery is set on 18-acres of bushland and features a large 1920s manor house and garden designed by Edna Walling.
While the monastery is currently only inhabited by the two nuns, many of Melbourne's Coptic Orthodox Diocese members are regular visitors.
Copts' long history of persecution
One of the oldest Christian churches in the world, the Coptic Orthodox Church began in Egypt in the middle of the 1st Century and has survived a long history of persecution dating back to the Romans.
Who are Egypt's Coptic Christians? Why are their churches being bombed? And why doesn't the Government do anything about it? Some questions explained.
Coptic Christians, also known as Copts, continue to be the target of violent assaults in a Muslim-majority, modern Egypt.
The largest ethno-religious minority there, they make up 10 per cent of the country's 95 million people.
In Australia, there are about 30,000 Copts — the third largest Coptic community in the world.
While both Mother Antonia and Veronica were from the Monastery of St Demiana in Egypt, home to 170 nuns, there are very few Coptic nuns in Australia.
However, Mother Antonia is hopeful more women will join, with about three young women expressing an interest.
"[But] they need to be sure that this is the life they want. It's not just a decision made on whim," Mother Antonia said.
Nun an 'ordinary Aussie kid'
Australian-born Mother Antonia was raised a Copt and described herself as an "ordinary Aussie kid".
At the age of 16, she started attending church more often when the idea of becoming a nun "popped" into her head.
With no monastery in Australia, Antonia travelled to Egypt to fulfil her wish.
"It's a calling from God, it's something he puts inside your heart," Mother Antonia said.
In her late twenties she "died" in order to begin her life as a nun.
Lying on the ground covered in large red cloth, she emerged with her hair cut in the shape of a cross, dressed in black, and wearing a leather girdle.
For 13 years she has worn the black tunic and cowl, while Mother Veronica has worn the habit for the past eight years.
More than the clothing, their complete and utter devotion to Christ means the women have given up all "earthly desires", even birthdays are not celebrated.
Instead, they celebrate the day of consecration.
The Coptic Church is stricter than some other churches as virginity is necessary, unlike that for women who decide to become Catholic nuns later in life.
"It's something you willingly commit to at a very early age," Antonia said.
Egyptian born Mother Veronica's journey to becoming a nun began at the age of ten when she first saw a nun.
The persistent 14-year-old turned up at the monastery only to be told she was too young, and when she revisited years later as a university student she was told to return upon the completion of her degree.
She was among 13 women wanting to become nuns, with only two chosen.
"I don't know why they chose me," she said.
"I knew that if they said yes to me that this is what God wants."
The strict vows of chastity, poverty and obedience were further put to the test with a with a three-year probation period before becoming a nun.
While Veronica admitted to struggling in the first few years she got "stronger" with the support of the other nuns.
When Christ becomes everything to you
Life for the two is spent in daily prayer, contemplation, the reading of the bible and other religious texts.
Their days are bookended by two daily, lengthy communal prayer sessions — one at 4:00am and the other at 4:30pm — interspersed with individual daily prayer time alone in their private quarters.
The rest of the day filled with a variety of activities from making wooden crosses to greeting guests and overseeing the property which includes cooking, cleaning and gardening.
"Our life is to completely focus on Christ," Mother Antonia said.
"When Christ becomes everything to you and he's the only thing that's important to you he fills every void that could have ever existed in your life.
"You don't wish you could have human intimacy, you don't wish you could have children. You don't want these things, you don't actually desire them."