A Most Exotic Exile

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

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.

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