State Official Finds Peace at Central Texas Monastery

March 16, 2010  []

AUSTIN — About twice a month Tom Suehs finds the perfect place to get away from the pressures facing anyone who runs the state’s largest agency with 54,000 employees under his watch and millions of Texans who depend on vital services including Medicaid, food stamps and health insurance for low-income children.

Suehs, the Texas Health and Human Services chief, heads out to the Holy Archangels Greek Orthodox monastery in the Texas Hill Country, where he cooks for the monks, repairs broken toilets and generally volunteers wherever they need help.

“I’m out here as ‘Tom the volunteer,’?” Suehs, 58, said recently while chopping vegetables for a Sunday meal.

“It’s relaxing. Nobody’s out here to bother me. Nobody’s asking questions — ‘What do you think about this? Can you make this decision?’ It’s tranquil. It’s reinvigorating, and I like cooking,” the commissioner said while preparing paella, a meal of rice, vegetables and seafood. “There’s no pressures, no stress.”

The monastery is in the hills near Kendalia, about 45 miles north of downtown San Antonio. The main church (Kathlikon) is a basilica-style building, with the interior featuring traditional hand-painted iconography, woodcarvings and a large chandelier with candles that is lit and swung during church feasts.

Construction of the monastery is ongoing, with residences and an infirmary in progress. Ask when the construction projects will be finished, and the monks laughingly give a perpetual projection of “two years.”

In his day job, Suehs oversees an agency with a $30 billion-a-year budget and about 1,000 health and human services offices across Texas.

The eight monks who make their home in the monastery initially were not aware their volunteer friend occupied such an influential job in state government.

“It was a shock for us,” said Father Joseph. “I just saw him as a brother in Christ. That’s all he is. That’s how we knew him. ”
No TV, no Internet

Rank and status don’t mean much for anyone entering the quiet grounds of the monastery, where there is no television or Internet access.

“You don’t bring your day job. You don’t bring your position or degrees. All of that falls away at the gate,” said Father Joseph, who entered the monastery 12 years ago after a career in the restaurant business in South Africa. “People come here, and everybody is equal. It’s an honor to have somebody like (Suehs) because you have to humble yourself to be able to do that.”

For someone like Suehs to perform routine chores, including road repair and crushing grapes for winemaking “means there’s something sweet about you,” Father Joseph said. “You come to a place where your pull has no pull here.”

About twice a year, Suehs pulls volunteer duty at the Holy Monastery of St. Paraskevi in Washington, Texas

Suehs grew up as a Roman Catholic in Castroville. His parents instilled in him the value of public service. Both were mayors of the town.

The Roman Catholic and Orthodox Church split over church doctrine in 1054. Suehs decided to make the transition to Greek Orthodox after his marriage 24 years ago.

“You marry a Greek, you marry everybody,” he said.

His dinner menus for the monks and a dozen or so Sunday evening visitors often include gumbo and chicken fried tuna.

“He makes good Southern dishes. Everything he makes is delicious,” Father Michael said.
Forget the rat race

Through Suehs, the monks found a supplier of California grapes they use to make wine. Their first attempt a few years ago turned into wine hardly worth drinking. The monks hope to eventually get a license to sell their wine. Their own modest vineyard remains a work in progress.

Suehs’ world as commissioner revolves around paperwork, contracts and evaluations. Part of the job requires him to create a vision for health and human services for Texans and to make a case for legislative support.

“You don’t have time in the day-to-day (routine). When I come out here, I’m relaxed. There’s no rat race,” he said of the ideas that strike him while at the monastery. “I’m more focused when I get back.

“I can’t imagine doing the commissioner’s job at the pace seven days a week, and it’s pretty much a seven days a week job,” Suehs said. “Here, there’s a respite.”


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