A Most Exotic Exile

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

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.

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