By Patricia Zapor, Catholic News Service
HAVANA (CNS) -- The
faces of the people doing the business of the Cuban Catholic Church are a reflection
of a 50-year period of trying to keep the faith alive under circumstances that
have been, at best, complicated and, at worst, downright hostile.
In the course of a
few days in February spent visiting the cities that Pope Benedict XVI will see
when he makes a pilgrimage to Cuba March 26-28, Catholic News Service
encountered: two Spanish priests, an Argentine nun, four U.S. nuns, one
permanent deacon and a wide variety of diocesan priests and laypeople running
diocesan and national agencies. They all wore multiple hats.
The editor of a
highly regarded magazine for the laity is also on the staff of the Havana
Archdiocese's marriage tribunal. The deacon in charge of Santiago's mission
commission also works at the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre,
performing baptisms and other types of ministry.
The pastor of
Havana's cathedral is also director of the Father Felix Varela Cultural Center.
The woman in charge of lay leadership formation for the Santiago Archdiocese
also oversees education for all laity and nonbelievers. And the four U.S. nuns
who staff Havana's San Carlos and San Ambrosio Seminary handle cooking,
laundry, sewing, teaching English, managing the chapel and library. One of them
helped create the school's new website.
With only about 300
priests nationwide -- for comparison, there are nearly that many in the
Archdiocese of Miami -- the church in Cuba has long been a place for
What that leads to is
church workers who have a pretty good understanding of multiple levels of the
needs of ministry.
Cecilia Medina Soria, a Claretian missionary who has been in Cuba for 16 years,
is in charge of the youth ministry programs of the Archdiocese of Santiago de
Cuba. Deacon Felix Humberto Gonzalez Barduena is coordinator of the Mission
Commission of the same archdiocese.
In a joint interview,
the two discussed their work. One goal for both is to give Cuban people hope
and incentive to stay in the country and help it through its struggles.
"It is our hope
to have people stay, stay and fight for Cuba," said Deacon Gonzalez.
"Cubans suffer a
lot," chimed in Sister Cecilia.
"And the church
offers them hope," finished the deacon. "We accompany them in the
A quartet of nuns
from the United States also see their role as accompanying Cubans who will stay
and work for the church in their country.
Since January 2011,
four sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George, based in Alton, Ill.,
have been working at the Havana seminary.
When they arrived,
none spoke Spanish. Their assignment at the seminary happened with
head-spinning speed, they said.
On a visit to the
United States in the summer of 2010, Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino
stayed at the Washington residence of the apostolic nuncio, explained Sister
Eva-Maria Ackerman, superior of the small contingent of sisters. While there he
was impressed at the work by sisters of their order who staff the nunciature. The
cardinal contacted the provincial and asked if sisters of the order could staff
the new seminary, set to open the following January.
In a matter of a few
months, all the paperwork was handled, arrangements made, and the sisters had
left their jobs and packed up for Cuba.
Sister Eva-Maria had
most recently been superior of a home for the elderly in St. Louis. Now she
helps in the seminary's administration, including overseeing the launch of its
website in early March.
Sister M. Wiltraud
Alexander, a native of Germany who will turn 80 this spring, had been managing
the chapel at the motherhouse in Alton. Her jobs at the seminary include
working in its chapel and doing sewing.
Sister M. Philippa
Poulos and Sister M. Seraphica Montez were teachers, respectively, at schools
in Wildwood, Mo., and LaCrosse, Wis. Sister Philippa works in the seminary's
kitchen and laundry but hastens to add that "our main role is to provide a
feminine religious presence for the seminarians." Sister Seraphica teaches
English, works in the library and keeps plants on the grounds alive, she said.
"It's been an
overwhelming experience," said Sister Eva-Maria. "I didn't even think
about Cuba before I was called to come here."
In conversations at
the seminary and in follow-up emails, the sisters talked about the struggles of
being away from their community and family in the U.S., of missing a Big Mac,
fries and a Coke from McDonald's. They described their own education processes:
learning Spanish, adjusting to a simpler kind of life and getting to know the
Sister Seraphica said
her hardest struggle is for "patience! Patience with learning the life of
a new culture, patience learning a new language and a new way of doing
Sister Philippa said
she was a bit surprised to learn how simply Cubans live.
"Their diets are
simple. They don't have the busy, hectic lifestyles of Americans," she
said, adding, "they do without many things and still are happy
Among their own
lessons, Sister Wiltraud said she wishes that North Americans understood that
"the Cuban people are very creative and very kind and that Cuba is a
observed that "some Cubans know a lot more about the American way of life
than we sisters know. They listen to American music, wear clothes with logos
from the U.S. and view our movies."