Tucked away in the periphery of a gated community in Coconut Creek, Florida the humble ROCOR chapel dedicated to St. Luke the Blessed Surgeon of Crimea bears witness to the power of love between two souls searching for God. Like St. Luke the blessed saint is a relatively new saint in the Russian Orthodox East whose grace has garnered him a loyal following, especially as many are still alive to tell of the acts of mercy of this soft-spoken surgeon and bishop in their life. The chapel is connected to the larger Paideia Classical Academy, a private K through 12th grade Orthodox Christian School serving approximately 100 students. During the Dormition of the Theotokos according to the Old Calendar, the students were in attendance for a blessing for the new academic year. The school has undergone an establishment change, with the church itself having been resurrected from a previous Catholic church dedicated to St. Luke the Evangelist. The church’s story is a long one beginning with its charismatic spiritual founder, Father Demetrio Romeo.
Father Demetrio was born a middle child of 7 in a devout Catholic family from Calabria, Italy and grew up in Montreal. He had always been fascinated with the Orthodox Church sneaking into the liturgy in the churches in the highly Greek enclave of Park Extension where he grew up. But the Greek parishioners would question his compatibility in their church because of his Italian background; Italians have an extremely close tie to the Catholic Church. He knew there was something beyond the ethnic divisions in the church. Leaving Catholicism, his search for the true faith led him to study many faiths including Calvinists, Evangelicals, Islam, Hindu, and Kabbalah. It was during this search that he met another seeker, Hannah, an Askenazi Jew. They fell in love. She was kind, straightforward and unrelentingly honest. He was funny and jovial; his heart filled the entire room. “It was our love for God that brought us together,” Father Demetrio recalls.
Towards the end of Fr Demetrio’s search for the right faith, he was brought into contact with Orthodoxy through his meeting Archmandrite Fr John Lewis (of blessed memory) from Holy Theotokos Monastery. Fr John became spiritual father and godfather to him. Later on, Fr Demetrio left his worldly job to join the priesthood. While still a deacon, His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion suggested to Father that he explore the possibility of doing mission work at a new Classical Orthodox school in South Florida. Father Demetrio was tentative as he had other plans; he was seeking to do missionary work specifically to reach out to non-Orthodox Americans and didn’t think being chaplain at an Orthodox school would fit into his vision.
“No matter what I did, God kept leading me back here [the school],” Father Demetrio said. In obedience to his spiritual superior, he accepted Metropolitan Hilarion’s suggestion. The final decision was made easier by the fact that his wife, Matushka Hannah, gave him her blessing and thought it was a good thing he remain to serve the Russian community and lead the children in an Orthodox education.
But the two aims, which although seemed conflicting at the time, have found grounding in this small community. Father Demetrio makes a point of teaching his congregants to be missionaries to their neighbors “You are in America, God has put you here to bear witness to Orthodoxy to the American people. You must teach them about your faith and your traditions and not keep insular lives.” There have also been non-Orthodox people who have come to St Luke’s seeking to know about the Orthodox faith and many of them have converted. At the same time he drives the point of a true Orthodox upbringing to the children and their parents at the school. Father declares in a slight Italian drawl, “Parents, teach children not the luxuries but how to detach them from the luxuries, teach them the virtues, the Scriptures and the lives of the saints. There is more to this world than owning a nice car.” He insists in sermon after sermon to teach children the art of detachment from riches. “He is truly rich who does not desire great possessions but who desires nothing,” he pronounced in his most recent homily. St Luke’s has became a parish home to many people from different walks of life.
Olga Belokin, a parishioner of Kozak South Russian descent raised in Venezuela, was looking for a church to call home when she moved to Florida. She met Father Demetrio back in 2013 and she too fell in love. “What keeps me here is that we are all true Orthodox. Kindness. Generosity. Familiarity,” she explains. “If I don’t attend on a Sunday, I feel like there is something wrong.”
The name that was originally intended for the chapel was St. Tikhon Patriarch of Moscow and the enlightener of America. This seemed like a nice fit for the chapel but for some reason this dedication did not sit right; it seemed like it was not God-will for the chapel to be dedicated to this saint. It so happened that after his ordination, Father served his first liturgy along with Father Nicholas, now His Grace Bishop Nicholas of Manhattan and New York, at the Synod in New York City with the Kurst Root icon on the altar table. People congratulated him on the completion of his first liturgy. In his chamber at the Synod, he received a text from a good friend in Crimea, who congratulated him on establishing the church of St. Luke the Blessed Surgeon. “No, you are mistaken,” he explained. “The chapel used to be Catholic and was dedicated to St Luke the Evangelist, not the Blessed Surgeon.” But the mistake turned out to be God’s will. It was not a mistake that he was to perform without his deciding the first liturgy in the chapel on the feast day of the unveiling of the relics of St. Luke the Blessed Surgeon. When Father Demetrio presented the idea to his Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion for the chapel to be dedicated to the Blessed Surgeon, Vladyka received this idea with joy and straightway gave a blessing. Father Demetrio attributes the decision to the help of the Mother of God who was present for his first liturgy in her wonderworking Kursk Root icon.
Three years ago, a 76-year-old woman from Russia visited the chapel to venerate an icon of St Luke and she told Father Demetrio her story. She was born with a congenital defect and was bound to die within several months of birth. But she was told that a certain surgeon named Valentin (St Luke) visited her ward and made rounds. Through his intercession, she lived. Multiple people over the years have visited the chapel to pray and to ask St Luke to interceded on their behalf. Many of these prayers have been answered. In 2017, the chapel received from Crimea an icon of St Luke with his relics.
In 2016, Matushka Hannah passed away from cancer on January 12 on Father Demetrio’s birthday. Her presence and the love of the parish for her are palpable as her photos don the entrance into the chapel. Before her repose, she received the prayers and support of the parish and prayed vigil in front of the Kurst Root icon for three nights. Finally, she told Father “I’m going home.” She resigned herself peacefully to her passing. She even ironed out the details of her funeral. She is buried at Holy Trinity Monastery, in Jordanville, New York and Father Demetrio already has his burial plot reserved right next to hers.
Even though they inhabit different worlds, they are not separated. Their love story speaks to the power of the psalmist, “Love is stronger than death.”
“Don’t forget,” Father Demetrio called from the church’s vestibule, “it’s all about love.”