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by George Zimmar, Briarcliff Manor, NY. Published with permission.
Formerly atheist Cuba was the site of the recent two-hour private meeting of reconciliation between Pope Frances and Patriarch Kirill primate of the Russian Orthodox Church. Cuba is also the home of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, to which 28 inquiring souls made a pilgrimage under the auspices of His Eminence Metropolitan Athenagoras and led by Pastors Nicholas Anctil and Nick Dassouras. The church, a pristine Byzantine structure next to the Plaza de San Francisco, is enfolded within tropical plantings and a vegetated courtyard in old Havana. An outdoor step-down baptismal sacristy graces the grounds and has been the font for the baptism of more than 2500 Orthodox Christians. Indeed, no borders confine the Holy Spirit
We pilgrims filed into the church for the Divine Liturgy conducted in Spanish and Greek by Fr. Athenagoras, the parish priest, assisted by Cuban priests Fr. Nicholas and Fr. Ioannis. A Colombian transplant, Fr. Athenagoras spent four years at a Greek seminary to learn the faith and the language. The church was already filled with the faithful in prayer as we entered during Orthros. In every respect the liturgy followed ritual and rite as in Astoria or Athens. The Divine Liturgy concluded with Holy Communion and a homily on Christ’s love by Metropolitan Athenagoras. After the services, coffee and the coffee hour.
Who are the parishioners of St. Nicholas? They are Cubans who have found the Orthodox Way. In Central and South America literally thousands are embracing the Orthodox faith. Their presence is changing the once almost exclusively Roman Catholic religious identity in this part of the world. Outside the Romeo y Julieta Cigar Factory we met our guide, Camillo, who had led an animated tour of the factory. Camillo was wearing a komboskinni, a prayer rope. When asked about the bracelet, he said that one of his Orthodox friends had given it to him. It was perhaps received for good luck, but then possibly for something more.
His All Holiness Bartolomeo traveled to Cuba in 2004 to celebrate the consecration of St. Nicholas at the invitation of Fidel Castro. It is said that Castro sentimentally recalls his days as a student under the Jesuits; a book entitled, Fidel y la Religión explores his ideas on belief. In addition to presenting the key to the city to His All Holiness, Castro donated to the parish the land on which the church was built. At the consecration Bartolomeo circled the church with the congregation and opened the doors.
Through Metropolitan Athenagoras, the Holy Spirit has planted the seeds of a vibrant Orthodox Community in Cuba. For his work, the Cuban Government donated to the church the shell of a large building ready for restoration. Located next to the Plaza de la Catedral, St. Nicholas’ soup kitchen serves food to the poor of Havana, prepared by church volunteers. Those who enter this haven of faith receive not only nourishment for their bodies but also sustenance for their souls. When it comes down to it, what we all truly hunger for is God’s loving kindness―no matter in what part of the world we dwell.
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