At the invitation of His All-Holiness, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and His Eminence, Metropolitan Athenagoras, Protopresbyter Robert Kondratick visited Havana, Cuba January 21-25, 2004 to participate in the consecration of the first Orthodox Church to be built in the island nation in four decades.
Accompanied by Mr. John Mindala, Assistant to the Chancellor for Communications and Graphic Design, and the Very Rev. Basil Summer, former Director of the Fellowship of Orthodox Stewards, Father Kondratick, arrived in Havana with a number of prominent Greek-American Orthodox clergy and laypersons who participated in the historic event. Also traveling to Cuba for the occasion was His Eminence, Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and His Grace, Bishop Dimitrios of Xanthos, Archdiocesan Auxiliary.
Metropolitan Athenagoras of the Patriarchate’s Central American Metropolitanate, in whose jurisdiction the newly-built Saint Nicholas Church falls, expressed deep appreciation for the visible sign of support as he welcomed Patriarch Bartholomew and other visiting dignitaries to the island nation.
Cuban President Fidel Castro welcomed Patriarch Bartholomew as he arrived in Havana. Also on hand were hundreds of faithful waving flags embellished with the patriarchal seal.
Following the celebration of Matins in the chapel of an adjacent convent, Patriarch Bartholomew presided at the consecration Liturgy on Sunday, January 25, 2004. Father Kondratick was one of two priests to concelebrate, assisting in the erection of the church’s altar and the traditional procession with the relics that were subsequently sealed therein. President Castro, to whom Patriarch Bartholomew expressed thanks for the church—the gift of the Cuban government to the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the country’s Orthodox community—was also present for the ceremonies. Hundreds of faithful filled the courtyard outside the church, together with representatives of dozens of media outlets.
The new Saint Nicholas Church is decorated with frescoes and an exquisite hard-carved iconostasis in traditional Byzantine style. A mosaic featuring a double-headed eagle, symbol of the Byzantine Empire, is incorporated into the church’s floor.
As a courtesy, the 1,500 individuals who traveled to Cuba from the United States, Canada, Greece and other countries for the consecration from America and Greece were invited to write the names of the living and deceased on slips of paper which were sealed in the altar table in prayerful commemoration of the occasion.
Earlier in the week, Father Kondratick attended a meeting of clergy, archons and laity of the Metropolitanate of Panama and Central America with Patriarch Bartholomew at Havana’s Nacional Hotel on Thursday, January 22. The Metropolitanate was created in the late 1990s, together with the Metropolitanates of Canada and South America. During the meeting, Metropolitan Athenagoras spoke on the importance of the Patriarch’s visit to Cuba and the unprecedented witness to the Orthodox Faith that it provides in a part of the world where Orthodoxy is not well known.
Later the same day, Father Kondratick attended a gathering at Havana’s International Conference Palace during which Patriarch Bartholomew delivered an address on the role of the Church in protecting the environment. The Patriarch, often referred to as the “Green Patriarch,” is well known for his devotion to environmental concerns and the wise stewardship of God’s creation. President Castro was present for the Patriarch’s address.
On Saturday, January 24, 2004, Father Kondratick attended a luncheon honoring Patriarch Bartholomew in Havana’s Cathedral Square. During the luncheon, Metropolitan Athenagoras introduced the clergy and seminarians of the Central American Metropolitanate, while his Chancellor, Archimandrite Timothius, surveyed the unique circumstances the Church faces in Latin America and the enthusiasm displayed for the Faith. Also present for the occasion was the former King Constantine of Greece.
Later, the many Americans who traveled to Havana for the consecration were hosted at a reception at the United States Mission Station. Father Kondratick was among those welcomed by the Principal Officer of the Interest Section, Mr. James Cason. Archbishop Demetrios spoke of the importance of supporting the Orthodox Church’s presence in a country like Cuba with Mr. Cason and the Mission Station’s staff. In the evening of the same day, Patriarch Bartholomew presided at Vespers in the convent chapel adjacent to Saint Nicholas Church.
Prior to Fidel Castro’s rise to power over four decades ago, there had been an Orthodox church in Havana, but it was subsequently nationalized and used for secular purposes. The new Byzantine style church was built with state and private funds - a surprising “first” for the communist nation.