Tampa, Florida, May 18, 2017 / 04:30 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Funded by a parish in Florida, a new Catholic church is being built in Cuba and is the first the island nation has seen in 60 years. Father Ramon Hernandez, pastor of St. Lawrence church in Tampa, said he and his parishioners are happy to see how their funds have financed the project, and said he looks forward to the inauguration Mass taking place early next year. Saint Lawrence provided $95,000 in donations for the church's construction in Sandino, Cuba, located in the western corner of the country.
The new church, alongside a refurbished synagogue in Havana, shows Cuba's progress in religious freedom since Fidel Castro ushered in communism during his revolution in the 1960s. Atheism was established as the belief system for the entire state, and many religious leaders were faced with persecution. In 1992, however, Cuba was made a secular state.
“Cuba is changing,” Fr. Hernandez said, according to the Tampa Bay Times. The priest is a native Cuban who celebrated Mass in churches hidden in the homes of faithful families. He left the country in the 1980s.
The new church will be called the Parish of Divine Mercy of Sandino, and will be led by Father Cirilo Castro. The 800 square foot building will have a maximum capacity of 200 people. An estimated 40,000 people live in the coastal town. The town's main industries involve citrus fruits, coffee, and fish.
The idea for the project was first conceived in 2010 by St. Lawrence's former pastor, who wanted a greater spiritual connection between Cuba and Tampa. Tampa and Cuba have already had strong ties over the importation of tobacco in the late 19th century.
During a visit to Tampa last month, Fr. Castro said that the roof was the last piece of the structure, expected to be installed by the end of June. The pews and the altar will be added over the next few months in preparation for the first mass taking place either in January or February of 2018.
The completion of Divine Mercy of Sandino marks a significant step towards religious freedom and amends to the faiths oppressed in previous years. Religions like Mormonism and Islam have also been given room to grow. “I see the stories of persecution of freedom of religion in Cuba but we now have a mixture of religions,” said José Ramón Cabañas, Cuba's ambassador to the United States in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times last week.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom acknowledged that churches have been dissembled and religious leaders have been arrested even within the past year. But the report reveals that nearly 70 percent of Cuba’s population is Catholic and additional five percent is Protestant, showing a greater attachment to the faith despite government meddling into religious affairs.
Religious persecution still lingers, but developments in religious freedom have notable increased, and this church is one of many planned to be erected in Cuba. Two other Catholic churches are currently under construction in Havana and Santiago.