WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (CNS) — A Cuban-American priest helping lead a drive for what may be the first new Catholic church to be erected in Cuba in nearly six decades said his project signals new hope for church expansion in Cuba.
A parish twinning-style relationship between the people of St. Lawrence Parish in Tampa, which historically has been a Cuban-American community, and a small but burgeoning Catholic community within the Pinar del Rio province in western Cuba, has resulted in official land use and construction permissions for a modest church to be erected in the town of Sandino.
To be named Sacred Heart, the mostly colonial-style church with free-standing bell tower will seat from 200 to 250 people and serve several nearby townships near Sandino, with its population of 9,000.
Sandino is associated with a Cuban university medical program, Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina, which drew international students, many of whom were Catholics from the Americas. For several decades, these students desired to have a Catholic church nearby, according to Father Ramon Hernandez, who serves at St. Lawrence Parish and is a native of the region.
“It took a long time to create a (legal) means to give the church a license for building, and to give the land officially, but the Cuban government gave the permits in February,” said Father Hernandez, whose efforts in Florida helped raise half of the projected $90,000 needed for the new church, reportedly including a $5,000 contribution from Bishop Robert N. Lynch of St. Petersburg.
In September, a Cuban priest, Father Cirilo Castro, who will be pastor of Sacred Heart and who leads two other existing parishes in the region, presided over the public blessing of the property and the church cornerstone. He helped lobby the Cuban government for the necessary building permission.
Father Castro and Bishop Jorge Serpa Perez of Pinar del Rio have visited Tampa several times to help strengthen bonds with the Catholics in Tampa and to bolster parish collections for the project.
The donated funds are transferred through the apostolic nuncio to the United States and through Vatican channels in Cuba to assist the church building project, Father Hernandez said, adding that he hopes the balance of the costs will be covered by collections scheduled for the coming spring.
Cubans on the island are responsible for the church design and construction, which will include adjacent spaces for parish ministries and charitable programs for the elderly. Catholics there also frequently meet in private homes.
Cuba, which has slowly begun to officially recognize church activities there since Fidel Castro’s 1959 Cuban Revolution, had not permitted new church-building projects until now, although several expansion and renovation projects also are now in the works for Santiago and Havana, according to Father Hernandez.
The new Sacred Heart Church, which could be completed in two years, would be the first fully new church constructed in Cuba under the communist regime. It is hoped the foundation will be poured in March of next year.
“It is the first time the government and the Cuban Constitution recognized the church request and that has opened the door to other requests,” Father Hernandez told Catholic News Service. He has heard that “other dioceses are looking for that (openness) for repairs and remodeling of active churches.”
Father Hernandez and a past director of Catholic Charities in St. Petersburg were instrumental in fostering a charitable relationship with Caritas Cuba during the 2000s, bringing needed medical supplies from Florida to Cuba, forming relationships along the way.
Although the percentage of Catholics who attend church in Cuba is still not considered robust compared with the rest of Latin America, the estimated 300 Catholic parishes serving all of Cuba is insufficient, the priest said.
Second- and third-generation Cuban-Americans in Tampa are looking to the future and are open to helping the local church back home, Father Fernandez said, noting that “Tampa is totally different in that even people who are not open to establishing (trade) relations with Cuba understand the church is independent and the only hope for establishing a relationship with new generations in Cuba.”
The two visits to Cuba of St. Pope John Paul II in 1998 and retired Pope Benedict XVI in 2012 also helped ease tensions between the church and Cuba. The opening of a new seminary complex in Havana in 2010 was the first major church-building project in 40 years. In the early years after Fidel Castro became president, the government confiscated church properties of all sorts to use for other purposes.
Father Tom Morgan, pastor at Tampa’s St. Lawrence Parish, was interested in fostering a parish twinning relationship in Cuba, which later led to the Sacred Heart twinning project, which Father Hernandez said has drawn financial support in the amounts of $100 and $200 from parishioners.
Still, lack of basic freedoms and new economic hardship in Cuba are a cause of ongoing concern among the U.S.-based Cuban exile community, and it is believed that 2014 has seen a spike in Cuban rafter activity as Cubans steadily attempt the sometimes fatal clandestine journey in makeshift vessels toward neighboring borders.
The U.S. Coast Guard in Miami has reported a spike in Cuban rafters intercepted this year over the previous year, many of them found floating on flimsy rubber tubes.