First New Catholic Church Since Communist Revolution Opens in Cuba

The Parish of the Sacred Heart while still under construction. (Photo courtesy of St. Lawrence Catholic Church, Tampa)
The Parish of the Sacred Heart while still under construction. (Photo courtesy of St. Lawrence Catholic Church, Tampa)

by Quentin Bet

 

January 26 was a rainy day in Sandino, Cuba, but the spirits of this small rural community were anything but dampened. On this day, the town opened a new Roman Catholic church—the nation’s first since its communist revolution 60 years ago. The bright yellow building, named the Parish of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, underwent 4 years of construction before opening its doors last month. To commemorate the inauguration, the parish held its first official Mass. Though the church was designed to seat 200 people, the Mass drew a crowd of 500.

Since the Cuban Revolution in 1959, Catholicism—and all other religions—have largely been considered taboo. Once Fidel Castro took power and instituted a communist system, religious practice was outlawed. The results were widespread, as priests were ousted and churches were shut down. The country entered a period of spiritual adversity, which was particularly difficult for the largely religious population: 60 to 70 percent of Cubans identify as Catholic, according to the U.S. Commission of International Religious Freedom. Thus, the completion of a new church is monumental for the majority of Cubans, as it signifies increased religious tolerance in the communist state.

 

The legacy of Castro’s strictly atheistic control has lessened its grip since its beginnings in 1959. Most notably, after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Cuba became a secular state, and certain restrictions on Catholicism were lifted. Also during this time, Pope John Paul II visited Cuba to meet with Castro, as well as to celebrate Mass with thousands of Cuban citizens. Additionally, Christmas became an official holiday for the secular nation. Slowly, conditions in the country improved for its persecuted religious members.

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Over the last several years, Pope Francis has also visited the island nation and is credited for improving relations between the Vatican and Cuba. Since these improvements, the Cuban government has approved the formation of three new churches. Besides the one in Sandino, a church in Havana has begun construction, while one in Santiago has yet to begin. The increase in public places of worship is a notable development, as it provides a safe place for citizens to practice faith and experience the community aspect of religion. In the past, religious worship had to be done within the privacy of homes or, in the case of Sandino, a repurposed garage.

 

Saint Lawrence Catholic Church in Tampa is largely responsible for the funding of Sandino’s new parish. While the Cuban government granted the land for the new church, this Florida-based community raised $95,000 to enable its construction. Tampa, which has one of the highest Cuban populations in the United States, was not the only city to contribute to the fund; donations came from all over the United States. Fr. Ramon Hernandez, one of St. Lawrence’s priests, returned to his homeland for the inaugural Mass.

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Extreme religious persecution plagues many countries worldwide, and Cuba in particular still feels the sting of this discrimination; however, its new, bright yellow church serves as more than a place of worship and joy for the community of Sandino. For many Cuban Catholics, the parish can be seen as a beacon of hope for the country at large, an indicator that things can improvefor the spiritually downtrodden.

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