Religious history is set to be made in Cuba thanks to the efforts of Tampa's St. Lawrence Catholic Church.
On Jan. 26, the first new Catholic church will be inaugurated on the island since the Cuban Revolution 60 years ago ushered in an era of atheism.
St. Lawrence, at 5225 N. Himes Ave. in Tampa, led the effort to raise the $95,000 needed to build the church in Sandino — a town of 40,000 people in the far-western coastal province of Pinar del Rio.
"It's been beautiful to watch a project come to be, through the efforts of individuals who care and take initiative to accomplish something good," said Father Chuck Dornquast, parochial vicar at St. Lawrence.
The venture began in 2010 when Father Tom Morgan, then pastor of St. Lawrence, expressed interest in a spiritual partnership with Cuba.
Father Ramon Hernandez, a native of Cuba and also a priest at St. Lawrence, got the ball rolling by reaching out to Father Cirilo Castro, then a priest in Sandino. With no church, people who lived there worshipped in homes.
A partnership was formed. The Cuban government approved construction and sold land to the Sandino parish. St. Lawrence started a fundraising campaign that brought in money from its own parishioners and from people throughout the country.
"Donations came from as far as San Francisco, New York, Wisconsin," said Luisa Long, coordinator of Hispanic ministries for St. Lawrence. "This was handled through St. Lawrence but made possible by many."
The Sandino church is named the Sagrado Corazon de Jesus, Spanish for Sacred Heart. It was originally to be called Divina Misericordia de Sandino — Divine Mercy of Sandino.
The Catholic church is made of concrete block with a galvanized roof and has 800 square feet of interior space room, for 200 people to worship. Pews are wooden, the floor is granite and the altar is marble.
"Those who have worked together to assist our Cuban brothers and sisters in building a new church have done so because they are our brothers and sisters," said Father Morgan, the former St. Lawrence pastor who is now serving as pastor at St. Jerome Catholic Church in Largo.
A Tampa church, Morgan added, was a good fit to lead this historic endeavor.
The city's ties to Cuba date to the 19th century when immigrants from the nation just 90 miles off Florida's shores helped found Ybor City and turn it into the cigar capital of the world. Today, the Tampa Bay area boasts the third largest Cuban-American population.
Everyone in Sandino "is excited about the new church," said Father Hernandez, who will represent St. Lawrence at the inauguration, "not just the Catholics but the whole town."
And in the years since the Cuban government permitted construction of the Sandino Catholic, work has begun on at least two other churches — one in Havana and one in Santiago.
"Something beautiful is happening," Father Hernandez said.
Still, Kristina Arriaga, vice-chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, does not see real change coming to the spiritual landscape of Cuba while religious leaders continue to be harassed and imprisoned if their views do not conform to the government's.
"Whenever an authoritative government like the Castro regime allows for the building of a church, one has to wonder if this is a PR stunt, which Cuba is very good at, or a show of real change," Arriaga said.
She noted that a proposed draft of a new constitution for Cuba could be approved in January but does not include language upholding international standards for religious freedom set by the United Nations. Instead, the document includes only vague language addressing religious freedom.
"I think the people who funded this church are very well-intentioned and I hope that this is a real sign of change," Arriaga said. "But the building of a church has to be accompanied by the Cuban government allowing the building of a civil society."
When the Cuban Revolution instilled the tenets of Marxism across the island, the open practice of religion was outlawed, church properties were nationalized, and religious leaders exiled.
Then in the 1990s, Cuba's Communist Party removed atheism as a prerequisite for membership, Cuba was declared a secular state, Christmas was named a national holiday and Pope John Paul II visited the island.
As much as 70 percent of Cubans identify as Roman Catholic, according the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Still, lacking churches now, people living in many towns hold Mass in homes.
That soon will change in Sandino.
"Those who participated in this project didn't usurp the responsibility given to us by Matthew's Gospel to proclaim the Gospel to the ends of the earth," said Dornquast at St. Lawrence. "They found a way to take up their own baptismal call, to rely on grace, and trust that the Holy Spirit would take care of the rest."
Contact Paul Guzzo at email@example.com or follow @PGuzzoTimes.