When Fidel Castro took over the island nation of Cuba, it officially become a nation of atheists. However, the Catholic community in Cuba continued to worship – privately, where necessary – and attempted to maintain existing churches. Castro’s regime would not allow the building of any new churches.
Now, there are plans to build a new church for the first time in fifty wars in Santiago, a city that suffered great damage from Hurricane Sandy two years ago. Santiago is home to one of Cuba’s great Catholic shrines, Our Lady of El Cobre, but the church there (riddled with termites and long-neglected) was destroyed in the hurricane.
There remains great poverty among many residents in the area, many of whom suffered great damage to their own homes from the hurricane. However, they want a church.
Back in the city, a smooth concrete floor and the outline of the altar are all that remains of the 93-year-old church of San Pedrito.
Across the road, an elderly parishioner has stored the few items salvaged from the wreck – a couple of candlesticks, a wooden lectern and two chipped figurines from the nativity scene.
“The rest were carried off by thieves,” Marta Perez explains, shaking her head.
She says the congregation still gathers in the street outside for mass whenever a peripatetic priest can visit.
“We really need our church back,” Ms Perez insists.
The project is largely being funded by a Catholic church in Tampa, Fla., home to many Cuban exiles or the descendants of exiles. Despite the fact that this project will take about $250,000 to complete, in an area where getting materials and working with bureaucracy can be difficult, the archbishop of Santiago is hopeful:
The Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba, Dionisio Garcia Ibanez, told the BBC: ‘I think it’s not only about improving attitudes to the Catholic Church, but to Churches in general. I think there’s a better understanding of religious affairs, so we hope it won’t only be this church that we build. We hope there’ll be more.’
While the majority of Cubans say they have been baptized, only a small portion practice their faith, partly due to the suppression of religion by the Communist regime, though many have maintained their faith in private. The building of this new church is a sign that religious liberty may be gaining a foothold once again in this heavily Catholic nation.