According to an old local chronicle, the Lepavina monastery was founded around 1550, very soon after the emergence of the first Serbian settlements in this region. A monk from the Hilandar Monastery (on the Athos peninsula, Greece), Jefrem (Ephraim) Vukodabović, born in Herzegovina, together with two monks from Bosnia, built a wooden church here. They were soon joined by several other monks and the institution, according to the chronicle, acquired the status of a monastery.
In August of 1557, Turks and the Islamized inhabitants of Stupčanica, Pakrac and Bijela, under the leadership of Zarep-Agha Ali, burnt down the church and the monastic buildings, four monks were killed and two taken to slavery.
In 1598 Hieromonk Gregory, also from the Hilandar Monastery, came to Lepavina with two monks from the Mileševa Monastery, and they re-established the monastic community and rebuilt the edifices. In 1630 the Orthodox population of this region, due to their constant involvement in the fights against the Turks and their allies, received great privileges, which created the conditions for building activity on a larger scale.
Archimandrite Visarion (Bessarion) came to Lepavina in 1635 to become the head of the community, and under his auspices in 1636-1642 a larger monastery complex developed.
In June of 1642 Count Johannes Galler confirmed the rights of the monastery to all the possessions donated by the dwellers of Branjska and Sesvečani. The same was done in charters by Baron Sigmund von Eibiswald, Voivode Gvozden with Đorđe Dobrojević, Blaže Pejašinović and Voivode Radovan (5 February 1644), Baron Honorius von Trauttmansdorff (10 July 1644) and Count Georg Ludwig von Schwarzenberg (23 November 1644).
History of the Lepavina Monastery is inseparable from history of the Serbs in the Varaždin Generalat, who identified with Orthodoxy and mostly defied the union with the Roman Catholic Church. The monks took part in the conflicts of the local population against the social injustice: in 1666 they suffered in the great uprising led by the Križevci judge Osmokruhović, and in 1672, together with the monks of the Gomirje Monastery (14 men in total), they were sentenced to galley slavery and sent to Malta. On 24 November 1715 (13 November according to the Julian style) Hegumen (Abbot) Kodrat (Quadratus) was shot dead at the threshold of the monastery church, which was a consequence of conflicts with neighbouring Uniate (Greek Catholic) clergy.
At the end of 1692 and the beginning of 1693, Lepavina hosted Serbian Patriarch of Peć, Arsenije (Arsenius) III Čarnojević (or Crnojević). He was gathering the local Orthodox people and preaching, and also visiting the local voivodes of Krajina, which enhanced the reputation of the abbey. After the Orthodox Monastery of Marča was handed over to the Greek Catholics, Lepavina became the major centre of Orthodoxy in the region.
In 1734 the Orthodox population of the Varaždin Generalat succeeded in obtaining the permission to have their own Orthodox bishop – the Greek Catholic bishop received as his headquarters the recently seized Monastery of Marča, while Lepavina was assigned as the residence of the new Orthodox bishop. However, because of Lepavina’s peripheral position, the final seat of the Orthodox bishopric became Severin, while the diocese was called the Eparchy of Lepavina and Severin. The first bishop of Lepavina and Severin, Simeon (Filipović) was buried in Lepavina – he died in the investigative custody in Koprivnica, which was yet another consequence of gradual imposition of the church Union on the local Orthodox.
Although life under Empress Maria Theresa was not easy for the Orthodox – for a short time Orthodoxy was even declared illicit, and the Lepavina Monastery should have become Greek Catholic – the still-standing monastery church was built in the mid-18th century. The project was realised under the guidance of Nikola Popović, the former ‘protopresbyter of Croatia’ and parish priest of Pisanica, where he also had built a nice church. Nikola took the vows and became the archimandrite of Lepavina with the name Nikifor (Nicephorus). On 25 March 1753 the completed Baroque church was consecrated by Arsenije (Arsenius, Teofanović) the Bishop of Kostajnica and Zrinopolje, who resided mainly in Severin.
World War II was especially difficult period. Immediately after the occupation, the brethren were arrested and taken to a concentration camp. Hieromonk Joakim (Joachim, Babić) was killed and the others were deported to Serbia. On 27 October 1943 the monastery was bombarded, monastic buildings were almost completely destroyed, while the church and the dormitory were heavily damaged. Nevertheless, in the part of the dormitory that escaped destruction, the part of the monastery library remained intact and was appropriated by the Greek Catholic clergy.
After the war, the only inhabitant of the monastery was Father Simeon (Sakulj), who partially renovated it and returned the usurped property. By the efforts of Metropolitan Jovan (John, Pavlović) of Zagreb and Ljubljana, who became the head of the diocese in 1977, the monastery regained the old glory and importance. The connection with the Hilandar Monastery was revived in 1984, when monk Gavrilo (Gabriel, Vučković) came from there and became Lepavina’s hegumen and finally archimandrite.
Thanks to the ardent work of Father Gavrilo (Vučković), the spiritual life is on the rise: there are several brethren and novices, the journal Put, Istina i Život (‘The Way, the Truth, and the Life’) is published, and the monastery is an extremely popular destination for pilgrims, not only from Croatia, but from the whole Europe, and even from the other continents. It is visited by streams of Orthodox and Roman Catholic believers, as well as by those who are looking for the answers to some spiritual questions or help in adversities. Lepavina serves as a bridge in the new dialogue of love between the Eastern and Western Churches, the old dissensions are being forgotten and the new atmosphere of mutual understanding and true deeper rapprochement is being created.
The monastery is proud of its wonder-working icon of the Mother of God that makes it such an important pilgrimage site. It is painted in the Creto-Venetian style from the beginning of the 16th century. It is not known how it came to the monastery, but the local tradition asserts it was here when the monastic community was in its infancy.
One of the features of interest was the iconostasis from 1775, a work by one of the best representatives of the Serbian early Baroque, Jovan Četirević-Grabovan, destroyed during the World War II, with only three pictures remaining. Besides these, the monastery keeps the icons of St Simeon Nemanja, St Sava and the icon of the Entry into the Temple of the Most Holy Mother of God (ie. the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary), all painted in Lepavina in 1647.
Especially valuable are the manuscripts and old printed books. Among the oldest are the two Tetraevangelia from the 13th and 14th centuries, one of the Serbian-Raška and the other of the Macedonian recensions, both with exquisite initials. As Lepavina served as an elementary school for attaining literacy and other skills, a lot of written material and copied books were deposited here.
On the Art of the Monastery
On the History of the Orthodox Church and Serbs in Croatia