"A Big City & A Church Built by Little People" – An Interview with Matushka Sophia McKenzie
Russian Church life in Florida was begun by Archbishop Vitaly (Maximenko) in 1937 – who was himself later appointed Bishop of Florida – in a big city in the south of the state. In the mid-1940s, construction began on the first Russian church in Florida. Its founders were from the first and second waves of immigrants and included seven dwarfs – professional performers, who arrived in Miami at World War II broke out. Among them were Ivan and Pelagia Velikanov, and Vasily and Maria Filin. Their names appear on a memorial plaque at the entrance to the church. Seventy years ago, in November 1947, the church was consecrated in honor of the Holy Right-Believing Great Prince Vladimir. Its first rector was Archpriest Theodore Rayevsky, who together with his Matushka Persida labored a great deal to organize the parish and build the church and neighboring parcel. The little people of the parish served as acolytes, and sang and read on the kliros.
In 1953, Fr. Theodore was tonsured a monk with the name Sava (Sabbas), and in 1954 was elevated to Bishop of Melbourne, vicar of the Diocese of Australia & New Zealand.
The last of the performers were parishioners until the late 1980s. In order to help support the parish and priest’s family, they left two houses to the parish in their will.
At the time, the parish was on the verge of closing, when a family with seven children appeared. He was Scottish-American with Irish ancestry, a former Catholic. She was half-French, half-Russian, from the princely Shakhovskoy family of Russia. They came to Miami from Jordanville, NY, but Matushka Sophia had been a parishioner since childhood, and Kenneth McKenzie (later Fr. Daniel), learned about Orthodoxy here and was baptized in Jordanville.
An American who learned to speak Russian, Fr. Daniel became the parish rector here in 1989, and has ministered here for almost 30 years.
– It was in Jordanville. The First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia now, Metropolitan Hilarion, was then an archimandrite at Holy Trinity Monastery and a teacher at the seminary, and he approached Daniel and invited him to study there, – said Matushka Sophia McKenzie (née Ustinov). – After Batushka graduated, we began to look for a parish. By this time, we already had six children. In 1989, we came to Miami. St. Vladimir Church was in the process of closing. Russian émigrés were dying off, and Miami was not expecting a new wave of immigrants. I had gone to that church since 1972, and we were sorry to see it in decline.
We came in time for evening service. The atmosphere was very cozy. Fr. Daniel saw the little actress Manya standing on her tiptoes, reading prayers on the kliros. It was so moving! The parishioners at the time were émigrés from the first and second "waves," who absolutely loved the church. Thanks to these old people, Fr. Daniel, an American, came to love the Russian people, and our Holy New Martyrs of Russia. He has served the Russian people for his whole life and strives to help each person find a path to God.
The parish council proposed conditions: that we had to sing in the choir and work the garden. This worked for us: I had always held my kids while singing. The girls sang, the boys planted the garden and fixed things around the church.
– Matushka Sophia, were you a churchgoer since childhood?
– Since childhood, yes. I was already born when St. John of Shanghai was still on earth. He was not only part of my life, but that of my family.
My ancestors came from Russia. In 1919, my grandfather, Nikolai Mikhailovich Ustinov, and my grandmother Maria, born Princess Shahovskoy, under threat of death and with the help of servants, fled their estate in Penza, Russia, and found themselves in the south of France.
At first they borrowed money from banks, since the French lent money in hopes that Russia would soon be liberated from the Bolsheviks. But when it became clear that the new regime would last, banks began to refuse new loans, and they had to literally struggle for survival.
My father, Alexei Nikolaevich Ustinov, was born in France. He studied in the cadet corps in Versailles, then enrolled in a technological school. After World War II, he met my mother, a French Catholic woman. He married here and they began life as Parisians, with little care for religious life. Still, my father, accustomed to Orthodox services since childhood, would occasionally attend a Russian Orthodox or even Catholic church.
Once he was praying at Vigil. Bishop John (Maximovitch) was serving. As everyone was leaving, Vladyka noticed my father and called him over. Papa approached, and Vladyka asked him to stay and help. After Vigil, they went to clean up the altar, then Vladyka invited my father to his cell and they talked until 2 o’clock in the morning.
– Like the Savior spoke with Nicodemus…
– Yes. My father’s life was utterly transformed. Even his wife noticed that he was becoming a better person, so she did not mind that he visited Vladyka. It was a blessed time for my father.
Soon our family moved to Canada, where I was born, then to America, where Vladyka John later moved. First we settled in New York City, and four years later we moved to Sea Cliff, NY. At the time, Vladyka John, who was already Archbishop of San Francisco, would come to New York for meetings of the Synod of Bishops, and he would call my father to drive him to Jordanville, to Holy Trinity Monastery. Archbishop John, Archbishop Leonty (Filippovich) of Chile and Archbishop Averky (Taushev) of Syracuse & Holy Trinity loved to spend time there.
Papa would often take me along, and I would sit in the car between bishops for four hours at a time on the way to the monastery. They would talk and I would listen: I did not understand much, but I still have a strong impression from these trips.
When I turned 17, my father was transferred to Florida, and we found a home in Miami that had a Church of St. Vladimir. This was during the Vietnam War, everyone considered Russians the enemy. As soon as they heard my surname – Ustinov – young men would turn away.
Then I went to college. A handsome young man once introduced himself. I thought, okay, now he will find out that my name is Sophia Ustinov and that I am Russian and he will walk away – so I was ready. But he responded by saying that actually, the Russian people are being held prisoner in the USSR. When I said that we were among those who fled, he looked at me in amazement. I told him that the Russian people have believed in God for 1,000 years as Christians.
This young man was graduating college with a degree in biology, he studied various faiths, but they did not teach him about Orthodox Christianity. He was a lapsed Catholic who had stopped attending church ten years earlier, and he could not believe there was another Church.
He became interested in the Russian Orthodox Church, and I started to tell him about Orthodoxy. We went to the library, and I pointed out texts in the encyclopedia. His interest ignited, he began to talk to my father, and a few months later he converted to Orthodox Christianity, and in 1972, we got married.
By the time we had four children, we moved to Jordanville, and after that, Fr. Daniel was assigned as a priest to Miami.
– How did the parish change after your arrival?
– In the early 1990s, with the fall of the communist regime in Russia, a large number of Russians from the former Soviet Union began arriving in Miami. Some were actually fleeing the USSR: they would jump from ships and swim to shore. There were ballet dancers among them. Batushka never refused anyone, and we would give them a place in the garage and fed them until they found work. Russian businessmen then started arriving in Florida.
Many remembered the Faith of their forefathers, many believers who settled in South Florida were baptized and married, and they strengthened our parish. Almost all of our parishioners now are recent immigrants. They fill our church, our sisterhood and Sunday school.
– What is the overall character of your parish, and what lies ahead?
– Since 1947, ours was the only Russian church in Miami, until 2011, when the parish of St. Matrona of Moscow was founded, and its cathedral consecrated in December 2015.
Our parish is peaceful, with a lot of educated people. One senses the decades of prayers that filled its walls. We have an icon of Holy Great Martyr Panteleimon with his relics from Mt. Athos, ancient icons of the Mother of God "Console My Sorrows" and of the Kazan type. Unfortunately, not long before we arrived, some other ancient icons were stolen from our church and never recovered.
The future of our parish depends on our Russian school. There are three groups: kids aged 3-5, children aged 6-14 and a group of parents. It is a family-based school. Classes are held on Saturdays from 3-7 PM.
We try to keep the kids afterwards to sing on the kliros, at least for a half hour or so. In the American north, kids rarely sing in church. Our kids, even in Jordanville, would go sing carols and learned the monastic chants.
With time we decided to invite our parish children to sing. Our grandchildren now sing in the choir. So our parish choir has a bright future.
– Matushka Sophia, tell us about the work Fr. Daniel and you do with the Haiti Mission.
– Some 20 years ago, Orthodox Christians in Haiti appealed to Metropolitan Laurus to establish a mission there. Then, ten years ago, after reconciliation with the Church in Russia, the ROCOR priest who led the mission left. But two Haitian priests refused to go into schism and asked Metropolitan Hilarion to appoint a new administrator. Vladyka Metropolitan then asked Fr. Daniel to assume the role of ministering to the Haiti parishes. It turned out that none of our priests speaks French, but since I do, along with Russian and English, I had to travel to Haiti together with Fr. Daniel and serve as interpreter.
The Haitian Mission has over 3,000 Orthodox Christians and four priests. They live under very difficult circumstances. It is usually hot, and churches do not have air conditioning. When we went there once for the ordination of 14 readers, the clergymen in the altar ended up soaked in perspiration. I had never before seen a priest’s phelonion soaking wet, and my ears were ringing from the heat.
Due to frequent hurricanes, the makeshift churches have removable iconostases. Now a real Orthodox church dedicated to St. John of Shanghai & San Francisco is being built in Haiti.
We continued to travel to Haiti until the local priests established their own local administrative council. Now we go less frequently, allowing us to spend more time to collecting donations for the mission. Haitians are so poor that you cannot even imagine!
Eighty percent of the population lives under the poverty line. Living in Haiti is very expensive. Most people survive on $2 a day. It is hard to find work in Haiti, even if you have several college diplomas. Every day people appeal to us for help: they ask for food, money for medicine, help with tuition for their kids.
Just like here in Miami, the Haitian Mission pays a great deal of attention to educating their children: those who are in need, handicapped kids, whether Orthodox and not. There are seven parish schools in Haiti, which is quite an accomplishment.
Twenty years ago, Fr. Daniel began missionary work in Costa Rica, also with the help of our St. Vladimir Parish in Miami, with the support of our bishops and donors in Russia. Our parishioners collected funds for the construction of a church in Costa Rica. It has now been built, and divine services have begun there.
In this way, St. Vladimir Parish has become a missionary center in the nation’s south.
– Who are St. Vladimir’s parishioners these days?
– These are mostly families will little children. Some time ago a friend of our daughter who spends a great deal of time studying and working, said that "I feel like an outsider here if I do not have a kid in my arms!"
There are so many toys around the church that the grass will not grow. The most important thing is that these kids grow up Orthodox Christians and stay close to church!
Interview by Tatiana Veselkina