Mission in the Dominican Republic – An Interview with Priest Rafael Martinez Gonzalez
The main Orthodox church in the Dominican Republic is the Church of the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God (Misión de Nuestra Sra. Madre de Dios de Kazan), located in the town of Sosúa. Its rector graduated university and converted to Orthodoxy in Russia, and now ministers to Russians in the Caribbean Basin.
Of course, the accommodations could hardly be called a church, but the local Orthodox faithful find them suitable enough. The parish was founded in 2008, and in October of the same year, during his visit to Costa Rica, Metropolitan Hilarion of Eastern America & New York, First Hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad, ordained Rafael Martinez Gonzalez to the priesthood.
Next year, the parish will celebrate the decennial of its founding. Much has been done in the intervening years, but there has been a fair share of problems, as well. Priest Rafael Martinez Gonzalez, rector of Our Lady of Kazan Church in Sosúa, spoke to us regarding the life of Orthodox Christians in the Dominican Republic.
– Father Rafael, how many Orthodox churches are there in the Dominican Republic?
– We have two missions: our church – in honor of the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God – in the north of the country in the town of Sosúa, and a mission in honor of Venerable Seraphim of Sarov (Misión de San Serafín de Sarov) in the settlement of Bávaro (a subset of Punta Cana). Presently, Our Lady of Kazan Church is home to 35 regular parishioners. When our mission was founded, there was a fairly large Russian diaspora in Sosúa – around 3,000 people. Now the number of Russian speakers in town has shrunk to around 1,300 people. Vacationers also attend the church, as well as those who live on the island for about half the year – these are our parishioners from Montreal, Toronto, and Moscow. The divine services are performed on Saturday evenings, and Liturgy is celebrated on Sundays and major feasts.
– How did the idea of founding a mission come about?
– Our mission was founded by Vera Fedorovna and her (now reposed) husband Vladislav Chislov of Canada. Twice a year they would travel from Canada, and always cared for the needs of the parish.
At that time, we also had a Russian girl, Valentina, living here. She proposed naming our mission in honor of the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God. I relayed the request to Metropolitan Hilarion, and His Eminence gave his blessing.
Soon the mission of St. Seraphim of Sarov was also founded in Bávaro in the southeast of the country. Its dedication was suggested by then-parishioner Anfisa Smirnov. Today she lives in Miami and is a parishioner of St. Vladimir Church.
– So your parishioners are Russians?
– Not exclusively. Besides parishioners from Russia and the states of the former USSR, there are Orthodox Christians from Haiti, Serbia, Canada, as well as Greeks and Dominicans.
– What are the outward attributes of your mission?
– Our church is located in a rented building, which costs us 550 dollars per month, plus the cost of utilities. As a result of the fact that our community is still small, we cannot survive on donations alone. Moreover, Matushka and I used to have work, but have now lost our jobs and also have to pay for the insurance ourselves.
The car used by the parish is old – a 2001, and is in constant need of repair. In the town of Cabarete, for instance, there live 40 Orthodox Christians. Many of them are quite old and are not able to attend the divine services. In order to commune them, I regularly visit them at home.
On Fridays, we teach lessons on the Law of God and a subject called "Human Values" in the town school. We also work with Orthodox emigrants, including those from Haiti, and try to help them however we can.
– How far is St. Seraphim Mission from Sosúa?
– Six to eight hours by car, depending on road conditions. I usually serve there twice a month. Our car is currently in poor condition, and driving that far is difficult.
– How do you divide your time for services on the Twelve Great and other major feasts?
– Usually, our parishioners in Punta Cana come to the church in Sosúa for such feast days as Nativity, Pascha, and the Great Feasts. We have a guestroom that accommodates up to four people.
– Where does your church obtain icons, vestments, and other liturgical vessels?
– For the most part, these are donations. On my latest trip to the USA, with the blessing of Metropolitan Hilarion, the Eastern American Diocese paid for liturgical vessels for our church. St. Alexander Nevsky Diocesan Cathedral in Howell, NJ allocated $1,000 from their benevolent fund to help support the Mission of the Kazan Mother of God, while the Diocese offered $1,000 to pay for insurance. We are very grateful for these donations.
– Does your parish carry out missionary work?
– In addition to the school, in Sosúa’s Tour Guide Association headquarters, the parish has founded a Dominican Orthodox Cultural Center. There, our parishioners Sergey and Olga Goryachev, Alexander Petrov, and other volunteers teach Russian language and culture. We also hold conferences and serve molebens there. There are Dominicans who have learned Russian at the center and now work as tour guides.
– How often do native Dominicans convert to Orthodoxy?
– In our mission in Sosúa, we have baptized about 20 people. Most of the converts to Orthodoxy are the same people who studied in Moscow and had already learned of Orthodoxy in Russia, as well as the "other halves" of Orthodox marriages.
– How do you envision your future? Is there youth in your parish?
– There is youth. There are even candidates that we would like to recommend for seminary in Jordanville. Among these are the Muscovites Kyrill Sova and Alexander Avvakumov, who live with us in Sosúa and hope to become priests.
– Father Rafael, you yourself studied in Russia, did you not?
– Yes. I was born in Puerto Plata to a Catholic family. I studied for seven months in a Catholic seminary and felt a calling to the priesthood.
In 1976, I traveled to Odessa to study in the Preparatory Department (for foreign students – trans.) of the Polytechnic Institute. There was a monastery next to the school’s dormitory, and I attended services there. This was the period of Soviet atheism, and it was rare to see a young face in church. I stood in the midst of babushkas, and they could not imagine what a 17-year-old boy was doing in church!
At that time, I came into possession of some interesting books about Orthodoxy in Spanish. It was there that I was acquainted with an old monk named Kyrill. This was a very educated man, who knew several languages. And I started to prepare myself to convert to Orthodoxy. Thus it was in Russia, in Odessa, that I converted to Orthodoxy, and in Leningrad in 1984 I graduated the Leningrad Electrotechnical University. Upon my return to the Dominican Republic, I was easily able to find a job. Now, on account of corruption in the country, this is very hard to do. My matushka recently lost her job, and as a result could not continue her university education.
Our little island occupies one of the top spots in the world for corruption, which is the source of many problems in the financial and social life of the country, which likewise reflects on the financial situation of our parishioners. Our parishioners living in the Dominican Republic are fairly poor. They are helped primarily by Russians who live primarily in Canada and spend part of the year in the Dominican Republic. And we are very much in need of this help. We have to pay for the rented space, and for utilities, and for insurance. I don’t know how much longer our 16-year-old car will keep running. We will be very grateful for any donation, and will commemorate our all of our benefactors in our prayers.
If you would like to donate to the Russian Orthodox Mission in the Dominican Republic, please visit their parish website (Russian) here.
Mission in the Dominican Republic – An Interview with Priest Rafael Martinez Gonzalez - 07/13/17