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Backed by Tampa's St. Lawrence parish, rural town dedicates first Catholic church in Cuba in 60 years

When the Cuban Revolution introduced Marxist rule, the open practice of religion was outlawed, church properties were nationalized, and religious leaders were exiled.
Published Jan. 29

The rural town of Sandino, where people still travel by horse and buggy, hangs from the very western tip of Cuba — more than 150 miles from the capital city of Havana.

But on Saturday, Sandino drew international attention when news organizations including CNN and the BBC came to record history: the dedication of the first new Catholic Church in the socialist nation since Fidel Castro's Cuban Revolution in 1959.

Tampa's St. Lawrence Church made it possible.

The parish at 5225 N Himes Ave led a campaign that raised $95,000 for construction of Sandino's Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish.

Donations came from the Tampa Bay area, home to the nation's third largest Cuban-American population, and from around the country.

"Six decades after the Cuban Revolution, a new sign of faith," the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg declared on its website.

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Among those attending the dedication were Father Ramón Hernandez, a Cuban immigrant and retired priest who helped start the campaign in 2010, and Father Chuck Dornquast, parochial vicar of St. Lawrence Parish,

"It was a beautiful experience to be there with the people of Cuba," Father Dornquast said, "and to see how the people responded to having their own church."

Before the inaugural Mass, holy water was sprinkled on the building and the church's key was presented to Bishop Jorge Enrique Serpa of the Cuban province of Pinar Del Rio.

With an interior measuring 800 square feet, the church can seat 200. On Saturday, more than 500 squeezed inside.

"There were a few dogs too," Father Dornquast said with a laugh.

When the Cuban Revolution introduced Marxist rule, the open practice of religion was outlawed, church properties were nationalized, and religious leaders were exiled.

Cghange came in the 1990s when 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 nation.

"This represented a shift in the communist regime to tolerate some expressions of faith," the Diocese of St. Petersburg wrote on its website.

As many as 70 percent of Cubans identify as Roman Catholic, according the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Before Saturday's church dedication, Catholics among Sandino's population of 40,000 celebrated Mass in homes.

With walls of concrete block and a galvanized metal roof, the new bright-yellow church may seem primitive by U.S. standards, Father Dornquast said. But for many parishioners in the rural town, it couldn't be more beautiful.

Upon entering, some wept.

"That experience," Father Dornquast said, "of seeing them walk into a space like that, that they can call their own, that alone was special."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or follow@PGuzzoTimes.

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