Cuba's isolated act of faith

As Pope Francis visits island, remote town builds the first new Catholic church since the revolution

As Pope Francis visits island, remote town builds the first new Catholic church since the revolution
The Rev. Cirilo Castro with posters the church will distribute to welcome Pope Francis.

The Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Sandino, Cuba, is little more than an open-air garage. As the Rev. Cirilo Castro conducted Mass on a recent Sunday, a neighbor hung her laundry to dry, her television blaring. A thin tin roof struggled to shelter two dozen parishioners from the punishing tropical heat. And the clacks of a spirited domino game rose above the consecration, the holiest moment of the service. The congregants, though, were not complaining. On more challenging days, heavy rains often leave parishioners soaked.

“You can seek the word of God anywhere,” said Digna González, a native of Sandino, a town of roughly 30,000 in Cuba’s westernmost province, Pinar del Río. “Even under a tree,” she added.

From the makeshift altar, if he peers above the parishioners and through a wire fence, Castro can see the future. It lies about 50 yards away in an unkempt grass field, where the Cuban government plans to build the first Catholic church on the island since the 1959 revolution that toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista. As Pope Francis arrives in Cuba, the third papal visit to the island since 1998, Sandino has emerged as a symbol of a resurgent church after decades of marginalization.

“Thanks to God and men,” said Castro, “relations between the church and the state have improved greatly, and Pope Francis’ visit will help Cuba’s relationship with the church and the United States even more.”

The church recites the Lord's Prayer
Castro speaks about the pope’s visit during his homily at Sunday Mass, September 9, 2015, top. The church backs up to other Sandino residences, left. A rock marks where a new church will be built. (Click to enlarge images)

In some ways, the revolution in Sandino began in Tampa, Florida. In 2010 the Rev. Tom Morgan, a pastor at St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Tampa, expressed interest in building stronger ties to Cuba. He enlisted the Rev. Ramón Hernández, a Cuban exile, to find a partner. After several meetings between Hernández and Castro, Jorge Enrique Serpa, the bishop of Pinar del Río, the diocese that encompasses Sandino, met with Tampa church officials, and they gave him an initial $5,000 for construction of the Sandino church. The next year, the government of Raúl Castro gave Serpa permission to build in Sandino. Between fundraising by St. Lawrence and donations from places like Florida, New York and California, most of the cost of building the church — estimated at $95,000 — has been covered, said Hernández. “We are only $10,000 short of the projected cost,” he said.

The marginalization of the Cuban Catholic Church began soon after the 1959 revolution. Fidel Castro saw it as an elitist institution, too close to the Batista regime. Atheism was enshrined in the new constitution. Castro nationalized church properties and shuttered Catholic schools, including the Jesuit high school that he and his brother Raúl Castro attended. Priests were sent to labor camps or forced into exile. And Catholic publications were banned.

A young man takes a horse for a run in Sandino. (Click to enlarge images)

Fidel Castro established Sandino in 1964, when he began shipping hundreds of peasant workers there from the south-central Escambray Mountains, where Che Guevara’s rebel troops battled Batista in the final months of his regime. The peasants, said Hernández, were predominantly Catholic, and Castro viewed them as sympathetic to counterrevolutionary groups with a stronghold in the mountains. The peasants were not professed anti-communists, said Hernández, but Castro, immersed in the realpolitik of the Cold War and fearing they would collaborate with the rebels, began sending them to Sandino, named after the late Nicaraguan revolutionary Augusto César Sandino.

“Sandino was created to isolate counterrevolutionary outbreaks in Escambray,” said Hernández. “The 1960s were characterized by these sorts of extreme measures, amid the founding of the revolution and U.S. antagonism.”

The Catholic Church’s resurgence in Cuba began with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The following year, Fidel Castro outlawed religious discrimination and distanced himself from atheism. Since then, the church has been able to eke out a certain amount of autonomy through engagement — by criticizing the U.S. embargo on the island and avoiding political spats with the Castros. In 1996, Fidel Castro visited Pope John Paul II at the Vatican. The next year, with Pope John Paul II scheduled to visit to the island in 1998, Cuba recognized Christmas as a national holiday.

Clockwise from top left: Hilaria Giniebra Roque prepares items for Mass on Sunday. The church must set up and break down the altar every day. Castro poses for a portrait in the church. A parishioner holds a song book. Castro and parishioners sing at the close of Mass. (Click to enlarge images)

Raúl Castro, who took power from his elder brother in 2008, has opened the door to more dialogue with church officials. Experts say Raúl Castro favors the Catholic Church for its hierarchical structure and global influence — something other religions on the island lack. Viewed as more pragmatic than his brother, Castro presided over the first beatification on the island, of José Olallo Valdéz, shortly after assuming power. Castro was baptized into the Catholic Church, and recently allowed Cardinal Jaime Ortega to make a historic appearance on Cuban television, in which Ortega addressed the previously taboo subject of political prisoners, highlighting the church’s status as the most important independent institution on the island.

“As I’ve already told my council of elders, I read all the pope’s speeches,” Raúl Castro said in May during a visit to the Vatican, adding that he feels like a Jesuit at heart when he hears Francis’ many speeches championing the rights of the poor and oppressed. “If the pope continues to speak like this, sooner or later I will start praying again and I will return to the Catholic Church — and I’m not saying this jokingly.”

Opposition groups in Cuba, though, have criticized the church for its cozy relationship with Raúl Castro. The Ladies in White, an opposition group founded by the wives of incarcerated dissidents, applauded the recent decision to pardon some 3,500 political prisoners before Francis’ visit. But the church, they say, should do more in Cuba to carry out Francis’ message of poverty relief and respect for human rights. They have particular scorn for Ortega, who they say is too close to the government. And just days after announcement of the pardons, some 50 activists, including members of Ladies in White, were detained for calling on the Castro government to release political prisoners.

These days, the rapid spread of evangelical denominations across the island may pose a bigger threat to the Catholic Church than the Castro government. A recent Univision poll of 1,200 Cubans on the island found wide praise for Francis, with 80 percent saying they viewed him positively. But the same poll found that only 27 percent of Cubans surveyed said they identify as Catholic. The Archdiocese of Havana paints a rosier picture. It says 60 percent of Cuba’s 11.1 million inhabitants are Catholic. But experts say practicing Catholics account for fewer than 10 percent, as Cubans increasingly flock to other religions like Santería, a syncretic religion taken to Cuba by slaves from Nigeria’s Yoruba tribe, which remains by far the island’s most popular religion.

Posters welcoming Pope Francis are distributed at the church, top. Marilyn Valdés Hernández takes communion, left. Castro leaves Sandino with some nuns and another parishioner to give Mass at another community, right. He gives several Masses on Sundays. (Click to enlarge images)

The dwindling number of practicing Catholics may help explain Francis’ visit. But he arrives in Cuba — before heading to the United States — as a broker of renewed U.S.-Cuba relations, and he is expected to call for further rapprochement between the two nations. Cuba watchers say the political capital gained by helping Cuba mend its relationship with the U.S. will help Francis nudge the Castro government toward providing more religious and political freedom on the island. In similar fashion, the pontiff is expected to appeal for an end to the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

“What the Cuban government has sought to do since it began this process of rapprochement with the church is to gain more legitimacy and to be able to project an international image of acceptance of people who have religious beliefs,” said Jorge Duany, the director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University. “There has been talk about the Mass in Havana, in the Square of the Revolution, where images of Christ are going to be standing next to images of Che Guevara and other revolutionary heroes. It’s sort of a ritualistic performance of the Cuban government and the Catholic Church as the major group of believers on the island.”

Slideshow: Views from Sandino, Cuba

  • Horse-drawn carriages are a primary form of transportation. (Click to enlarge images)
  • The town features apartment blocks built in according to a Soviet style. (Click to enlarge images)
  • Prices for products are displayed at a food ration store. (Click to enlarge images)
  • Children head off to school. (Click to enlarge images)
  • Pay phones hang at the Sandino commercial center. (Click to enlarge images)
  • A man buys bread at a state-run bakery. (Click to enlarge images)

In Sandino, Francis’ impending visit has aroused expectations. Posters of the pontiff — hand raised, wide smile, in front of a Cuban flag — adorn the doors of homes and the Soviet-style block housing that dots the town. One parishioner, Hilaria Giniebra Roque, has obtained credentials to see the pope’s Mass in Havana, and she was eagerly making plans to travel to the capital. (There is no public transportation from Sandino.)

The buzz over Francis’ visit has stirred hopes that construction of the church will begin soon. In September 2014 Serpa, the bishop, placed a symbolic first rock on the 1,200 square meters that will host the church, to be named Christ of Compassion. Since then, though, the grass field has remained untouched, despite the delivery of government permits to begin construction. Parishioners say they are waiting for the Cuban government to build a fence around the property before construction can begin. But they expect the pope’s visit to speed up the project.

“We all hope to attend the first Mass" in the new church, said Giniebra Roque. “We pray to God he gives us the health to see that.”

Join the Conversation

  • 0
  • 0
  • 0
  • 0