Orthodox Christian retreat center is managed by former venture capitalist, now a monk of 30 years
In his younger days, Father Theodore Niklasson might have been the last person anyone would expect to become an Orthodox Christian monk who now manages the Holy Archangels Orthodox Christian Retreat Center tucked away in Douglas County about 10 miles northwest of Rockbridge.
In his mid-30s Father Theodore, at the peak of his career, worked 80- to 90-hour weeks in venture capital development in the Atlanta and Chicago markets. At one point in his career, a financial forecast predicted that he would be a multi-millionaire within a few years. But the influence of two strong women – his grandmother and his godmother – led him instead to eventually devote the rest of his life to Jesus Christ and the Orthodox Christian Church. And that connection led him to help establish an Orthodox Christian center in the Ozarks.
In 1992, Theodore left his venture capital career and set out on what became a circuitous path of religious training at Orthodox churches, seminaries and monasteries ranging from the Boston Theological Institute to the Republic of Georgia (where he spent six years and became a dual citizen of America and Georgia) to remote monasteries in Northern California and on Spruce Island in Alaska (where the first Russian settlers came in the 1790s, bringing their Orthodox Christian faith with them).
Theodore grew up in a military family, the son of a Navy pilot. The family attended the Episcopal Church on Sundays, but he credits the foundation of his faith to the many hours he spent as a toddler with his Swedish grandmother, cuddled together on the couch during visits to his grandparents' home on Long Island. "She read stories to me from a big book with colorful pictures. Of course, the big book was her Bible, and I heard all of these stories," Father Theodore said recently.
He was also close to his godmother, Liz McNear, an affluent, highly educated woman who held two Ph.D.s, was an astrophysicist at CERN laboratories in Switzerland, taught physics at the university in Geneva and maintained residences in France and Nevada. Also a convert to the Orthodox Christian Church from the Episcopal Church, Liz first had the idea of developing an Orthodox center from her home in Boulder City, Nevada, near the Hoover Dam.
Then she turned her sights on the Midwest, and in the late 1990s, she came to Missouri with a husband and wife who had shared with her their desire to establish an Orthodox family center in the Ozarks. Father Theodore, then working at an inner-city Orthodox Christian mission in Kansas City,
accompanied his godmother and her friends to Springfield on their site-scouting trip.
The wife said she'd had a dream about the property for their Orthodox center – a property with "waterfalls and pink flowers," Father Theodore recalled. Then, in the lobby of the Springfield motel where they stayed, they popped open a Century 21 real estate advertising brochure lying on a table and saw a picture of a waterfall that was on 275 acres for sale in Douglas County. They had to see it, of course. Then, on the drive down to Ava, he said, "they saw the purple coneflowers, and that sealed the deal."
Liz bought the 275-acre tract, as well as an old, 85-acre dairy farm next door. The idea was to build a facility where 20-25 people at a time – individuals and families, students and theology professors, priests and other church workers – could come to enjoy a peaceful retreat from busy modern life while immersing themselves in the rich theology of the Orthodox Christian Church.
For various reasons, that original plan "fell apart," Father Theodore said. However, he assured Liz of the merit of her idea and agreed to help her by drawing from his business background and experience. The 275-acre parcel was given up, and their efforts focused on the smaller farm.
After more than 15 years in the monastic life, Theodore became Father Theodore when he was tonsured a senior monk overseas in a 12th-century monastery and then was ordained as deacon under the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate in 2007. It was the same year he came back to the Holy Archangels Orthodox Christian Retreat Center full-time. Because he is a deacon, rather than priest, he does not celebrate the Liturgy (Mass) and conducts only limited church services. But he enjoys studying and praying with guests or others whose paths he crosses.
He has developed a special focus on helping those who are recovering from addiction and is often called on to speak to groups around the region, often centering his talks on overcoming shame and guilt.
Father Theodore explains that the many ethnic expressions of the Orthodox Churches – Greek, Russian, Serbian, Romanian, Lebanese and others – all share "exactly the same" beliefs but express themselves in different languages and cultures. Twelve parishes of the Orthodox Church in America operate in Missouri under the Kansas City Deanery of the Midwest Diocese. An Orthodox monastery for women is being launched in Niangua. There's no Orthodox congregation in Ava or Gainesville, but there are two in Mountain Home. "One Russian and one Ukrainian," Father Theodore said, adding that the current war between Russia and Ukraine has caused a bit of a strain between them right now.
Now 65, Father Theodore said he has "worked in 47 states and 14 countries on three continents," but he's now content living in the Ozarks. He says Holy Archangels is no longer a "retreat," although the name remains unchanged. Instead, it's more of an "Orthodox Christian learning center," where visitors may study in Father Theodore's 6,000-volume library or pray in the prayer chapel. He also thinks of Holy Archangels as an occasional "spiritual bed and breakfast."
As he has entered semi-retirement, Father Theodore said he's become "more of a hermit" and may spend much of each day praying the Horologion, or Hours, which are structured prayer services to be observed at eight specified times during a 24-hour day. He still welcomes guests but only by appointment.
With prior arrangement, individuals or small families still come for a few hours or maybe a couple of days. Last week, when Father Theodore spoke with the Times, he had just enjoyed a visit by a family that had come from Portland, Oregon. Another family was scheduled to come in the days ahead.
Father Theodore's godmother, Liz McNear, who donated the property to found Holy Archangels, died in 2018 and left the bulk of her estate to support the Orthodox center, which, in turn, helps support Orthodox Christian churches in Missouri, including St. Thomas the Apostle Orthodox Church in Springfield, Theotokos "Unexpected Joy" Church in Ash Grove and the developing Holy Resurrection Monastery in Niangua.
Father Theodore welcomes inquiries. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about the Orthodox Christian Church in America, visit oca.org.