[St. Pachomius Library]


The ethnic "diaspora" Orthodox churches of Mexico are small and have played a minor role in the country's life, catering to the relative handful of Greek, Syrian, and Eastern European traders and political refugees. However, a series of bizarre events in the 1920s could have made the country Orthodox -- and, one prays, may do so yet. Unfortunately, most Orthodox seem either unaware of this story or embarrassed by it.

The history of Mexico after Cortes has been marked by spectacular and tragic conflicts, with the Roman Catholic Church often an active participant. In 1924 Plutarco Calles was elected president and launched a major campaign to limit Catholic power. This legislative programme eventually turned into outright religious persecution, justified by the Suspension of Cults law of 1926 July 31, and provoked a civil war (won by the State) during which both sides committed horrendous acts of violence. Religious liberties remained very restricted for decades, and the anti-clericalism of the Mexican government was a constant problem for US foreign policy leaders in the Cold War.

Calles had forseen the bloodshed to come and attempted to avoid it by co-opting the people's religiosity. Although not a Communist, he admired the Soviet Union's success in repressing religion, and decided to found a Catholic equivalent of the USSR's "Living Church" under the control of the State and advocating "progressive" ideas. Thus in 1924 the "Mexican Apostolic National Church" materialised -- spontaneously, it was claimed, but actually with the backing of the CROM labour union and (secretly) the government.

Headed by a suspended Catholic priest named Fr. Joaquin Pérez ("Patriarch Joachim I"), the new church presented itself as Western Rite Orthodox and sought unsuccessfully the backing of world Orthodoxy. In late February 1925, armed members of a previously unknown "chivalric" order called the Knights of Guadalupe occupied the working class Mexico City parish of La Soledad and declared it the seat of the Mexican Patriarchate. The Knights of Columbus (a more formidable group in 1920s Mexico than in the contemporary US) showed up to give battle; the police and fire brigades apparently did little to intervene. The Patriarch's knights lost to the Pope's; there was one death.

Calles was obviously disappointed in his Patriarch's reception and distanced himself from the new church. He ordered both sides to abandon La Soledad (which was turned into a library), installed Joachim in an unoccupied colonial-era church called Corpus Christi near the Alameda Centrál, and waited to see how things would develop. Although the cismaticos (as Joachim's followers were universally called) established parishes around the country, they made no dent in the strength of Roman Catholicism and were ignored by the outside world (apart from a few Old Catholic vagant groups). In the chaos of the war which soon enveloped the country, they were forgotten by their government backers.

They were forgotten, but they did not disappear. Joachim (to the reported astonishment of his government and CROM minders) turned out to be a sincere religious enthusiast who genuinely wanted to lead a doctrinally orthodox Catholic church independent of Rome. The cismatico parishes (including one over the border in Los Angeles) hung on even after their leader's death, although they seem to have fallen out of contact with one another. In 1970, the largest group of them became part of the Orthodox Church in America as the "Diocese of Mexico". Around the beginning of the XXI Century another, more rural, group also joined the the OCA (which made no comment whatever about their history, describing them vaguely as "lost" Mexican Orthodox parishes, rather like the Tribes of Israel).

It will be interesting to see how this most unusual of Latin American Orthodox dioceses evolves. One hopes it will be allowed to retain what is truly Orthodox in its traditions and not be effectively Russified or Americanised by the OCA's central leadership.

Norman Hugh Redington

Under construction --- far from complete! Read with caution.


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