Cuban Church Thrives on Adversity: Parish Grows to 200-Plus from Five in Five Years

Article excerpt

I FIRST FOUND REYNALDO Torres Deroncele, lay reader and community organizer at the Church of Santa Maria in Cuba, quite by accident. It was, you might say, a case of mistaken identity.

On a typically hot, sticky Santiago day, I had gone looking for the priest-in-charge of the four churches in the Santiago de Cuba district, Rev. Ulises Antonio Gonzales.

When I learned that Fr. Gonzales was not at home, a neighbour, assuming that one Episcopalian "padre" was as good as the next directed me, and the bilingual Cuban who was my translator, to the church of Santa Maria on the outskirts of the city.

Not realizing that we were now on the trail of a different man, my translator and I drove off toward Santa Maria. The neighbourhood changed as we neared our destination. We drove through choking clouds of diesel fumes, past hanging balconies, wrought-iron gates and gingerbread lattice-work.

Driving off the main street and down the road to Santa Maria, we passed small, poor dwellings, many below street level. People stood idly in the streets, men in threadbare shirts leaned in dark doorways.

The yellow stucco church stood on a corner. A tall man strode out from under a tree. He hailed us. We stopped the car and I noticed the ragged T-shirt hanging on his thin frame.

"Donde esta el sacerdote (where is the priest)?" I asked.

"Soy yo," he said in a gravelly voice. "It's me."

This, it turned out, was Reynaldo Torres Deroncele, former high-voltage electrician and lay reader of the Church of Santa Maria since 1941. (I later learned that Cuban lay readers carry many of the same responsibilities think of themselves as priests.)

The translator hurriedly explained that I was an Anglican journalist from Canada hoping to write about the work of the church in Cuba. Reynaldo eagerly offered himself to be interviewed.

To many Canadians, the existence of the Anglican - or, in this case, Episcopalian - church in Cuba comes as a surprise. But there is a rich and lengthy history of Anglicanism in Cuba, stemming from three different sources. One dates back to 1871 and a chance visit by an American bishop who had planned to go to Haiti. Back in the United States he recruited a missionary for Cuba, and a ministry for non-Roman Catholic foreigners in Cuba was born.

More significant to the church's growth was the contribution of Cuban patriots, exiled to the United States during Spanish Colonial rule who, as lay readers, established congregations when they returned to their homeland.

Later, a large influx of Anglicans from the Antilles brought their religious practice, and worshipped in English. This group is now dwindling in size, as most Cuban Episcopalians worship in Spanish and are blending a rich mix of Cuban and Spanish translations of Jamaican Anglican music into their worship.

For about 28 years, the revolutionary government in Cuba severely curbed church life by banning practising Christians from membership in the Communist party. No party membership, no job. Pews emptied, baptisms were rare, church marriages non-existent - and for some time, only the calls of birds and the voices of a few courageous parishioners were heard at worship.

In 1991, however, President Fidel Castro removed restrictions on religious practice. Meanwhile, the United States' blockade of Cuba and the collapse of the country's primary trading partner, the Soviet Union, were causing serious shortages of food and medical supplies.

With its government's estrangement from the United States, Cuba's Anglican church turned to Canada for help and support. …