A Most Exotic Exile

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

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.

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