US and Cuban Franciscan friars in Havana.

A couple of weeks ago, I was able to visit the country of Cuba as part of a delegation of eight US friars on a mission trip. We spent a week with the Franciscans friars in that country and were able to visit the city of Havana and the towns of Remedios and Trinidad.

In Havana, we stayed in the Franciscan friary located in the Santuario Nacional San Antonio de Padua and heard from the friars the history of the Franciscans in Cuba. Franciscans friars first came to the New World on Columbus’s second voyage and were thereafter engaged throughout the Spanish colonies. Between 1580 and 1591, a large missionary college was built in Havana for the education of Franciscan missionaries. The Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asis is now a concert hall in downtown Havana.

Santuario Nacional San Antonio de Padua

In 1887, six Basque friars came to Cuba to reestablish the order. By 1953, there were 105 friars, both Basque and Cuban, working in Cuba. Today, there are sadly only three friars left: two elderly Basque friars and one Cuban friar.

I’m not sure what I expected to find in Cuba after hearing for years tales of repression and political prisoners. What I discovered was a vibrant and engaged people full of curiosity and questions. There is a deep spirituality and yearning in the Cuban soul. The “Apostle of Cuban Indepence” (from Spain), José Martí, was a poet!

After the Cuba revolution in 1959, the Cuban government actively suppressed all churches. After the visits of Popes John Paul II (1998), Benedict (2011) and Francis (2015), the state gave increasing concessions to the church. Cubans are now fully free to attend church, and believers can now attend university and be party members.

The Cuban friars told us that they are now able to leave their church doors open and that people come out of curiosity and many stay to begin the process of learning about the Catholic faith. It is really a ripe time for growth and renewal of the church in Cuba.

In addition to our time in Havana, we visited two towns in the countryside. The friars had a church in Remedios, but had to give it up due to declining numbers. In this town, we visited two families. One had been large landowners and spoke of their pain at losing much of their land after the revolution. In spite of it all, though, regardless of persecution, they remained loyal to their faith.

In their house, we filed silently into the darkened bedroom of the matriarch of the family, who lay in bed dying of bone cancer. She cried tears of joy when she learned that nine Franciscan friars came to pray with her. We prayed with her and blessed her for her upcoming journey to the Lord.

Parents speaking with their son for the first time in nine months.

We also met with a poor family who had no land. They had a carefully maintained small house. The couple has only two adult children: a son and a daughter. A number of months ago, their son left for Perú, hoping to make his way up to the United States.

As part of the increasingly good relations between the US and Cuba, the US has changed its immigration policy for Cubans. Those making their way to the US are no longer automatically granted a green card.

Unfortunately, this couple’s son had left for Lima before the change in the policy and was now stuck there. He couldn’t continue to the US nor did he have funds to return to Cuba. The couple had not heard from their son for nine months.

The Cuban friar who accompanied us had a cell phone and the son’s cell phone number. He was able to complete a call to the son so that he could speak with his parents. We felt privileged to be able to witness such a touching moment.

At the end of our mission trip, I couldn’t but help to be impressed by the friendliness and openness of the Cubans we met. I was also struck by the opportunities now available for a rebirth of Catholic presence on the island. Let us hope and pray that the new policies of the Cuban government continue and that we are able to take advantage of this opportunity.

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Jim McIntosh

Director, US Franciscans Communications at US Franciscans
A former missionary to Perú and Bolivia, I am now working half-time at a parish in New Jersey and half-time as director of communications for US Franciscans.
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