A five-hour flight, and the protracted Eastern American winter is overtaken by the blinding rays of the sun and the heat of the tropics. Costa Rica: in Spanish, it means ‘Rich Coast.’ It is an irony of fate that, despite its name, it is one of the poorest of the former Spanish colonies; it owes its discovery directly to Christopher Columbus. Mountains surround the approach to the capital on all sides.
In 1994, at the request of Alexandra, mother of Nicholas I. Zacharov, irreplaceable warden of Our Lady of Vladimir Church in Coronado, Archpriest Daniel McKenzie traveled from Miami to perform the first divine service, which he did in their home in San Vito in the south of Costa Rica, 7-8 hours from the airport. Nicholas gathered together a small community out of the Russian-speaking population, primarily ‘third wave’ immigrants (primarily Soviet intellectuals and dissidents who left in the 1970s – trans.). The community held services in various homes. Even during his first visits, Fr. Daniel instilled in the people a hope that they would obtain land and built a Russian Orthodox church.
The next twenty years included a diverse range of events. In 2004, the family of Elena and Rodion Aragon was baptized: they began helping Fr. Daniel, and divine services were served in their home. Rodion attended Holy Trinity Seminary, where he studied for one year. He was ordained a priest, and Elena became a matushka: she sang, read on kliros, baked prosphoras ‒ she became the heart of the parish. But the family and the community were overcome by a tragedy: Fr. Rodion fell seriously ill, and within a year had reposed in the Lord. The parish was orphaned.
A Church in the Tropics
Costa Rica is a small state: it is a mere five-hour drive from the Pacific to Atlantic coasts. About 40 percent of its territory comprises ecologically preserved national parks and sanctuaries. Its stunning ocean beaches have long been a favorite vacation destination for tourists from the U.S. and Europe. The people here are kind and pious; the nation is dotted with old Catholic churches. The Greeks and Antiochians each have one small Orthodox mission, but there is not one Orthodox church.
While Fr. Rodion was still alive, the parish obtained land for building; the first stone in the foundation of the future Church of our Lady of Vladimir was laid in January 2008 by Bishop Gabriel of Manhattan (now Archbishop of Montreal).
Although Costa Rica is a tropical nation, thanks to the mountains its climate is mild and favorable. It is no coincidence that this place is beloved by the mixed Russian-Costa Rican families who live here, as well as well-to-do pensioners, retired diplomats, professors, writers, and artists. It was one of these Russians, an émigré from France who long ago found his "second half" in Costa Rica ‒ Nicholas Zacharov ‒ who first imagined the founding of an Orthodox church in the heart of Latin America.
At the present time, the community is nourished by a new rector ‒ Archpriest Serge Lukianov ‒ who has already performed four pastoral visits to Costa Rica, during which the longtime pastor was able to reunite the parish and continue the work of expanding parish life and completing the church.
"The exterior of the church building is already completed," explains Fr. Serge. "Though the church awaits the traditional Russian cupolas. Just recently, the Lord sent us two good men ‒ Alexander and Valery ‒ parishioners of St. Vladimir’s Church in Miami, whose rector is Fr. Daniel. They expressed their desire to build an iconostasis for the church, free of charge. Parishioners gathered money together and bought quality wood for the new iconostasis. Icons were brought from Russia. The iconostasis will be completed in the near future. Carpenters will begin preparing a new altar table for consecration. Then we will have to build a vestry, a hierarchal cathedra, and kliroses. We shipped candle stands to the church from the Eastern American Diocese. Unfortunately, some of the most important things needed for the divine services cannot be found in Costa Rica. That is why we bring candles with us on every trip, and order the wine we need from abroad. Parishioners bake the prosphoras themselves. The community is growing and working together; new people come and attend. In the course of the last two visits, I performed several weddings alongside the Spanish-speaking priest, Fr. Ignacio. There are no marital crowns in the church, so our resourceful parishioners picked fragrant white flowers from a blossoming tree near the church and got together to weave garlands, instead. Before the weddings, I was able to hold spiritual talks with the bride and groom. All in all, it is a joy to see how the people in Costa Rica wait for and wholeheartedly hear the words of the priest. During my first visits, I remember how I had to travel house to house and, talking with them, gather the faithful who had at one point been or who could potentially become our parishioners."
A ‘Napoleon’ from Costa Rica
"One of the first parishioners whose home I visited," continues Fr. Serge, "was ‘Aunt Emma,’ as everyone called her, a 90-year-old resident of San Jose. Several years ago, she came to church and they asked her where she was from. She replied that she was Armenian. Someone ‘did not like’ her ancestry, and offended the woman deeply. I traveled straight to her house, and was able to talk with her there. It turns out that not only she, but her ancestors were born in Georgia, in Tbilisi, where Emma was baptized with the name Emilia. I talked her into coming to church on Sunday. This elderly woman confessed and communed, and when she came to kiss the Cross, as a sign of her thanks she stretched out her hands and gave me a box… with a ‘Napoleon’ cake inside. She baked it herself! We cut up the cake at lunch."
While the church was still being built, two small houses were put up next to the church building. One is for the property’s maintenance needs, while the other was proposed as a rectory. But a laborer for this warm vineyard has yet to be found, and the house was converted to a refectory. Every Sunday, after Liturgy, the community gathers for a shared luncheon ‒ agape ‒ served pot luck-style: everyone brings something from home, and discusses issues facing the Russian-speaking mission parish, and sometimes even their domestic concerns.
The parish will have a car!
"It is to our great misfortune that there is still no permanent priest in the mission," shares Fr. Serge. "Although, the parish was able to reach an agreement with the priest from the Antiochian Orthodox Church ‒ Priest Ignacio Miranda, whereby he comes and performs the divine services on Sundays and feast days. Fr. Ignacio is a Costa Rican, and a man with a big, loving heart. Parishioners fell in love with him and his Matushka Dorothea. He has been serving in Coronado every Sunday since last May: he serves in Spanish, and the choir responds in Slavonic. Most parishioners know – or at least understand ‒ Spanish, and those who do not speak the local language eagerly await the arrival of a Russian priest, in order to confess their sins and commune of Christ’s Holy Mysteries." And so, for almost a year, Fr. Ignacio has been traveling to the church as best he can: with two layovers. He takes two buses and a taxi, and the trip takes him two hours each way. The situation would be greatly simplified if the parish had its own car, which the priest could use for church needs.
At the end of February, having returned from Costa Rica, Fr. Serge delivered a report to the ruling bishop of the Eastern American Diocese, Metropolitan Hilarion. His Eminence addressed these concerns to the Fund for Assistance to ROCOR, asking them to allocate the necessary funds for the parish to purchase an automobile. At their March 7 meeting, the FFA’s Board of Directors resolved in favor of the proposal, and will hold a benevolent fundraiser, the collections from which they will match from their general fund. The good news has already reached the Diocese and the grateful parishioners of Our Lady of Vladimir Church in Coronado.
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While traveling to Costa Rica, Fr. Serge received an audience with the ambassador from the Russian Federation in Costa Rica, Alexander K. Dogadin. He told the head of the Russian embassy about the life of the Orthodox community of his compatriots in Costa Rica, about the planned great consecration of the church in November, and shared his thoughts on the creation of a Russian cultural center in the capital of Costa Rica.
There are also plans for the traditional Day of Unity & Conciliation (November 5, in commemoration of the liberation of Moscow from the Poles in 1612 – trans.), on which the consecration is to be held, and an Archpastoral visit to the country performed by the First Hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad. It is interesting to note that, while wishing the rector of Our Lady of Vladimir Church farewell, the ambassador stated how pleasant it was to meet and discuss mutually important issues with a Russian priest so far from the homeland. When Fr. Serge replied that he was born in America, the ambassador was stunned! On the Sunday following their meeting, Alexander K. Dogadin and his wife Irina attended the divine services in Our Lady of Vladimir Church in Coronado.
"The most important development of the last year was the unification, the rallying of the parish," notes Fr. Serge. "On average, 50 to 75 people pray at the divine services and unite around the Holy Chalice. For a community in the mountains of Central America ‒ this is no small feat." Our people in Costa Rica have no easy task ahead of them: working to build their church, strengthen their family hearth, and save their souls.
Costa Rica: Thanks to Fund for Assistance, Orthodox Christians on the ‘Rich Coast’ can gather more frequently for Divine Services - 03/19/14