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.
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