A Most Exotic Exile

The church is Russian. The priest is from Boston. The founders were midgets. And the congregation is slim to none.


By Elise Ackerman Friday, Aug 25 1995
Miami New Times



Thick incense spreads throughout the church, pressing against the air-conditioned freshness, pushing it back, away and out of the room, until the coolness is saturated with a smell so thick it has the texture of velvet. It's a choking aroma, one that will sink into the red carpet and cling to the wood long after the service is over.


As the priest lopes about the small sanctuary, swinging a brass incense holder suspended at the end of three long chains, the scented air surrounds him like a halo. He's chanting in Slavonic, a language devised more than a millennium ago in a vain effort to bring religious unity to the Slavic peoples of Russia and the Balkans. Centuries have passed since Slavonic was spoken by anyone except those Russian Orthodox priests who use it in their liturgy.


Mike Christie, the sole parishioner at this service, stands at the back of the church; he admits that Slavonic is beyond his ken. An American of Greek descent, he says he's picked up a phrase or two during the year he's attended the church -- specifically the invocation "God have mercy," which is repeated hundreds of times in the three-hour service, and which has the phonetic sound of an appeal to medieval ghosts.


The spectral echoes seem appropriate tonight. Father Daniel McKenzie, a Boston native and a lapsed Roman Catholic, recovered his faith in the confines of this very church almost a quarter-century ago. McKenzie, who up until that time had drifted unhappily and with no small degree of disgust through the sunny, strip-malled sacrilege of modern life, found meaning, refuge, and comfort at the St. Vladimir Russian Orthodox Church in Exile, a small white building on a nondescript street in the all but forgotten neighborhood of Flagami.


Resting on a swatch of land a few blocks north of Flagler Street and west of LeJeune Road, St. Vladimir is located halfway between the Little Havana headquarters of Alpha 66, the militant Cuban exile group, and the home base of the Cuban American National Foundation in West Dade. But unlike those organizations, which were founded on the psychological bedrock of Cuban exile, the Russian church has had difficulty attracting much of a following.


On important holidays such as Easter, 30 to 50 people might show up. Usually, though, only two or three parishioners appear at regular Sunday services. On Saturday evening, when the Sabbath officially begins and the evening service is read, McKenzie and his family are frequently the only congregants, alternating the roles of deacon, reader, choir members, and altar boy among them. Three-quarters of the way through the service, his wife and children go to bed, leaving the priest to conclude the rites in solitude.


Tonight, thanks to Mike Christie's presence, McKenzie has someone to listen to his prayers, if not quite understand them. For his congregation of one, McKenzie has donned the full formal regalia of the Orthodox church, including a purple cap and a white brocade vestment embroidered with golden thread. Of medium build, the 53-year-old McKenzie appears to stand taller in his priestly robes. His silver-brown eyes, magnified behind spectacles, complement his long gray hair, which he used to gather in a ponytail and stuff under a motorcycle helmet, back when he was a city planner in West Palm Beach. McKenzie chants softly as he ambles around the empty church, now reading from an embossed prayer book, now entering the altar area and holding aloft the incense-shaker time and again.


Night falls and the gold-flecked paint on the life-size icons begins to glow. A multitude of saints, revered by the Orthodox, are painted on the walls, ceiling beams, and the iconostasis, a cherry wood partition that separates the altar from the middle portion of the church, where parishioners stand. The images are reflected in the polished silver candleholders that stretch toward the ceiling and support rows of flickering, mustard-colored beeswax candles. Crosses blossom from the walls, partitions, and religious objects like silver crocuses pushing out of the ground after a long winter.


The service is an unending concatenation of hymns, with each prayer corresponding to a traditional melody. McKenzie stumbles occasionally over the spongy Slavonic phrasing, then finds his footing and moves on. His praying sounds like soft sobs, and it is accompanied by the hum of the air conditioner and odd snatches of Spanish and laughter, as conversation from a nearby home drifts in and out of earshot.


Most of the McKenzies' neighbors are Hispanic. They occupy modest one-story wooden houses and unremarkable two-story concrete apartment buildings. Heat, noise, sunlight, and traffic have done their part to leach vitality from the surrounding warrens of domesticity. The neighborhood, while clinging to the edge of Little Havana, lacks a collective identity.


From this welter of working-class lives the slender blue domes of St. Vladimir rise like giddy tulip bulbs. An icon of the Virgin Mary is affixed to an arch over the entrance to the property, and a pathway leading to the sanctuary circles a garden planted with marigolds and poinsettia, mango trees and Christmas palms.


The overall effect is a paean to prerevolutionary Russian opulence, a tribute to the meticulously mannered worlds of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, where the mysteries of peasant spirituality mixed uneasily with the conceits of the nobility. This would be a place for displaced Russian princes, immigrant Siberian laborers, and pious country women to rekindle the waning ardor of nostalgia when the pressures of assimilation become too great and the memory too feeble.

There is in fact a small group of Russians, no more than 28 in all, who sporadically attend the church, traveling from as far away as Tampa and Delray Beach to attend Sunday services. Five or six elderly members continue to live within a smaller radius. George Tiajoloff has been receiving communion at St. Vladimir for 40 of his 78 years. He drives down to Flagami from his home in Hollywood almost every weekend. The son of a diplomat who represented Czar Nicholas II in Tunisia, Tiajoloff is as close as the current congregation gets to Russian blue bloods, though certain now-deceased founders of the church could boast of entertaining Russian royalty in their youth.


Mary and Basil Fillin, along with Paula and John Velikanoff (whose name means "giant" in Russian), were part of a troupe of 23 Russian midgets who toured their homeland's theaters and circuses during the early part of the century, performing for the czar's family, among other less illustrious spectators. After the revolution, the midgets wandered through Siberia, Manchuria, India, Japan, and the Philippines before emigrating to the United States. They made their homes in Flagami in 1935, which then bordered on the Everglades. Other members of the troupe bought land even farther into the swamps, settling in the area now known as Sweetwater. The city owes its existence, in part, to the efforts of these diminutive pioneers, who voted along with about a dozen other residents to incorporate in 1941. "In all these places there was cheap land," notes Miami historian Arva Moore Parks. "You have to realize that it really was the Everglades at that point in time. [Flagami] would have been the fringe of civilization."


The midgets built their church in 1947, at a time when the anguish of exile was still raw for most Russian immigrants. They belonged to a self-governing federation of churches, then known as the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile. The federation was founded in 1920 after the communist government began to crack down on religion, boarding up churches and massacring and expelling thousands of clergymen. Although the Russian Orthodox Church continued to exist, its priests and bishops were seen as sellouts, cowards, Soviet lackeys. The Russian Orthodox Church in Exile began billing itself as not only the authentic Russian church, but as the only true Christian church. Although it never grew very large A it consists today of only about 350 small parishes worldwide A what it lacked in size it made up for in rigidity, adhering to traditions dating back to the late Tenth Century.


In fact, one of the few things the church has changed is its name. Following the final collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the concept of a church "in exile" became increasingly irrelevant, at least as that term is usually defined. Today monks at the Synod of Bishops in New York City, which oversees the federation of Russian Orthodox parishes throughout the world, have taken to correcting anyone who refers to the church by its former name. "Please don't call us that," huffs a monk who identifies himself as Brother Isaac. "We refer to ourselves as the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, or the Free Orthodox Church of Russia," he states fastidiously.


At St. Vladimir in Miami, though, the exile moniker is not so casually discarded. "First of all, our church is a church in exile," Daniel McKenzie emphasizes, explaining that he has no intention of changing the church's name. "Second of all, in Miami we are surrounded by Cubans, most of whom don't have any great love for communist Russia. In order to extend the sentiment of co-suffering to the Cuban community, it's important to retain the distinction [in the church's name]. Up north, it works to refer to the church as the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. But in Miami it's not the most prudent thing to do. In Miami you're asking for trouble if you leave the question open."


Calling itself a church in exile gets the attention of people who otherwise might overlook St. Vladimir. About a year ago Mike Christie was leafing through the Yellow Pages, counting up the number of Orthodox churches, when he came across St. Vladimir. "When I saw 'in exile,' I knew they were different," the 39-year-old Miami bricklayer recalls. After visiting the church and talking with Father Dan, as Christie refers to McKenzie, he began attending services.


"This is true orthodoxy," Christie insists, taking a break from the service and stepping out onto the church's porch. "It's not something that's been watered down and disinfected. It's been handed down from the fathers of the church through the centuries. When I started taking it all in, I couldn't get enough of it."


St. Vladimir adheres more closely to early Christian traditions than the Greek Orthodox Church in which Christie was raised, and it follows the older Julian calendar instead of the Gregorian calendar used by most other churches in the United States -- a distinction Christie wasn't even aware existed before he began attending services at St. Vladimir.


Why had no one at his old church ever told him about the two calendars? Christie leans against one of the posts on the porch, gazing at his listener with eyes that are black with suspicion. There is a plot afoot, he confides. The ecumenical movement, a seemingly innocuous attempt to unite worldwide Christianity, is actually part of the antichrist's effort to destroy "true" Christianity. Masons play a key role in this nefarious scheme.


These are not Christie's personal observations but views he picked up from McKenzie. Distrust of the ecumenical movement is a tenet of the federation of Russian Orthodox Churches Outside of Russia. Moreover, a significant minority of the Orthodox Church in America -- a separate, larger organization -- adheres to similar notions.


McKenzie joins Christie outside, having exchanged his elaborate vestments for a simple black cassock. Christie has just finished explaining why he stopped going to church as a teenager. "On the one hand they were telling me that they were the one church, the only true church, and on the other hand, they were teaching ecumenism. I said this was just a bunch of shit."


Christie is dressed casually, wearing jeans and an open-collar green shirt. His black hair is pulled back in a ponytail, and he'd be indistinguishable from any other man on an Athenian street except that he was born in Pontiac, Michigan, and has spent the last fifteen years of his life in Miami. The only child of a widowed mother, he originally set out to flee the nest, but his 81-year-old mother, who speaks only Greek, followed him south. They now live together, or as Christie sheepishly puts it: "She lives with me. I live with her. It screws up my social life, but it's okay."


He asks McKenzie to confirm the rumors about the Masons. "Yes, it's true," McKenzie says gravely. "But it's not good to concentrate on that stuff. It's better to think about your sins and about repentance."


McKenzie answers the door to the parish on a weekday morning. He's dressed, as usual, in his black cassock. Several of his seven children are at a Russian Orthodox summer camp in the Catskills, leaving him with his wife, their five-week old daughter, and seven-year-old son. The family occupies the northern wing of the church, a dimly lit, cheaply built, cramped four-bedroom structure attached to the sanctuary by a short linoleum-tiled hallway opening almost directly onto the altar. On the other side of the sanctuary is the southern wing, which consists of a large meeting room used for celebrations and feasts.


Heavy red and gold religious books are spread on the dining table, which is located in the back of the family's living room, the main room of the house where visitors are received. McKenzie is preparing this week's service. The small apartment, decorated with ubiquitous icons, a large map of Russia, and religious tracts overflowing from bookshelves, has the isolated, anachronistic feel of a dacha on the Black Sea.


Vladimir, the priest's youngest son, clambers into his father's lap as McKenzie begins to recount his own conversion to Orthodoxy. As he talks, McKenzie strokes his son's back and lightly kisses his head. The key to the story is Vladimir's mother, Sonia, born in Montreal of Russian parents. A woman of abundant proportions and a round, timid face, Sonia rocks her newborn daughter as she listens to her husband, anxiously screening questions she considers too intimate. McKenzie frequently defers to his wife, quizzing her about family history and asking her for the translations of Russian phrases. He calls her "Momma," conveying in a word the idea of a matriarch, a fecund force of household tranquility, an anchor in a godless world.


"I was the product of a typical American family, where you have alcohol problems, all that stuff," McKenzie remembers. "My father remarried three times. I didn't really know my first mom. My second mom had problems drinking. My third mom was a nurse who was also involved in drugs and alcohol." He moved to Florida from western Pennsylvania when he was seventeen and later met Sonia in the cafeteria of Boca Raton's Florida Atlantic University, where they were both attending college. Soon after they started dating, Sonia brought him to St. Vladimir.


"The church was dark, warm, and had an air of holiness," McKenzie murmurs. "Monya, the midget lady, was the only one in the church proper. Everyone else was standing with the choir. The image I had was sort of like going back to some pious, warm memories of youth. Of course, that's just speaking of emotions. Above and beyond all this was the shocking revelation that the Roman Church had actually separated itself from Eastern Christianity, something that is not properly explained in the Roman Church."


The Eastern Orthodox Church, which comprises different Orthodox churches distinguished by nationality (for example, the Greek Orthodox Church), split from the Roman Catholic Church in the Eleventh Century over a conflict about the extent of papal authority and changes in the creed. McKenzie and other parishioners of St. Vladimir who converted to Orthodoxy believe that the Roman Catholic Church purposely obscures the breach. McKenzie says he finally sorted through his Catholic upbringing while studying at the Russian Orthodox Church's Holy Trinity monastery in Jordanville, New York, where he and his family lived for seven years until he was ordained in 1989. That's also where he learned Russian, phrases of which are sprinkled throughout his account.


For the past six years the family has lived at St. Vladimir. McKenzie's children, who range from the newborn to twenty-year-old Maria, have attended Miami public schools, which has unhappily exposed them to the Orthodox bugaboo of evolution. "They teach the kids they're animals, and they're surprised when they act like animals!" he grouses. "The true scientist knows that evolution is a lie, but they continue to teach it in the schools. They whittle away at the kids' faith in God little by little." McKenzie has tried to separate his own children as much as possible from the non-Russian Orthodox world. And while their home reveals some modern accouterments -- toys, Florida Marlins paraphernalia, a computer loaded with games -- the children are urged to make the church the center of their lives.


"Orthodoxy is a very involving religion," Sonia comments, overcoming her shyness. "Even if they weren't the children of a priest, I'd still be trying to weasel them up into the choir." As it is, the children don't have much choice, since without their participation, there isn't much of a service.


Few parishioners also means crimped finances. St. Vladimir operates on an annual budget of about $30,000, made up mostly of rent from two neighboring houses once owned by the midget Fillin and Velikanoff families, who bequeathed them to the church. Congregants pay monthly dues of three dollars each, and contribute to the collection plate after each service. McKenzie's family gets by on his modest salary of $11,000 and food stamps.


An obvious source of new congregants would seem to be Dade's growing Russian community. Although most of the area's 5000 Russian residents are Jewish, the collapse of the Soviet Union has brought an increasing number of Christian immigrants. McKenzie has tried to reach out to them by placing ads in local newspapers announcing services and feast days, but so far the response mostly has been requests for funerals, specifically for young Russian women drawn by the easy glamour of Miami Beach and done in by an overabundance of recklessness and bad luck. In the past two years, at least four have died of causes ranging from a traffic accident to a drug overdose and a violently jealous boyfriend. But McKenzie attributes the demise of all to their homeland's spiritual decline.


"Most of the Russians who come from Russia don't come to church," he laments. "Seventy-five years of atheism and most don't know anything about God, much less the church itself." In recent years, Russian women have materialized briefly during services only to disappear just as suddenly. "A woman will appear before the mother of God, before the Virgin Mary, and weep and put up a candle. They don't stay long, maybe fifteen minutes. Different women come from time to time. I can't say anything about them except that they are very beautiful, and they seem to be alone, and they seek God's help."


For McKenzie these mysterious women are proof that the spirituality of Dostoyevsky's Russia still exists. "Russia was Orthodox for 1000 years, and though the past 75 years has destroyed almost everything, it hasn't destroyed everything," he asserts. "That's what makes the Russian immigrants so vulnerable. That's the tragedy of the girls.


"For those who get to know Russian girls -- they are special," he continues. "I think it has something to do with the stappke, the spirituality of holy Russia before the revolution. It's something that Western people can't understand at all. However, wise men, when they meet Russian girls, they always recognize this admirable side that Russian girls have. A guy once called me and said, 'I want to meet a nice Russian girl. I can tell that Russian girls are different.' And I said, 'Well, you're exactly right, and the best way to meet them is to go to Russia. I told him to get a ticket on Aeroflot to Russia and go to the countryside and meet some Russian girls. I told him the best part of the Russian girls is this remnant of holiness from the 1000 years of holiness in Russian life."


McKenzie likes to imagine those times as an era of idyllic social harmony. "There was sin," he concedes. "There was corruption. There was dishonesty. But it was condemned openly. It was fought openly. It was not accepted as just another way of living."


This is the ideal that McKenzie strives to attain at his church. If only he can preserve a spark of the original faith, even if it's kept in a church that few people attend in the heart of Cuban Miami, there may be salvation for the Russian nation. "The main purpose of this church is to protect the Russian Orthodox Church," he declares. "Many many people in Russia are gratified and have their hope in us, in the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile for the renewal of the church."


McKenzie's newborn daughter Helena is baptized on a Sunday, and for once, the entire congregation shows up. Viera Mutch, a 33-year-old Russian-Venezuelan woman living in Coral Springs, is the godmother. She accepts the infant after baptism in a great silver pan of water, and wraps her in an embroidered white christening gown made by Viera's mother, Ekateryna.


There is some fumbling as the baby protests the unfamiliar hands on her body, and Ekateryna steps forward to help. Holy oil is dripped onto the infant: onto the mouth so she will never say an untruth, onto the eyelids so she will see the Lord, onto the ears so she will hear the Lord, onto her hands so she will do the Lord's work, onto her heart so she will love the Lord, and onto her feet so she will walk in the Lord's footsteps. A lock of hair is carefully clipped, symbolizing the baby's membership in the flock of Christ.


The baptism completed, Viera collapses on a chair in the McKenzies' living room, a paper plate full of food on her lap. In Spanish she explains that she and her mother have been attending the church for about three years. Although she doesn't understand much Slavonic, St. Vladimir's helps her keep in touch with her culture.


Her mother, a well-dressed, energetic woman of 54, is less pleased with St. Vladimir's. "Well, it's God's house, but many things there are overlooked," she announces during a telephone conversation after the baptism, her Russian accent still strong despite 28 years of living in South America. Aside from Viera, none of her other three children will go to St. Vladimir, she says. "I have an elder son who will never go to that church because he doesn't understand a word [of Slavonic]," she complains. "I leave the church many times angry or disappointed or unsatisfied, and I go to church because I want my spirit to be filled with happiness. And the other thing I say to myself, if this is the true church, why are the people so weird?"


Ekateryna Mutch's family was expelled from Russia in 1943, after German soldiers occupied their town and sent the residents off to concentration camps. The family was transferred first to Poland, then to Bavaria, Austria, and finally Munich, where they were liberated by the American forces. After the war, they resettled in Venezuela, where they attended a church associated with the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile. Ekateryna eventually married an American and moved to the United States. She began attending St. Vladimir soon after her family moved to Broward County in 1992.


Although happy to be at a Russian Orthodox church, Ekateryna nevertheless finds services at St. Vladimir to be vexing. She criticizes the behavior of McKenzie's children during services, complaining that they grow bored and frustrated during the lengthy prayers. "The oldest sister, she's talking about everything," Mutch adds. "I'd like to tell her to shut up."


Indeed, twenty-year-old Maria McKenzie is uncommonly candid. Slender and petite, she wears her blond hair styled in a pageboy. Rosy cheeks and glasses round out her wholesome image. She complains briefly about the sexual harassment she encounters at her summer job as a telemarketer. One of her bosses, she says with an embarrassed smile, has the bothersome habit of trying to kiss and grab. "Luckily, I won't be there much longer," she shrugs, referring to her saving money in order to pay expenses at a Canadian college this fall.


Maria plans to major in history, and looks forward to leaving Miami. She says she enjoyed growing up near the monastery in Jordanville, but Miami, with its oppressive heat and relentless cubaneo, has been a different story.


One of St. Vladimir's major celebrations will fall the week after the baptism, on July 17. The Feast of the Royal Martyrs commemorates Russia's last czar, who was executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918. Father McKenzie is hoping for a big turnout.


Although conventional history associates Nicholas II with the disastrous Russo-Japanese War (1904-5) and depicts him as a passive monarch who brought about his own demise by allowing his wife and her infamous adviser Grigory Rasputin to dictate government policy, Orthodox Christians take a different view. "There's no doubt that Czar Nicholas was one of the most pious kings of Russia," McKenzie asserts. "The reason he was killed was because he was a protector of Christianity. The death of the czar brought the sin of regicide upon the whole Russian people. In allowing their king to be arrested, humiliated, and murdered, they allowed Orthodoxy to be completely open to attack by its enemies. The church was left completely without protection and the king was left to the wolves.


"This service is so important," he continues, "not only for Russia itself, but also for the people in exile, because we assume the guilt for what has happened." The commemoration of the czar's death will include special rituals. The choir will move around the church singing psalms recalling the czar's role in Russian life, and the holy martyrs will be petitioned. The evening service also contains a distinctive prayer known as the megalynarion. "Immediately afterward all the clergy -- though in my case it's only myself and my son -- will stand in the middle of the church and sing the most triumphant and heartfelt praise to God," McKenzie adds.


This is more or less how it turns out on the day of the feast, except that only a handful of parishioners show up. The fact that it is a Monday hasn't helped. Daughter Maria had to work during the day and missed the morning celebration. During the evening prayers, Maria and her mother fill in as the choir. McKenzie's father-in-law is there. And so is Mike Christie.


The holiday requires an additional use of holy incense. The priest is supposed to infuse not only the sanctuary but also the parishioners themselves. This happens quickly at St. Vladimir's as the fragrant smoke quickly envelops the few people in attendance.


The air thickens and Father McKenzie carries on, chanting the prayers in Slavonic. Time seems to oscillate in accordance with the ancient cadence. Outside, the restless tropical inflections of city life have been subdued, and the priest himself is at peace.


Later, in his family's apartment, McKenzie momentarily bemoans the recent Russian immigrants' lack of interest in the church. "The new arrivals," he says, "don't understand the religious significance of the royal martyrs." But his gloom is momentary. "The stakes for the Russian Orthodox Church are much higher, much heavier on the scale than the mere conversion of people to Orthodoxy," he concludes. St. Vladimir is adhering to its historical role, destiny is being fulfilled, and back in Russia the pious are grateful.