Orthodoxy is Alive and Growing in Guatemala

Hogar Rafael Ayau Orphanage & Monastery Lavra Mambre
New Jersey.- By Michael Parlamis***
Hogar Rafael Ayau –the largest Orthodox orphanage in the Western Hemisphere –is located on six acres of land in downtown Guatemala City, Guatemala. The orphanage, started 151 years ago, has been home to thousands of orphan children, and is today surrounded by secured walls to protect the current 98 orphans from the drugs and violence of this dangerous city.

The orphanage and the Monastery Lavra Mambre, a beautiful country-side monastery located 30 minutes outside the city, are under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Antioch and Metropolitan Anthony of Mexico City and are presently run by three Orthodox nuns: Mother Igoumene Ines, Mother Ivonne and Mother Maria. Following their conversion to Orthodoxy from Roman Catholicism, these three nuns have administered the facilities since 1997.

I visited Hogar Rafael Ayau November 13-17, 2008 with my daughter, Christine Parlamis McAllister, who has visited the orphanage seven times and is godmother to Barbara, a 14-year old orphan. Christine originally learned of the orphanage when she lived in Austin, Texas, through Rev. Economos Jordan Brown of the Greek Orthodox Transfiguration Church; Father Jordan is a man who reflects the best of the Greek Orthodox Church.

When we arrived at Hogar Rafael, the children were so excited to see Christine that she was swarmed in a frenzy of love as she exited the car. We took a large group of children to Pizza Hut for dinner that evening. These wonderful and deeply spiritual children joined in prayer thanking God for the food and drink they were about to receive and recited numerous Kirie Eleisons. After eating, the children again joined in song in thanks for dinner.

As we ate, one boy, Rodolfo, came close to me, held my hand and said he was happy that I came to visit him. He soon began calling me “father,” until I told him to call me “Papou”—Greek for grandfather. I was astonished but realized that since they have no parents, these children seek surrogate parents. Christine reminded me that the children do not see many adult males and have grown up under the care of females. Mother Ivonne leads the care of the children and supervises the 38 full-time and part-time employees –nannies, teachers, nurses, cooks, office workers, maintenance, a security guard, and a chauffer.

Mother Ines directs both the Monastery and the Hogar Rafael Ayau. Her family and friends have generously supported the orphanage over the years. It was her great-great-grandfather Don Rafael Ayau who founded the orphanage. Her father, a respected engineer, once ran for President of Guatemala, and now at the age of 83, heads a committee attempting to rewrite the Constitution of Guatemala.

The Monastery of Lavra Mambre is in Villa Neuva along the shore of Lake Amatitlan, about 20 miles south of Guatemala City. My daughter and I were invited by Mother Ines to the Monastery where she escorted us through the recently completed Church of the Holy Trinity (Santisima Trinidad) –a splendid example of Russian Orthodox architecture. Presently, there are four Russian iconographers on site to finalize the iconography work. The church was consecrated last year and three Greek Orthodox priests were in attendance: Rev. Protopresbyter Peter Chamberas, Hebron, New Hampshire; Rev. Presbyter Paul Pappas, Toms River, New Jersey; and V. Rev. Archimandrite Constantine Moralis, Baltimore, Maryland.

Mother Ines took me through a major construction project which has been underway for a number of years. The goal is to build all the facilities necessary to move the Hogar Rafael Ayau Orphanage from Guatemala City to the safer and more tranquil site of the monastery at Villa Nueva. The plans for construction are done by an Orthodox architect from Mexico City who donates his services pro bono.

Construction is scheduled to complete in six to seven years, depending on the speed of raising funds to pay for the work. After the move is completed, the property in Guatemala City will be offered for rent, and the profits will be used to offset the growing expenses of the orphanage. The present monastery residents seek to become as self-sufficient as possible. On our visit we saw a fish farm of Tilapia, a rabbit farm, and a soon-to-be-opened duck farm—all planned as sustenance for those in the monastery.

What I saw at Monastery Lavra Mambre was truly remarkable—a construction project managed by Mother Ines; onsite fish and animal farms managed by Madre Maria and the children; and, a full time adoption service managed by Mother Ivonne. In fact, several Greek Orthodox priests and numerous other Greek Orthodox faithful have adopted children from the Orphanage.

During our stay, the V. Rev. Archimandrite Matthias Moriak of Seaford, NY was also visiting the orphanage. Father Matthias serves in one of the 82 churches of the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese affiliated with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. Mother Ines informed me she has received many Greek Orthodox priests over the years.

The three nuns, Mothers Ines, Ivonne and Maria, are the closest examples of what I would describe as “Orthodox Mother Teresas.” They have managed to care for thousands of orphans over the years in a country where people are one-tenth as wealthy as in the U.S. They provide a home for their wards in Guatemala, a country with a 2007 GDP (Gross Domestic Product) per capita of $4200 a year versus the United States of America 2007 GPD per capita of $42,000 per year. Mother Teresa similarly did most of her work in Calcutta, India, a city of rampant poverty.

I attended an event some years back—the one year memorial for the late Mother Teresa of Calcutta at St. Patrickʼs Roman Catholic Cathedral in Manhattan, New York City. After spending most of the memorial service praising the life of Mother Teresa, Roman Catholic Cardinal and Archbishop of New York, John OʼConnor chose to make an extraordinary public confession which I found to be bold and selfless. The Cardinal confessed that in the presence of Mother Teresa he never felt adequate as a soldier of Jesus Christ. He felt he did not, or could not, do what Mother Teresa had done. He felt this inadequacy despite being a member of the Vatican Bank and one of the Popeʼs closest financial advisors and privy to all of the Vaticanʼs enormous wealth.

Upon receiving Mother Teresa in New York City for the first time, the Cardinal recalled that after debating at length where to house Mother Teresa, the Cardinal offered that she stay with him at his residence. Upon arriving at the Cardinalʼs residence, Mother Teresa turned to the Cardinal and asked “Do you live here?” The Cardinal said yes and Mother Teresa replied, “How dare you live in this luxury when the people of the world starve and live in misery.”

Mother Teresa followed with a demand that the Cardinal sell his residence immediately and give the sale proceeds to the poor. The Cardinal countered with a collection of excuses. He could not sell his residence as it really did not belong to him…. It belonged to the Archdiocese and as such would need Archdiocesan clearance with a final okay from Rome… All that could take months if not years before such a sale might be approved.

Mother Teresa then put her arms on the Cardinal and said, “It is okay my son, I told the Pope to sell the entire Vatican and he does not listen either.”

We need more Mother Teresa-types in this world for the Christian message of its founder Jesus Christ to reach humanity. Hogar Rafael is such a place where the selfless work of caring people have made a difference in the lives of thousands of young children whose needs were—and are—great. Kindness, love, training and spiritual guidance provide the children of Hogar Rafael the strength and tools to be upstanding, self-sufficient young adults when they exit the orphanage to seek their future in the world

God Bless Hogar Rafael Ayau Orphanage. Let us continue to support our largest orphanage in the Western hemisphere and encourage our Hierarchs to personally visit such an exemplary place. Dozens of Greek Orthodox priests have visited these facilities. Financial support for Lavra Mambre (the only Orthodox monastery in Guatemala), their ongoing major construction project and the Hogar Rafael Ayau Orphanage are received primarily from Greek Orthodox Christians in the United States.

How can you help this worthy cause? Harriet Stratis and Thania Panopoulos, Greek Orthodox Christians, have founded “The Friends of Hogar Rafael Ayau Orphanage”—a 501(c)3 official U.S. charity. Donations are fully tax deductible and can be made out to “Friends of Hogar Rafael Ayau Orphanage”, and can be sent to: FHRA c/o Harriet Stratis / Director & Treasurer, FHRA / 3150 N. Lake Shore Drive / Apt. 27A / Chicago, Il 60657.

To learn more about Hogar Rafael, please visit their website at www.hogarafaelayau.org.

**** Michael F. Parlamis
Archon Nomophylax, Order of St Andrew the Apostle
Regional Commander, State of New Jersey


  1. Thank you for this article.
    I once was an orphan there and it was the start of my life as it is now. There is something about the orphanage that will forever be a part of me. I just wanted to thank you for making this article. Now i am trying to find my brother who was not able to come into the orphanage, and thereby i encountered your report. It is a truly blessed place and God has watched over many of us who have been there, and who continue to be there.

  2. I woluld like please to ask you if a woman from Greece from 55 years old and up
    is more easy to manage to stay permanently in Guatemala City.
    I speak few english and I hope to hear from you soon.

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