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Cuba building first church since Castro came to power
02:36 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

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 diplomatic relations.

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 taught us.”