TAMPA — For the first time since Cuba embraced Communism in 1959, a Catholic Church will be built on the island and a Tampa parish is responsible for the fundraising.
St. Lawrence Catholic Church of Tampa, through parishioner donations, has raised $45,000 — half of the $90,000 needed to complete the church but enough for Cuba to approve the start of construction.
The church will be located in Sandino, a municipality in the Pinar del Río province of Cuba that has never had a church. Catholics there have long been congregating in homes.
“They already started holding Mass on the property,” said Luisa Long, coordinator of Hispanic ministries for St. Lawrence church, 5225 N. Himes Ave. “The first rock was put on the property location just this past September and blessed.”
Fidel Castro's revolution brought an end to the open practice of religion as the government officially declared Cuba an atheist nation, in line with Marxist teachings. Church properties were nationalized, forcing Catholics to congregate in homes.
More than four decades later, relations between the Cuban government and the Catholic Church began to improve in advance of a 1998 visit by Pope John Paul II. Fidel Castro declared Christmas a national holiday for the first time since 1959.
In March 2012, Pope Benedict XVI took a three-day tour of the island, further thawing the divide.
The new church construction project is a major next step, said the Rev. Ramon Hernandez of St. Lawrence, who helped bring the partners together.
“And Tampa is the right city for this work,” Hernandez said. “We have a deep history with Cuba.”
Tampa's Ybor City was founded, in part, by immigrants from Cuba, and in the late 1800s — emerging as the cigar capital of the world using tobacco from Cuba — Tampa helped fund Cuba's War of Independence against Spain.
“This is big news for Catholics,” Long said. “And it has been going on for four years,”
❖ ❖ ❖
Long provided a timeline of events that mark the breakthrough.
In 2010, St. Lawrence pastor the Rev. Tom Morgan advised Hernandez that he was interested in forming a fellowship with a community in Cuba. The request coincided with a visit to Tampa by the Rev. Cirilo Castro, a pastor from Pinar Del Rio.
The two met and, according to Long, the foundation of their partnership was formed.
They agreed that St. Lawrence's Hernandez would visit Pinar Del Rio and he did so in 2011.
In 2012, the Rev. Castro returned to Tampa to discuss building a church in Sandino. While here, he met with St. Lawrence parishioners interested in helping.
In 2013, Bishop Jorge E. Serpa of Catholic Diocese of Pinar del Rio met in Florida with Bishop Robert Lynch of the St. Petersburg diocese, who gave $5,000 to the project — marking the first time bishops from the two nations had formed a partnership since 1959.
The remaining $40,000 was raised in four special collections during weekly Mass at St. Lawrence during the next two years.
In April 2014, Hernandez of St. Lawrence travelled to Cuba to take what funds had already been collected. While there, the Rev. Castro received official permission from the Cuban government to build the church.
In 2015, six additional collections will be held at St. Lawrence to raise the remaining $45,000.
Bishop Serpa is working to get construction materials. The new church will hold up to 300 worshippers.
“The church provides salvation for people,” Hernandez said. “The church is the best light for hope in Cuba.”
❖ ❖ ❖
Hernandez is a link between Tampa and the province of Pinar Del Rio.
He was born in there in 1945 and served in the province's churches until the Cuban revolution.
He continued to say Mass in homes until he left the country in 1980 for Spain.
After a time in Puerto Rico, he moved to Tampa in 1993 and served at St. Paul Catholic Church, 12708 N. Dale Mabry Hwy., before joining St. Lawrence in 2010.
“My father was a tobacco farmer,” Hernandez said. “So Tampa was where I wanted to be because I knew of the connection. But my heart never left Cuba. I always wanted to go back.”
One of his trips back was in 1998, alongside Pope John Paul II.
“That trip opened the gates of Cuba to the world and the world to Cuba,” Hernandez said.
St. Lawrence Catholic Church has its own history with Cuba.
In July 2002, Msgr. Laurence Higgins, an Irish immigrant and founder of the church, joined a trip to Cuba led by Tampa Mayor Dick Greco and including 19 local business and political figures.
Prior to a meal the contingent shared with Fidel Castro, Greco asked if Higgins would say grace. Castro agreed.
In Greco's account, Castro bowed his head, closed his eyes and listened to the prayer intently.
Following the group's 3 1/2-half hour meeting with Castro, the Cuban leader asked Higgins if the church still preached that men go to hell for their sins. Higgins replied, according to Greco, with a quote from Proverbs 9:10: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Then Higgins blessed Castro.
“That was quite the experience,” Higgins told the Tribune on Tuesday, recalling the moment. “I am glad I was part of it.”
Higgins is retired from St. Lawrence. He said he was happy to hear news of the new church in Cuba.
“We're all the same,” he said.
Added Hernandez, “People here are always looking to the past when they talk about Cuba. I want to look to the future. The church can bring a better future to Cuba.”