Faith now counts among the ties that bind Tampa and Cuba thanks to the completion soon of the first new Roman Catholic Church in the island nation since its government embraced the atheist tenets of Marxism nearly 60 years ago.
The new church in the city of Sandino at the western tip of Cuba is being funded entirely with $95,000 in donations collected by St. Lawrence Catholic Church of Tampa.
"We are very happy," said Father Ramon Hernandez of St. Lawrence, 5225 N Himes Ave., who led the effort. "We look forward to the inaugural mass."
Father Cirilo Castro, pastor of the new church, visited Tampa earlier this month with an update on the progress of construction. Only the roof remained to install, Hernandez said, and the work was expected to wrap up by the end of June.
Pews, an altar and other features will be added during the next few months with the first Mass scheduled for January or February.
The one-story, 800-square-foot building will have a capacity of 200 and is the first ever church erected in Sandino, a town of about 40,000 in coastal Pinar del Río province, where fishing, coffee and citrus are main industries.
It will be called the Parish of Divine Mercy of Sandino.
Until now, local Catholics have worshiped in private homes.
"Cuba is changing," Hernandez said.
When Fidel Castro and his revolution ushered in Marxism in the early 1960s, the open practice of religion ended in Cuba. Church properties were nationalized and religious leaders exiled.
Hernandez, born in Cuba in 1945, would say Mass in homes until he left his native country in 1980.
But in 1991, the Cuban Communist Party removed atheism as a prerequisite for membership. A year later, the party declared Cuba a secular state and in 1998, just before a historic visit by Pope John Paul II, Christmas was made a national holiday.
Sixty to 70 percent of Cubans are now Roman Catholic, according to a 2017 report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent federal commission.
"I see the stories of persecution of freedom of religion in Cuba but we now have a mixture of religions," José Ramón Cabañas, Cuba's ambassador to the United States, told the Tampa Bay Times during his visit to St. Petersburg last week.
That includes Mormonism and Islam, he said — religions that had no foothold in Cuba until recent years.
"And we have done a lot of refurbishing of not only Catholic churches but temples and we have a synagogue in Havana," Cabañas said.
Still, the religious freedom commission reports that strides made by the Cuban government have come amid continuing restrictions.
The government still must approve any processions or events held outside religious buildings, for example. In addition, religious leaders who speak out against the government are harassed and temporarily detained, the report says.
The idea to build a church in Sandino dates to 2010 when Father Tom Morgan, then-pastor of St. Lawrence church, advised Hernandez of his interest in forming a spiritual partnership with Cuba.
Hernandez reached out to Father Castro in Cuba and together they sought permission to build a new church.
The Cuban government approved the necessary permits then sold the land for a "cheap symbolic price," Hernandez said.
St. Lawrence held at least two special collections a year through 2016, and individuals and organizations from around the country contributed money as well.
Tampa's historic ties to Cuba date to the 1880s with the establishment here of cigar factories using Cuban tobacco. The ties were strengthened soon afterward when the city played host to José Martí, a leader of Cuba's fight for independence from Spain.
Building a new church in Sandino for just $95,000 may seem like something of a miracle, Hernandez said with a laugh, but not counted in the cash total is the donation of supplies and many hours of volunteer labor.
Now, at least two other new Roman Catholic Churches are under construction in Cuba — one in Havana and another in Santiago. Both are funded by parishes outside the island, Hernandez said.
"The gate is now open," he said. "I hope more come."
Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] Follow @PGuzzoTimes.