Cuba to build first new Catholic church since Castro
By Patrick Oppmann, CNN
Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT) January 30, 2015
Cuban Catholics start building their first churches since 1959
Religious believers had been seen as suspicious under the Castro regime
The new churches are desperately needed, Cuban Catholics say
Sandino, Cuba (CNN)A neglected, weed-strewn field in a small Cuban town
where there are more horses than cars seems an unlikely setting for a
major shift in government policy.
But in the isolated town of Sandino, Cuba's first Catholic church since
the 1959 revolution took power is set to be built.
"There is money to start, there is the construction material to start,
there are the permissions to start, so everything is ready," said Bishop
Jorge Enrique Serpa Pérez, who oversees the diocese where the new church
will be built.
The Sandino church has been 56 years in the making, ever since Fidel
Castro took power and Cuba became an officially atheist state.
Religious people fell under suspicion by the new revolutionary
government, but none more so than those who belonged to the Catholic
Church, which was seen as being overly sympathetic to the Batista regime
that Castro had driven from power.
In the first years of the revolution, thousands of Catholic priests were
jailed or forced into exile, and church property, including the Jesuit
school that Castro attended, was seized by the Cuban government.
Only with the visit in 1998 of Pope John Paul II to the island did
relations between the Cuban government and Catholic Church begin to
thaw. Christmas again became a national holiday, and Cubans faced less
official discrimination for practicing their faiths.
In December, Cuban President Raul Castro thanked Pope Francis for his
role in the secret talks that led to a prisoner swap between Cuba and
the United States and the start of negotiations to restore full
In 2015, church officials said requests to build new churches that had
long been ensnared in red tape began to receive government approval.
While church officials said several new Catholic houses of worship are
in the works, the first will be built in Sandino, a remote town at the
end of a pothole-cratered road in Cuba's westernmost province.
The Rev. Cirilo Castro drives that road to Sandino once a week to
officiate Mass in a converted garage in the back of a house the church
rents. He has lost count of the miles he has put on his green Russian
Lada as part of his ministry to towns throughout the province.
When the new Catholic church is built -- the first in Sandino's history
-- Castro said he would move to minster there full time.
"I hope the church doesn't stay within the four walls," he said "That it
will go farther than that. That with the building of the new church,
there will be more people of faith," Castro said.
The Cuban Catholic Church desperately needs more followers in Cuba,
where in recent years the syncretic religion Santeria, that mixes
African religions with Catholicism, has exploded in popularity.
The church in Sandino will take about two years to build and when
completed will hold 200 people, Castro said.
Most of the $50,000 collected so far for the new church comes from
fund-raisers held by the St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Tampa, Florida.
"Much of Tampa's history and culture comes from Cuba," said the Rev. Tom
Morgan, St. Lawrence's vicar. "It's absolutely fantastic they are
building a new church, and I hope to be able to visit one day."
Morgan said he was optimistic that recent changes in U..S Treasury
Department regulations would make it possible for his church to send
supplies and building materials to Cuba to help with the construction of
the new church.
As she makes her way down a path to attend Mass in Cirilo Castro's
converted garage, Digna Martinez said she has waited more than five
decades for a church to be built in Sandino.
Martinez said she, her husband and two children were those relocated to
the town during early 1960s when a triumphant Fidel Castro was still
battling what he called "bandits," holdouts against his revolution
waging guerrilla warfare in the countryside.
While there is no official tally, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people
suspected of plotting against the revolution were shipped to Sandino to
live in a form of internal exile.
"It was a process to make a community for political prisoners," Martinez
said. "They took our farm away and brought us here."
A lifelong Catholic, Martinez said one of the most devastating things
about being forced to move 500 miles away from her home to a town she
had never heard of was that there was no church.
"Having a church is very important," she said. "Many of the people here
were brought up Catholic and need a church. We were baptized and prayed
when we went to bed and woke up, just like our parents and grandparents
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