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Florida Parish Helped Move Cuban Government to Permit First New Church in 55 Years


AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa

John Burger - published on 02/03/15

Worshipers have been hearing Mass in a garage since town was founded.

It may raise a few eyebrows. The pastor of the parish where the first Catholic church to be built in Cuba in 55 years will soon get underway is named Father Castro.

But, said Father Ramon Hernandez, laughing in response to a reporter’s question, Father Cirilo Castro is not related to the Castros, Fidel and his brother, Raul.

“I get that question a lot,” said Father Hernandez, a Cuban-American priest in Tampa, Florida who set up a twin parish arrangement with Father Castro’s Sacred Heart parish in Sandino, Cuba. “They’re from different families.”

It’s not known whether the Castro regime, long hostile to religion, was softened by the name of the pastor. But Havana has given permission for a church to be built in his remote village on the western end of the island.

“Sandino was built without a church. The town was built for economical, political reasons,” Father Hernandez said this week.

The two parishes, in fact, have much in common. St. Lawrence was established in 1958, and Cuban exiles have been its backbone from the beginning. As the Cubans of Tampa are in a home away from home, residents of Sandino, which was established as a place to send opponents of Castro’s revolution, have, in a sense, been without a spiritual home: there has never been a Catholic church there. Father Castro has driven to the town weekly in an old Russian Lada and celebrated Mass in a garage for locals who hunger for the sacraments.

That’s expected to change within a few years, when the 200-seat Sacred Heart Church is built and dedicated, with help from St. Lawrence in Tampa. The Florida community has already raised about half of the $90,000 cost. Father Hernandez told Tampa TV station WTSP that the funds raised by St. Lawrence will not go directly to the Cuban government but will be handled by the Vatican.

The development has little to do with the recent opening up to Cuba on the part of the Obama Administration. For the past four years, the congregation at St. Lawrence has worked to raise money and lobby the Cuban government to permit construction of the church, according to WTSP. Their efforts resulted in the communist country amending its constitution so churches can once again be constructed.

"As it will be the first parish in so long, perhaps this [permission] scares and worries those in Havana," Father Castro told "But fortunately the embryo which began in 2010 has feet and hands."

He said the head of the Office of Religious Affairs of the Central Committee of the ruling Communist Party, Caridad Diego, supported the initiative.

Observers note an improving trajectory for the Church since the historic 1998 visit to the island by Pope John Paul II. Twelve years after that visit, Havana opened a dialogue with the hierarchy on the island. Negotiations led to the release of political prisoners and their departure to Spain and other countries, CentroTampa noted. In late 2010, the Catholic authorities in Cuba inaugurated the new headquarters of the seminary of San Carlos and San Ambrosio, which replaced a similar complex expropriated in 1966.

Other Cuba watchers, however, point out that religious Cubans still don’t have equal rights in society.

“The US government and American churches must constantly press for greater religious freedom,” Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, told Aleteia recently. “The churches are still tightly restricted in the areas of religious education, broadcasting, communications, and human rights advocacy. Like others they are prevented by the state in having a normal role in civic society.”

Responding to one media report about the new church, Alberto de la Cruz, founder of Babalublog, a forum for Cuban democracy advocates, commented, "I believe the title says it all: ‘Cuba allows construction of first Catholic church since 1959. Allows? Has humanity (and the Church) become so deferential to the whims and compulsions of godless murderers and slave masters that we feel compelled to genuflect before them in submissive appreciation for allowing us to do something that God Himself endowed us with the right to do?"

Some are hopeful, however. Sandino resident Digna Martinez told CNN she has waited more than five decades for a church to be built in in the town where she, her husband and their two children were resettled in the early 1960s, after the government expropriated the family’s farm. She said one of the most devastating things about being forced to move more than 800 miles from her hometown was that there was no church.

"Having a church is very important," she said. "Many of the people here were raised as Catholics and need a church. We were baptized and pray when we go to bed and wake up, as our parents and grandparents taught us."

The opening to Cuba is “a good moment for people in both the US and Cuba, including the Church,” said Father Hernandez. “I’ve been waiting for this for years. After 50 years, it’s time to do something different.”

John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.

CubaReligious Freedom
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