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Orthodoxy in Guatemala — New Blog and New Missionaries

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IMG_3404As earlier reported, the Orthodox Church in Guatemala is growing, and not just growing but also needing a lot of help to become established. I recently discovered a new blog and website by two of the principle missionaries to Guatemala, Fr. John and Pres. Sandy Chakos. That can be found here and is well-worth checking out. I will re-post one of their blogs below.

Also, OCMC recently announced that Fr. David and Mat. Rozanne Rucker are transitioning into being missionary specialists in Guatemala, starting September. Fr. David was previously the Associate Director for OCMC. The official announcement can be found here.

PORTRAIT OF A CATECHIST: FOOT SOLDIERS OF CHRIST 
Father John Chakos

The newly emergent Guatemalan Orthodox Church under the omophorion of Metropolitan Athenagoras faces many challenges, not the least of which is the low number of canonically ordained priests–eight to be exact–who serve the spiritual needs of its nearly 300 communities.

They travel over great distances into remote mountainous areas, often along dangerous and at times impassible muddy roads, going from village to village in an attempt to reach people that the world has seemingly forgotten. Because of this glaring shortage, one of the top priorities of Father Andres Giron, Vicar of the Guatemalan Orthodox Church, is the recruitment and training of qualified candidates for the holy priesthood. In the meantime, and certainly well into the future, the pressing spiritual needs of such a vibrant, dynamic and growing church movement require an empowered laity, not only willing to fill the pastoral void, but to promote the church’s greater mission to expand its outreach. Among those who stand in the forefront of this great challenge are the church’s catechists. It is about these men and women of faith that I wish to speak.

Who are the catechists and what role do they play? They are most certainly teachers as the name implies, but also the respected leaders of the church communities. They possess a moral authority that goes well beyond the mere teaching of the faith. They are the voice of Christ to the people and organizers of the spiritual, educational and worship life of the community. They are indeed the backbone of the Orthodox Church in Guatemala and in every sense the foot soldiers of Christ. Without them the church would not have been able to advance as it has over the past twenty-five years.

I have gained a greater appreciation of their unique role in the church by attending the bi-monthly seminars that are held at the Centro Apostólico in Huehuetenango. They often travel from great distances at great expense to themselves to attend the two day seminars. They carry their own bedding and even children with them and sleep on the cement floor of the large lecture hall where the classes are held. They love and live by the Holy Scriptures and speak of Christ and the Church with great conviction. Likewise they lead late night vigils of prayer in their villages and call upon the faithful to fast for specific intentions. In short, they fulfill the calling of the royal priesthood of the believers through prophetic teaching and preaching, self-donating service and virtuous leadership. I greatly admire their commitment and am inspired by their faith. It is amazing what an empowered laity can do to set the church on fire. If Orthodoxy is to grow in Latin America it will need catechists like these to lead the way.

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Written by Stephen

April 22, 2013 at 4:39 pm

St. Vladimir’s Seminary Missions Day: Orthodoxy in Guatemala

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Some of the Guatemalan clergy, from left to right: Fr. Mihail, Fr. Evangelos, Fr. Andrés Girón, Fr. José, and Fr. Danil

This is coming up quick–this Wednesday, November 7, but if you are able to go, this sounds very interesting. News of this “explosion” first started appearing a couple of years ago, but it is only in the last couple of months that more substantial information is becoming available.

If you can’t attend the event at the seminary, or even if you can, I highly recommend the account of seminarian Jesse Brandow, who travelled to Guatemala this last summer for two months to see what was happened, and blogged about his experiences and observations here. An article about Fr. John and Mat. Alexandra Chakos, missionaries to Guatemala, can be found here.

UPDATE: Fr. John Chakos and Fr. Andre Giron are also at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology this week, in Boston. On Thursday, November 8, at 7 pm, they will be giving a lecture titled, Mission to Guatemala: Receiving the Mayan People Into the Orthodox Church. The lecture can be viewed live here, or available later from their video archives. It sounds interesting!

YONKERS, NY [SVOTS Communications] Saint Vladimir’s Seminary invites the public to its second annual Missions Day on Wednesday, November 7, 2012 at 7:30 p.m., for a presentation on the “explosion” of Orthodox Christianity in Guatemala, where in recent years 338 Orthodox churches, with 200,000 faithful and catechumens, have become part of the Orthodox Metropolis of Mexico.

Archimandrite Dr. Andres Girón de Leon and Archpriest John Chakos will be the guest lecturers, sharing first hand their missionary activities among the indigenous people of Guatemala, within their presentation, “Mission to Guatemala: Receiving the Mayan People into the Orthodox Church.” The presentations will be in the Metropolitan Philip Auditorium of the John G. Rangos Family Building on the seminary campus.

Father Andres, a native Guatemalan who grew up in a family of privilege, has crammed several lifetimes into one: former Roman Catholic priest, trained counselor, Senator in the Guatemalan Congress and advocate for the rural poor, UN Ambassador, and now Orthodox priest among disaffected Mayan people who were searching for a spiritual home outside the Roman Catholic Church.

Father John is a “retired” Greek Orthodox priest from Pittsburgh, serving in Guatemala under the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC) for six months out of the year, with his wife, Presbytera Alexandra. Father John serves the vast spiritual needs of the new Orthodox faithful, while Presbytera Alexandra sets up shop as a seamstress and teaches the Mayan women sewing skills that will bring them fresh purpose and needed income.

The presentations are open to the public.

Written by Stephen

November 5, 2012 at 12:53 pm

Ancient Faith Radio: Orphans in Russia, Guatemala, and India

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Children from Hogar Rafael

Continuing to post on recent missions-related podcasts at Ancient Faith Radio, here are a few about orphans and orphanages around the world.

The Russian Orphan Opportunity Fund
From Russia, there is an interview with Georgia Williams, a founder and administrator of the Russian Orphan Opportunity Fund, which seeks to assist orphanages and orphans through camps and education, and so on, including those deemed unmanageable or unteachable. (Turns out they are teachable!) In addition to describing their work, Georgia also discusses new partnerships ROOF is hoping to form with Orthodox parishes and people in North America to further the work in Russia. You can find the interview here. It is well worth a listen.

Hogar Rafael Ayau Orthodox Orphanage, Guatemala
Hogar Rafael has become fairly well known in North American Orthodox circles. Here are two more podcasts about the work there.

The first is with Mother Abbess Ines about some new laws governing orphans and adoptions in Guatemala that is making it more difficult for the orphanage to operate, as well as an update on the building of a new orphanage site just outside of Guatemala City, which would be a much better environment for the children. You can listen to that here.

If you feel moved to assist Hogar Rafael with their building project after listening to that first podcast, you can listen to this second one about a new CD released by the Friends of the Hogar. The CD is of the children singing Orthodox hymns (they sing beautifully and apparently know everything by heart), and is being sold as a fundraiser. You can listen to that podcast here, and/or buy a CD here.

Theotokos Greek Orthodox Girl’s Orphanage, India
Lastly, there is an interview with Christina Thanos, who produced a short documentary called Lucky Girls about the Theotokos Greek Orthodox Girl’s Orphanage. She also organized a lenten fundraising campaign for the orphanage. Lent is over, but they are still accepting donations, even of just a few dollars. You can listen to the podcast here, and visit the film’s website, which includes fundraising details, here.

Lucky Girls from Lucky Girls on Vimeo.

Written by Stephen

May 30, 2011 at 8:17 pm

Latin America: Peoples in Search of Orthodoxy

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Orthodox Children in Cuba

I am not sure exactly when this appeal was written, but I think in January, 2011. It is certainly a very exciting snapshot of what is happening in Latin America right now.

by His Eminence Metropolitan Athenagoras of Mexico

Thirteen years ago, when I undertook the (then newly-established) Holy Metropolis of Mexico with only three priests and three mainly Greek-speaking communities, in Mexico, Panama and Venezuela, I would never have expected, let alone conceive the miracle that is unfolding today for our Orthodox Church in Latin America.

We all lived the miracle of Cuba, when Fidel Castro’s government undertook the construction of the Sacred Temple of Saint Nicholas in Havana and officially received Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who officiated the inauguration of that Holy shrine in January of 2004. In the decade that passed, we experienced the propagating of our faith in the states of Mexico, Colombia, Costa Rica, etc… just as we experienced – and continue to experience – the continuing drama of the people of Haiti, after the catastrophic earthquake of last January. A drama which unfortunately will heal, only after several years have passed.

Greece became acquainted with Christianity and lived its own Pentecost around two thousand years ago, through the Apostle Paul and the other Apostles. Greece is the most blessed country in the world. And this is because – as I point out to our priests – whichever stone you lift, underneath it you will find the relics of a Saint, a Martyr, a holy man, a fighter for the Orthodox faith… We, however, in Latin America are living our Pentecost today. For us – with the exception of the few Greek Orthodox Communities – Orthodoxy has only just arrived in Latin America.

I recall six years ago, when our Ecumenical Patriarch visited Cuba to officiate in the inauguration of the Holy Temple of Saint Nicholas, there were only four Orthodox Cubans, whereas now, more than one thousand Cuban families have been baptized and have embraced Orthodoxy. And every day, there are more – many more – who seek to acquaint themselves with the Faith of our Fathers. Six years ago, with the inauguration of Saint Nicholas’ church, the first Orthodox Community in the land began to function. Now, with the grace of God and the untiring labours of our five priests (one Colombian and four Cuban), some very significant and impressive missionary work is under way in three other cities of this Land. And this, in spite of unfavourable and financially difficult conditions. At this very moment that I am writing, the Hierarchal Commissioner of Cuba, fr. Athenagoras, is in Greece trying to secure vestments and cassocks and chalices for our needs there. Even though the Cubans have given us the exceptional privilege of acquiring our own property (something that is not permitted by their Constitution), unfortunately, there are no funds for us to purchase a suitable building with the necessary thirty-five thousand Euros, to convert it into a Temple for the worshipping needs of the neophytes. We are hoping for God’s grace and are praying for a donor to be found.

When I visited President Fidel Castro seven years ago, to obtain the official invitation with which he was inviting the Ecumenical Patriarch to visit Cuba, I thanked him for that courteous and hospitable gesture of his. I will never forget his response: “No, Your Eminence, the people of Cuba thank you and the Ecumenical Patriarch, for bringing Orthodoxy to our country.”

Cuba, indeed, is “ours”. Haiti is “ours”, Mexico, Costa Rica, Santo Domingo and Colombia, where now, thanks to a lady donor of the Missionary Association “Saint Kosmas the Aetolian”, the first Holy Temple is being erected in the city of Cúcuta of Colombia, in honour of the Supreme Archangels. And now, another miracle: Guatemala….

As in the eras of persecutions, when Christians used to live in catacombs in anticipation of the day they could freely worship the Triadic God, so it is with us here, in all of the countries of Central and South America; for entire decades, innumerable groups of people – who had abandoned the Roman Catholic church – were waiting for the embrace of Orthodoxy. One such large group in Guatemala knocked on the door of our Metropolis several months ago, asking us to accept them in the bosom of the true Church. I didn’t know them. I didn’t even know they existed. And indeed, in this vast region of the twenty states under the jurisdiction of the Holy Metropolis of Mexico it is impossible to know everyone. However, twenty years ago, they had established their own (anti-canonical) Orthodox Church, naturally without knowing full well what they had done, and had endeavoured to survive. They lived incorrectly, in their own particular manner, an “orthodox” worshipping life. They knew and they desired Orthodoxy. They knew that our Church has the true faith – that they had a right to Orthodox teaching and its way of life. They believed that only there would they find the Saviour and Redeemer Christ. So, for twenty years. they walked along a path with the hope that they would eventually reach the truth. Knowing also that it was imperative to commemorate a Bishop in all of their liturgies, during the last ten years they would commemorate our Ecumenical Patriarch.

New Orthodox Church in Guatemala

Twenty years later came the “fullness of time”. After searching, they learnt a few months ago that in Mexico there is a canonical Metropolitan and a Metropolis of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. They found me, and they knocked on my door, asking me to receive them. I sent two priests to go and meet them so that we could determine who they are and if their request is serious and valid. I was stunned. It was a “group” of more than 500.000 people, with 338 churches and chapels, most of whom were natives of Guatemala – and in fact of the ancient race of Mayans! They live in the mountains and the vast plains of the land and even in the southern cities of Mexico. I crossed myself and gave thanks to the Holy Mother for that miracle. I fully understood now what the great byzantinologist and historian of the previous century – Steven Runciman – meant, when he wrote that “the third millennium belongs to Orthodoxy”. Now I also understand the words of a noble Mexican, a University Professor and a faithful member of our Church, when he said to me: “Your Eminence, Orthodoxy is like a shoe that fits us Latin Americans, provided you know how to put it on us.”

So I accepted that group and as a first step, I ordained the two leaders of the group. Now begins the long road of catechism for the hundreds of thousands of those people. It will require several years and a lot of hard work – but a blessed work – to teach those new faithful of ours what the Orthodox way of life involves, and how each of us experiences his own path towards Calgary, which leads to one’s personal Resurrection. By training suitable indigenous clergymen, they will learn to live the worshipful life of the Orthodox Church and, after being baptized and receiving Holy Chrismation, to receive the Immaculate and Sacred Mysteries (Sacraments) – the Body and Blood of our Lord and Redeemer Christ.

You must realize however, that for all this project that is now unfolding before us, we need your help. We need the necessary financial means to send our own priests to Guatemala, to instruct the catechist teachers there how to catechize the faithful. The financial means are necessary, in order to print hundreds of thousands of catechist texts, for children and for adults. In the meantime, many of those people are illiterate. Money is also needed, to prepare videotapes in Spanish, and even in the local dialect of the Mayans, so that they might familiarize themselves with the Divine Liturgy, the Baptism, the Chrismation and all the Services of our Church.

Can you imagine what this means for Orthodoxy? And this is just the beginning. The struggle has only just begun. We truly “own” Latin America. The third millennium truly belongs to Orthodoxy. With the meagre means at our disposal, but with the wide-open, vast and endless Grace and presence of the Holy Spirit, we will continue with our endeavours.

We do however ask for your support. As I outlined above, we need a donation of thirty-five thousand Euros for the purchase of the property in Cuba, where we will establish a Temple and areas for the congregating and the catechizing of the faithful. We will also need another donation of twenty-five thousand Euros, in order to begin catechizing the new faithful of Guatemala: to print catechism texts, prepare videotapes of Divine Services and to send suitable priests of ours to that Land, in order to undertake this very important work.

It is our belief that the Missionary Association “Saint Kosmas of Aetolia”, which has been the main support of our labours and our endeavours all these years, as well as all you pious donors and the members of the Association, will support us in this new venture that God has placed before us.

The Lord God lives, for all eternity!

With wishes and infinite thanks
† Athenagoras of Mexico

Hat Tip: Mystagogy Click here also for more pictures.

Written by Stephen

February 26, 2011 at 12:05 pm

1/2 Million Received in Guatemala

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I usually don’t comment on what I post, but this time I think I should add a caveat as there seems to have been a lot happening behind the scenes that isn’t readily knowable.  And what is knowable only raises more questions.  I don’t mean to cause scandal by pointing these things out, but only to say that the internet is only as good as the information posted, and to say that our new brothers and sisters in Guatemala could use our fervent prayers, and perhaps other support if possible.

First there is the matter of why the EP received this group, rather than the OCA. Even just a few months ago, in December, 2009, Met. Jonah of the OCA spoke in an interview, found here, about the Guatemalans.  In January, OCA News reported that Bishop Benjamin and Fr. Michael Oleksa of the OCA had travelled to Guatemala for further discussion.  And now, only two months later, it is announced that the EP has received the group, and the current role of the OCA in this, if any, is unknown.

One can guess, from the website of the apparently newly-created General Secretariat for Pan-Orthodox Ministries of the EP’s Metropolis of Mexico, that the EP received the Guatemalan group out of their perceived mandate to care and evangelize the non-Orthodox world.  But this doesn’t explain the role, current or past,  of the OCA.

In addition, there is the matter of Fr. Andrew, the priest who received this group, and who heads the St. Gregory Nazianzen Orthodox Theological Institute, based in Puerto Rico.  From an announcement made in August, 2009, found here, it appeared that Fr. Andrew and the Institute were both under ROCOR, but that no longer seems to be the case.

Lastly, there is the question of numbers.  Below, it is reported to be 500,000 new members received into Orthodoxy, with another 800,000 ‘seekers.’  But in January, the OCA News report mentioned above only said 50,000.  But either way, these are astounding numbers.

I don’t know what exactly these apparently inconsistencies mean, nor do I want to publicly speculate.  I hope that the OCA, or the relevant members of such, will continue to be involved in receiving and catechizing the Guatemalans, as I don’t know how one person, Fr. Andrew, is going to be able to properly care for this entire group.  Indeed, may this reception be a means for pan-Orthodox co-operation, and may great fruit be borne.

As with any conversion, baptism and chrismation are only the beginnings, and so our new brothers and sisters will need much time, prayer, and assistance as they mature in the Faith.  May God grant us to help them in this as we are able.

After months of catechetical and pastoral follow-up, the Archiepiscopal Vicar, the Right Reverend Mitered Archimandrite Dr. Andrew (Vujisić), traveled to Guatemala in January 2010 and received Msgr. Andrés Girón and Msgr. Mihail Castellanos of the independent Iglesia Católica Ortodoxa de Guatemala (ICOG), into the Orthodox Church. At that time, guidelines were also established to facilitate the reception of the ICOG’s 527,000 members, which are overwhelmingly indigenous. The former ICOG has 334 churches in Guatemala and southern Mexico, 12 clergymen, 14 seminarians, 250 lay ministers, and 380 catechists. It also has an administrative office on 280 acres, a community college and 2 schools with 12 professors / teachers, and a monastery on 480 acres. Fourteen students from Guatemala are now enrolled in the St. Gregory Nazianzen Orthodox Theological Institute Licentiate degree program.

In February 2010, the Right Reverend Mitered Archimandrite Dr. Andrew (Vujisić) returned to Guatemala and met with clerics and others who assist in the Church’s pastoral work and outreach. He discussed mission and ministry priorities, and economic development with Msgr. Andrés Girón and Msgr. Mihail Castellanos. He met and encouraged the faithful who collaborate in the diverse ministries in Guatemala, visited schools and institutions, and spoke at length with seminarians regarding matters related to the Orthodox faith, especially the importance of the development of an Orthodox phronema, praxis, and liturgical life. His Right Reverence inspected places of worship, liturgical vessels, vestments, etc. in order to assess the needs of the Church in Guatemala. Twelve full sets of vestments for Priests were given to Msgr. Mihail Castellanos. Catechisms were distributed to the lay ministers and catechists.

In his talks with the clergy and faithful of the ICOG, the Right Reverend Mitered Archimandrite Dr. Andrew (Vujisić) reiterated the message of St. Paul: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your nous (mind), that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Romans 12: 1-3). He stressed the importance of formulating an Orthodox worldview through prayer, fasting, repentance, struggle against sin and overcoming the passions, participation in the Holy Mysteries, and the reading the Holy Scriptures and the writings of the Holy Fathers. His Right Reverence conducted impromptu question and answer sessions everywhere he visited. Interest and excitement permeated the discussions.

The Right Reverend Mitered Archimandrite Dr. Andrew (Vujisić) also visited Holy Trinity Monastery (Antiochian Orthodox Church), where he held lengthy discussions with Abbess Inés and Mother María, and later prayed at the magnificent monastery Church, where he blessed the Russian iconographers of the Prosopon School of Iconology. He traveled to Guatemala City and visited the orphanage, Hogar Rafael Ayau, meeting, embracing, and blessing the children, and later having lunch with them. He held meetings with ‘Orthodox seekers’, who represent another 800,000 souls, regarding the straight and narrow path of reception into Orthodoxy. His Right Reverence will return to Guatemala after the Holy and Great Pascha of the Lord for follow-up meetings and discussions.

Source: American Orthodox Institute Blog

Written by Stephen

March 24, 2010 at 7:01 pm

Interview: Orthodox Guatemala?

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22965.pAbbess Ines (Ayau Garcia) is the head of the only Orthodox parish in Guatemala–the Monastery of the Holy and Life-Giving Trinity, the “Lavra of Mambre”, under the Patriarchate of Antioch. She comes from an influential and well known family in Guatemala which has produced many outstanding individuals. When [then Catholic] Sister Ines was 36 years old, she made an extreme change in her life, leaving a Catholic monastic order and becoming an Orthodox nun.

Holy Trinity Monastery was founded by Mother Ines and Sister Maria Amistoso in April of 1986. In 1989, the engineer Federico Bauer donated a piece of land on the shores of Lake Amatitlan, not far from Guatemala City, to the monastery. The land is 1188 meters [about 3900 feet] above sea level and is located near Pacaya, one of the most active volcanoes in Central America.

On the day of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker in 1995, the “Act of Creating an Orthodox Church in Guatemala” was signed by Bishop (now Metropolitan) Antonio Chedraoui of Mexico, Venezuela, Central America and the Caribbean (of the Antiochian Patriarchate), and also by the head of the monastery, Mother Ines and her nuns, and 25 parishioners.

Buildings rose on the site donated by Federico Bauer and the consecration of the monastery took place in November, 2007, with 18 participating clerics, who came to Guatemala especially for this occasion.

The iconography in the Monastery church is being done by Russian masters from the International School of Icon Painting, based both in the town of Kostroma in Russia and in the USA.

In 1996, the government of Guatemala gave the monastery control of an orphanage built to house 800 children, the “House of Rafael Ayau” in the country’s capital, Guatemala City. At present they have just over 100 boys and girls – from newborn babies to 16 year old adolescents. The workers at the orphanage give the children a high-school education and familiarize them with basic Orthodox concepts. They also give them professional skills. Soon, the orphanage will be moved to the monastery.

In February of 1997, the church of the Transfiguration of the Lord was blessed in the orphanage building. In the absence of a priest, the services are led by a reader [called Reader’s Services]. Two children’s choirs sing antiphonally, where one choir sings one stanza, and then the other choir sings the next stanza. The exclamations and the dismissal are read by Mother Ines. The parish is made up of Guatemalans, Arabs, Greeks, Russians, and Ukrainians.

Holy Trinity Monastery has fairly large agricultural holdings, where rabbits and fish are raised and vegetables are grown. All that they produce goes to the orphanage.

In July of 2009, Mother Ines came to Russia to visit the holy places and to broaden her ties to the Russian Orthodox Church. The Abbess was accompanied Sister Maria and two teenagers from the orphanage.

This conversation with Mother Ines took place during that visit, on a trip from Sretensky Monastery to the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra. [lavra: a large monastery]

Mother Ines, how did you become acquainted with the Orthodox faith?

Abbess Ines, Sister Maria, and two of the “graduates” of the orphanage, Reina and Edgar Rolando– When I was 20 years old, I became a Catholic nun, and entered a monastery under the order of the Dormition of the Holy Theotokos. They gave me to read the conversations of St. Seraphim of Sarov with Nicholas Motovilov, and the texts of the Orthodox Liturgy. What I read astonished me to the depths of my soul. One of the nuns showed me several Orthodox icons, including a reproduction of Andrei Rublev’s “Holy Trinity.” I was interested, and I burned with a desire to find the roots of all of this. From that time, I began saying the “Jesus Prayer” [“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”].

I studied theology for ten years – with the Salezians in Guatemala, with the monks of the Holy Spirit in Mexico, with the famous theologian Jean Daniélou in France, and with the Jesuits in Belgium and El Salvador. I continued to be bothered by one question: where are the treasures to be found that I came across at the beginning of my Monastic life? Once, in Brussels, the nun who was in charge of my spiritual growth brought me to a Russian Paschal [Easter] service. It was held in a chapel on the second floor of a private home, but even then, I did not find an answer to my question.

I did not want to serve in Latin America: in those years, because of the spread of “liberation theology”, Church-government relations had become seriously strained. I received permission to go to the Philippines. There, to my amazement, I met more Sisters of the Dormition, who were seeking the same thing I was. We found out about Eastern Rite Catholics, and considered reforming our community to use the Eastern Rite. Unfortunately, most of the Sisters left, and several got married. Only the native-Philippine Sister Maria and I remained. The nuns of my order, which has great influence in the Philippines, asked me to leave the country, because they thought I was spreading revolutionary sentiments.

I went to Jerusalem, where I finally came into contact with real Orthodoxy. Sister Maria came to me from the Philippines, and together we traveled across the Holy Land, started to learn different liturgical services, and talked to priests.

How did your family take your conversion to Orthodoxy?

The katholikon of the Monastery of the Holy and Life Giving Trinity, the “Lavra of Mambre”– My father is a very educated person, but when I told him that I want to join Orthodoxy, he said “What do you mean? This does not exist in nature!” Nevertheless, our conversation intrigued him. In a few weeks, Dad went to Turkey. When he got there, he hailed a cab, and told the taxi to take him to an Orthodox church where he could see an Orthodox service. After that, he went by ship to the Holy Land, where he did the same thing. From that time, Orthodoxy became for him a reality.

My mother supported my decision right away. She was interested in Russia, and read a lot about it. She read a book about the activities of the Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska with great interest. When the Antiochian Bishop Antonio Chedraoui, during his first visit to Guatemala, received some Arabs into Orthodoxy, my mother also went forward and was received into the Orthodox Church through chrismation. Later, my father also became Orthodox.

How did you join the Antiochian Church?

Sister Mary and I decided to form an Orthodox monastery in Guatemala. On our way from Israel, we stopped in the Swiss town of Chambésy [not far from Geneva], where we visited Metropolitan Damaskenos Papandreu of Switzerland (Patriarchate of Constantinople). He blessed the opening of our Monastery, and said that we had to join a jurisdiction of one of the Orthodox patriarchates. To do this was not easy. The Orthodox Churches that had a presence in Latin America then did not have a particular interest in the local population. The Patriarchate of Constantinople served the Greeks, the Patriarchate of Antioch – Arabs, the Russian Patriarchate – Russians. Only after asking for ten years did we get accepted by the Antiochian Church’s Metropolitan Antonio (Cherdaoui).

For the registration of a parish, we needed 25 signatures of Guatemalan citizens. We did not have that many parishioners. So my relatives, the relatives of another nun, Sister Ivonne, and our friends also signed the petition.

Why did your community choose the ancient Russian style when building your church?

We sincerely love Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church. The crosses on our cupolas are Byzantine, but everything else is Russian: the architecture, the icons, and the frescos. People, when they see the Russian cupolas, understand right away that there is an Orthodox church before them. Our parish keeps to Russian traditions in the services, keeps to the Julian calendar; and the nuns wear the Russian monastic habit.

Where is the monastery?

We built the monastery 20 kilometers [about 12½ miles] from Guatemala City, on the top of a hill. Around us there are woods, and not far away, Lake Amatitlan. It is a very beautiful place, although it’s true that it is not entirely fitting for a holy monastery because we are so close to the city and come across the problems that exist in any suburb of a large Latin American city–overpopulation and the drug trade.

How large is the Sisterhood?

Three nuns live in the monastery. Besides me, there is Sister Maria Amistoso, who is a native of the Philippines, and Sister Ivonne Sommerkramp who came to the monastery five years after it was founded. She is a Guatemalan with German roots. Earlier, we had more nuns.

Who performs services?

We do not have a permanent priest yet. Two times a month, groups of missionaries and volunteers come from places such as the USA, Norway, Japan and other countries; and those groups always have a priest. Russian priests have also been with us: Protopriest Basil Movchanuk – head of the church of Sts. Peter and Paul in Yartsevo, in the Smolensk region; and Protopriest Igor Kropochev – a helper for the missionary department of the Kemerovo diocese.

Tell us about the monastery’s orphanage please.

Our orphanage, the oldest and largest in our country, is located right in the heart of Guatemala City. My ancestor, Rafael Ayau, organized it in 1857. He was a philanthropist, and a very pious person. Monks from the charity organization “Caridad” took control of the orphanage from [my ancestor] don Rafael when he, from France, invited them to do so. In 1960, the government deported the members of “Caridad”, and the government itself took over the care of the orphanage. After 40 years, President Alvaro Arsu handed over control of the orphanage, which was in terrible shape, to our monastery. It is unlikely that any other politician would have done that; they are afraid of Orthodox people. Arsu was not afraid, because there were some Orthodox people in his family.

Because of changes in the social laws, our orphanage began to look more like a boarding school. In twelve years, over 1000 children from poor and underprivileged families have gone through our orphanage. All of them are raised in the Orthodox spirit. Many of them return to their parents, but do not break their ties to the monastery, and continue to go to liturgy on Sundays. Over 300 of our orphans have been adopted by Orthodox families, mostly in the USA.

The Russian ambassador to Guatemala, Nicholas Vladimir, had told me that the Russian government grants stipends for higher education in Russia to young people from other countries, and we have taken advantage of that opportunity. Two of our children, Reina and Edgar Rolando, have come with us to Moscow. They will start studying Information [Computer] Science and Engineering at a Russian university in September.

How are your monastery’s relations with the Catholic Church?

We have a warm, friendly attitude towards them, but the Catholic Church has been quietly waging war against us, warily, secretly. For example, after we sent our petition to register the parish with the [Guatemalan] Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we did not know what happened to it for several years. When President Arsu asked the monastery to take the orphanage under its wing, I said that we could not do it, because we did not officially exist. The President entrusted his lawyer with solving the problem. As it turned out, our documents had been located in the curia the entire time; Catholics had spirited them away. Fortunately, President Arsu then gave the Holy Trinity Parish the status of a jurisdictional body by special decree.

Protestant denominations, of which there are hundreds now, do not worry the Catholics. Orthodoxy puts fear into them. There are several reasons for this, but, the biggest reason is that the Catholic hierarchy fears that the Orthodox Church will convert some of their flock. The Cardinal of Guatemala admitted this to the Russian ambassador.

Nonetheless, it is impossible to escape contact with the Catholic Church. Catholicism dominates Guatemala. My father is a public person; I was a Catholic nun for 16 years; the Cardinal is the cousin of my godfather, and has known me since childhood.

What are Orthodoxy’s prospects in Guatemala, in your opinion?

I am convinced that Orthodoxy has a great future in our country. Two priests, one 20 years ago, and another recently, [unofficially] converted to Orthodoxy from Catholicism, and brought their flocks with them. In total, that is over 100,000 people. They consider themselves Orthodox, though they have not been officially joined to the Orthodox Church, and, from my observations, know very little of Eastern Christianity. Among them are Ladinos (descendants of the Spanish) and Indians. Both groups intend to ask for entrance into the Russian Orthodox Church.

What are your impressions of Russia from your visit?

I have no words to describe the feelings that I have when I am here. I am astonished by everything: the architecture, and the interior decoration of the churches and monasteries, the architecture of the cities and towns, the nature [flora and fauna]… I especially notice the piety of the people, their deep faith, which they have preserved through decades of the godless Communist regime.

Interview conducted by Miguel Palacio.

Translated into English by Adrian Fekula. Translation edited by Br. James Hazen

Source: Pravoslavie. A few more pictures are also there.

Metropolitan Jonah of the OCA has also spoken about the people of Central America who are interested in becoming Orthodox when he made an appeal for Russian missionaries to come preach the gospel. Read that story here.

Written by Stephen

August 18, 2009 at 8:06 pm