Saint Nicholas Ranch Celebrates 40 Years ~ A Nickel and a Nail

A Nickel and a Nail

By Rev. Father John Bakas
A journey through the early years of Saint Nicholas Ranch and Retreat Center, originally written in 1994.

It was Sunday afternoon, July 15, 1979. His Grace Bishop Anthony had just celebrated the Sacrament of Holy Baptism for the infant son of Fr. Paul Palesty of the St. Nicholas Church of San Jose. This was my first real face to face encounter with the new Bishop of San Francisco. During his remarks to the congregation following the baptism, he spoke of his commitment to our youth and to youth work. He pointed to children in the congregation and asked what kind of church they would inherit. I remember him saying that his most fervent prayer and hope was for God to bring forth someone who would either donate a million dollars or donate suitable land for the establishment of a diocesan spiritual retreat center. Such a facility would help revitalize the spiritual dimensions of life for young and old alike. His vision and inspired call to action stirred the congregation, and personally moved me very deeply.

Father John Bakas at Saint Nicholas Ranch and Retreat Center (Photo Courtesy of the Bakas Family).

My mind soared with enthusiasm and excitement at what I had heard. It hit me! I remembered my dear and generous friend from Fresno, Nick Kossaras. Nick and I along with ten other family members and friends had just returned from a pilgrimage to Greece and the Holy Land. The pilgrimage renewed our faith. Nick indicated that he was now ready to do something significant to help spread the Gospel of the Lord and the teachings of His Church. He felt that the Lord had blessed him and his family and now wanted to give something back. He had told me months before that he owned a large ranch named the Sally K east of Fresno in the Sequoia foothills. This property was used to raise horses which pulled wagons in Fresno delivering blocks of ice to homes and businesses in the valley. Now Nick’s intention was to turn it into a recreational facility or dude ranch. A portion of the property would also be developed into residential units.

The Holy Spirit had other plans for the Sally K Ranch. Before my return home that Sunday evening to Modesto where I was serving the Church of the Annunciation on a part time basis assisting Fr. John Asimacopoulos, I called Nick Kossaras in Fresno and told him of my encounter with Bishop Anthony in San Jose and of the new spirit of ministry in the diocese. I dreamed with him about doing something for our church which would equip the faithful and indeed present and future generations with greater resources to bring more and more to the saving knowledge of the Gospel and to our Lord. I told him I wanted to see him the following day in Fresno to discuss some life changing ideas.

On the evening of July 16th I met with the Kossaras family in their home and asked them to consider giving the 185 acre Sally K to the church for use as a retreat and educational center to the diocese bringing about spiritual renewal to all, through the development of church programs and activities. The Kossarases were very enthusiastic about the proposal and told me that in less than 24 hours they would have an answer for me. On Tuesday, July 17th, the answer came. “Okay, it’s all yours. We give the property to the Church for the glory of God,” That was Nick’s answer. He now wanted to meet this unusual bishop who spoke like no other bishop had spoken before in our lifetime. We arranged for Bishop Anthony, the Kossarases and myself to meet in Modesto on Thursday, July 19th. Nick and the bishop established an instant affection for one another and an understanding of how the ranch was to be used. The Modesto meeting verbally formalized the gift to the diocese. A whole new path of ministry opened up on that day. In terms of value this was one of the largest individual gifts made to the Greek Orthodox Church of the Americas. It consisted of:

Original Ranch Entrance Sign (Photo Credit: Kristen Bruskas).
  1. A 185 acre working horse and cattle ranch.
  2. A 180’ x 60’ dual level red barn which has historical dimensions for such structures in California and looked very much like the biblical description of Noah’s Ark.
  3. A western rodeo arena.
  4. Two ranch homes.
  5. Two maintenance buildings.
  6. Annual corianders.
  7. Five acre lake.

Bishop Anthony’s prayers were answered. Wanting to share the miracle with his priests, he called for a priests retreat in September of 1979 at the Kossaras lake home at Milleston Lake just outside of Fresno for the purpose of viewing the property and initiating ideas about its future uses and development.

In a caravan of cars we made our way up highway 180 towards the Sequoias to inspect the Sally K Ranch. Passing fertile groves of oranges and seeming endless rows of vineyards we reached Dunlap Road and the Sally K. There we were met by Zack Harris, a faithful and committed Orthodox Christian and Kossaras associate. Our first visit was to the empty yet majestic red barn that was the imposing centerpiece of the ranch. Nick had been using the upper floor for a dance and recreation hall. Walking around the cavernous building, I found a nickel on the floor where a cash register was once located. A few steps away was a nail, a leftover reminder of the carpenter’s work on what was a bar. A great beginning, I thought. A nickel as our first donation and a nail signaling that nickel by nickel and nail by nail something beautiful for God would be built on this mountain site. Our walking introductory tour of the ranch took us past the working rodeo arena, the ranch houses and the bass stocked lake. At the lake as we fully contemplated the significate of the gift we decided right there on the spot that the Sally K Ranch would be physically and spiritually transformed into the new St. Nicholas Ranch and Retreat Center, a new name honoring the donor as well as the great Saint and patron of Myra and Lycia. From every corner of the ranch the view of nature, the mountains and mountain valleys were awesome. We knew the Lord had reserved this mountain haven for the work of His Church.

Saint Photini Chapel (Photo Credit: Kristen Bruskas).

In October of 1979 the Brotherhood of St. Nicholas Foundation was chartered by the State of California. Under this foundation the development of the facilities and programs would take place. The specific conditions requested by the Kossaras family for St. Nicholas were that the gift of the ranch be always used for Orthodox Christian related spiritual, religious and educational programs. The three original charter founding members of the foundation were His Grace Bishop Anthony, Rev. Fr. John Bakas and Mr. Zachary Harris of Fresno. The three elected the following to the first foundation board of trustees: Mr. Tony Diavatis – Fresno; Fr. Constantine Efstathiu – Stockton; Fr. Spencer Kezios – Northridge; Mr. William Oldknow – Los Angeles; and Mr. John Vlahos – San Francisco.

The Brotherhood of St. Nicholas Foundation as the principal governing board of the St. Nicholas Ranch and Retreat Center with the blessings of Bishop Anthony selected Fr. Bakas as the first president of the foundation and Executive Director of the St. Nicholas Ranch and Retreat Center. The board’s early focus was the development and initiation of a fundraising program for building and programs, development and review of architectural plans for the building of the retreat center and the operation of a strong spiritual program using existing facilities and volunteer personnel. The board chose the Lukas brothers of Fresno as volunteer building designers and Mr.  Tom Kanakaris as volunteer Contractor and new building coordinator.

The purposes of the St. Nicholas Ranch and Retreat Center were affirmed as follows:

  1. To provide religious education programs for our youth and all interested persons
  2. To provide a place and an environment for one to come closer to Christ and His Church in a concentrated, quiet and contemplative manner.
  3. To provide religious training and preparation programs for Sunday School teachers, Bible Study teachers, parish council members, choir, youth counselors and all segments of parish ministry. The ranch was to be a resource center for all our parishes.
  4. To provide ongoing spiritual retreats in existing facilities for all interested parties.
  5. To develop a children’s camping program during the summer months.
  6. To provide facilities for clergy and presvyteres with program that are “in service training”, “extended education”, “spiritual renewal” and for “rest and relaxation”.
  7. To begin long term plans for the establishment of a monastic community.
  8. To prepare plans for using facilities to develop the publishing of religious materials, icons, incense, candles and other items for sale which would generate support revenue.
  9. To provide planned outreach programs from the Orthodox perspective to all who wish to explore the Orthodox faith.
  10. To provide a diocesan place of worship which would enhance true Orthodox fellowship across the parish lines with year-round activities.

As the Sally K the facility was a working ranch. Now as St. Nicholas its work continues in the spiritual realm. With its rich soil and ample water supplies apple orchards, and other groves were being planned.

As Executive Director, my first tasks in addition to fund raising were to get the existing facilities in working shape and build a chapel for services. The chapel would be first. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all other things would be added unto you.” The Lord’s words were following: hundreds of young volunteer workers led by the Barlas Brothers of San Jose and Mr. Floyd Pettis also of San Jose worked from January through September 1980 to transform the barn into Noah’s Ark and the Upper Room all in one. The second floor was made into a church and men’s dormitory. Every parish contributed icons, liturgical sacred vessels, brass candle holders, lamps, gospel books, liturgy books and building supplies. Moving trucks brought pew from Colorado. Bishop’s throne and other furnishings from Arizona. Virtually every parish added something to the symphony of no cost chapel building.

The altar was built from timber from an old horse stall. The altar screen from lumber salvaged from a ranch bunkhouse. Chapel chandeliers came from a remodeled Fresno restaurant. The icon of St. Nicholas which is the large chapel window came from Sacramento. Large brass candle holders from Modesto and San Bernardino. The tabernacle from Oakland. On anD on gifts poured in.

Work retreats as we called them brought dozens of young people from throughout the diocese. With their own tools and building materials to establish the St. Nicholas Chapel. Volunteer plumbers, electricians, carpenters and general handymen made their way up to the ranch to transform every aspect of the facility to the Glory of God.

Photo Credit: Kristen Bruskas

Religious education, prayer and worship at night and work in the day. The girls’ dormitory and kitchen facility we called the mini-lodge was the two story Kossaras home located on the property. It now temporarily houses our Zoodochos Peghe Convent. The boys’ dorm was the barn and any available clean space. We cooked outside over large fires and in the mini-lodge. Those were exciting and spiritually electrifying days of building something beautiful for God out of literally a nickel and a nail.

A discarded telephone pole was transformed into a life size cross which was carried by 35 youngsters in a late night candlelight procession to its present site called Golgotha on the majestic rock covered hill west of the barn. That rugged cross which once carried lines of telephone conversations now carries conversations of entreating believers to God Himself. It stands erect even today witnessing to the power of the lifesaving mission of the original cross in Jerusalem.

A huge bush became a lecture hall where over 50 people could be accommodated under the willow-like drooping branches. Voices can be heard but no one can see inside. We called it the “Burning Bush Auditorium”. The lake became our Lake Galilee. It was a reminder that with faith we could spiritually walk on water.

From the early days of 1979 to today, thousands of lives have been transformed by the presence of the Holy Spirit, through retreats, religious programs, worship and prayer and just “being there”. To the hundreds of volunteer workers who experienced a “special baptism” of sweat and tears as they built and transformed, they will be remembered unto the ages for their ministry of hammers, saws, and nails. Every weekend in 1980 saw a new group and a new program and something new added to the ministry of St. Nicholas.

Volunteer cooks led by Zack as my right hand man did anything and everything to grow the mission and ministry. Floyd Pettis kept everything repaired and in order. Glen and Harry Barlas became the Cyril and Methodios of our diocese leading the young and their witness and their carpentry.

The focal point of the early years was the awe inspiring barn chapel. We felt that if a stable was the Lord’s beginning, then it would be our beginning also. Prayer and worship, inspirational messages and the fellowship of spiritually hungry young people make the Sequoia foothills fragrant with the scent of Orthodox Christianity.

A Fresno friend donated a beautiful chestnut colored horse in the Spring of 1980. We named him Levendi. I rode him over almost every square foot of the ranch looking for ideal locations to build the new retreat center. The present site was chosen for its accessibility, availability of water and dramatic views. Levendi became a popular fellow in the rodeo arena and on riding excursions.

1980 through the Spring of 1981 St. Nicholas saw the development of a strong fundraising program, a volunteer staff and worker system and the development of retreat programs that touched every aspect of parish and diocesan life. Retreats and religious education programs were developed for various diocesan programs and ministries.

The early success of St. Nicholas was guaranteed by the investment of hundreds of volunteers who cooked, painted did maintenance chores, repaired electrical and plumbing, cleaned and kept a 185 acre ranch running with a minimum of problems. Their help allowed me the opportunity to visit parishes and encourage involvement in the project by the faithful. Accompanying the Bishop we organized fund raising receptions and dinners using audio-visual programs to tell the story of this dynamic new ministry.

By the summer of 1982 we were ready with architectural plans and permits to move ahead with the new building phase.

On June 7, 1981, His Eminence Archbishop Iakovos came from New York to officiate at the official groundbreaking Liturgy on the site of the new St. Nicholas Ranch and Retreat Center. He was joined by Bishop Anthony of San Francisco and Bishop Philotheos of Meloa, assistant to the Archbishop, and 20 priests. Nearly 2,000 diocesan friends and faithful came to the outdoor celebration, complete with a panegyric barbeque and fund raising feast. In just a few hours over $250,000 was pledged for the new buildings. What ineffable joy was experienced by all who saw the dream beginning to take concrete shape.

The Archbishop, Bishop and Clergy dug the ceremonial shovels into the ground, thus ushering in a new era of Church history in the America.

Work began almost immediately under the careful supervision of Mr. Tom Kanakaris on the new buildings. His crews leveled the ground, raised levels where necessary and began the building of two lodges with 14 rooms per lodge, a dining facility and large swimming pool. Landscaping was included by taking advantage of the natural beauty of the foliage. Hiking trails were carved out in the hills by the California Conservation Corps and new culverts were installed in the lake to prevent flash flood damage. New roads were created providing access to all segments of the property.

By June of 1982 everything in this first phase of construction was completed and the first full summer camp program was started from mid June – August. The program was developed on the Ionian Village model with a former Ionian Village program director John Alexandres leading a group of national and local camp counselors. 320 youngsters participated in the first year’s six-week camping program. The ranch was turned into a Greek Horio complete with farm animals to teach Orthodox youngsters the majesty and depth of the Faith. The St. Nicholas camping program has had an enormous positive influence on countless children over the years. Lasting bonding friendships have been made and above all kept these youngsters better tethered to their parishes and Orthodox Faith.

October 15 – 17, 1982 was the weekend that the new facilities would be formally blessed and dedicated. 250 friends of St. Nick’s (a name popularized more and more by the youngsters) gathered for a dedication dinner, Agiasmo and Divine Liturgy. While giving thanks to God for the miracle of the new facilities we began to think and plan for the buildings of two more dormitory style lodges to be located on the north and south sides of the pool.

Photo Credit: Kristen Bruskas

1983 saw the finalization of the plans for the second phase of the building program and the fine tuning of all spiritual and religious education programs for St. Nick’s. It was a time to review the mission and look to the future. Places, buildings and things have no meaning without people. People have no significance without God. The St. Nicholas Ranch and Retreat Center is a ministry of the church focusing on the spiritual renewal of all our people. Young or old, believer or unbeliever, whoever one may be, you will never visit St. Nick’s and partake of even a small morsel of its spirit and leave the same again. To attend a Liturgy in the chapel accompanied by the rhythm setting tones of woodpeckers: to chant the familiar hymns with brothers and sisters from all parts of our diocese, and to feel that special love unfettered by the demands and pressures of the world is to experience the essence of Christianity healing and renewing the soul.

St. Nick’s is not a camp although summer is part of the overall program. It is a resource center; it is a spiritual oasis, a shelter where the soul, heart and mind can withdraw and draw nearer to God in the simple quiet and solitude of a spiritual shelter. For me as priest and first director, it remains the shining light of my priesthood and ministry. It was and is a place where I have had the most intimate encounters with the Lord and my family. It is a place where two of my children were baptized in a donated baptismal font in the barn chapel. It is the place where I have pastored and fed thousands of young people with the sweet nourishment of our Holy Orthodox Church and a place where the seminal nickel and nail allows me to serve God and His living presence – THE CHURCH.

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