Where Cuban government can't provide, sisters and Catholic organizations fill the gaps

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Forbidden by the Communist government to run official Catholic schools, a congregation in Havana quietly offers alternative after-school courses focusing on the arts. Parents, who learn about the program by word of mouth or church bulletins, tell the sisters they'd prefer the classes focus on math and science rather than guitar lessons, theater and painting.

But one project in particular highlighted the merits of the artistic assignments.

"We asked the kids to draw someone who loves them very much, thinking they'd draw their mothers, their grandparents, someone from their home," one sister said. "Instead, they drew Fidel."

Fidel Castro led the Cuban Revolution and took power in 1959, implementing a communist agenda and depending on the Soviet Union for financial support until its fall in 1991. He was a dictator until 2006, when his health deteriorated and he ceded power to his brother Raúl. Fidel Castro died in 2016.

"This is what they're taught in school," the sister said. "It's drilled into them that Fidel loves them very much. That's the benefit of teaching the arts: You're teaching them to think for themselves, to develop independently."

The sister's after-school program — not illegal, but managed quietly and with careful language — is one of many programs throughout the island where Catholic sisters and organizations shore up social services otherwise lacking because of the struggles Cuba's economy face from the chill in relations with the United States. More than 75 percent of Cuban households earn less than $1,000 per year, according to the Boston Consulting Group, and 90 percent of Cubans use food rations, which cover the basics (such as flour and vegetable oil). Shortages occur often.

Through work by the sisters and other programs, the Catholic Church in Cuba extends its reach beyond parishes and strengthens ties with donors, often Cuban exiles in the United States and elsewhere.

As the Soviet Union broke up and support to Cuba stopped in the 1990s, the country entered an economic crisis, and the government realized it needed help, said Archbishop Thomas Wenski of the Miami Archdiocese. More than a third of Miami's population is from Cuba.

"Communism is the ultimate 'big daddy' state: They take care of everybody's needs," he said. "To recognize that a church or somebody else can provide social assistance was a bitter pill for the communists to swallow."

Following decades of repression, the Catholic Church in Cuba has been slowly rebuilding in the last 20 years. Visits from the last three popes have helped the church's standing with the government and the Cuban people, maintaining the Vatican's stance against the 1962 U.S. embargo of Cuba, which covered all economic, commercial and financial exports except for medicine and some foods. While U.S.-Cuba relations briefly warmed in 2015 under President Barack Obama, with embassies reopening in each country's capitals, the Trump administration once again tightened sanctions.

Care is taken to not draw too much attention from government officials lest there be repercussions. Fear of the government, which discourages publicity on how the church or organizations step in where the state falls short, manifested itself throughout conversations that Global Sisters Report had in various parts of Cuba, with subjects requesting anonymity for both themselves and the centers where they work.

"Publicity is bad because we're not the ones who are at risk," said one sister who works at a government-run home for people who are disabled that depends on the presence of her congregation. "The patients are the ones who suffer the consequences."

Repercussions for drawing too much attention to social services that the church provides may range in severity — a program can be closed, supplies not delivered or managers questioned and intimidated by government officials — so all are artful in the language they use to describe their programs. Still, some church-sponsored programs are well-known and successful in the cities, without interference from the government.

As one Cuban American academic said, "The church in Cuba is mostly there with and for the people, to lift them up, because a lot of people who are suffering do not have family in the outside" who can help them.

Those who are elderly who don't have family and can only rely on their meager government-provided retirement, he continued, might depend on church-sponsored comedores, or dining halls, where they can eat breakfast and another hot meal a day. People who need affordable medicine often turn to the church, too, which collects donations from parishioners and Cubans who have left the country.

The government is "forced to let the church take over some of the things that they considered to be their work, to help the people and feed them and all that," he said. "So the church is owning that."

Instilling values under the radar

In Santa Clara, about 175 miles east of Havana, a community of Capuchin sisters run a children's day care center. About 60 kids between the ages of 2 and 5 start their days at the day care at 7 a.m. and head home at 4 or 5 p.m. once their parents are off work.

The sisters' charism is education, and while they're not allowed to teach the children, the sisters' presence is a form of educating, one sister said, simply by living among them and explaining things when they're asked — an example of how sisters teach without the official schools that congregations once ran throughout Cuba.

"There's no possibility for the church to do any kind of formal education," said Fr. Alberto Garcia, a Cuban American spiritual counselor at Belen Jesuit Preparatory School in Miami. "But the church has been able to offer a number of educational programs in different centers. … There are a number of parishes that have a number of programs helping kids with their homework, support to parents, programs of human values formation, language courses, computer stuff.

"So the church has been able to open a few inroads. The government isn't particularly happy about that, but so far, they haven't stopped it. More and more, the church is beginning to do some contributions in terms of education."

In the government-run home for people who are disabled, sisters serve as the eyes and hands of the operation, a visible example of how the state depends on religious services. The 180 adults who live in this home suffer severe muscular and/or cerebral disabilities, with most unable to communicate verbally or eat independently. Some use wheelchairs. Their parents either couldn't afford to take care of them when they were children or were unable to, and while some parents still visit their children on the weekends, many of the parents have since died.

Because the adults who live there tend to stay until they die, the home is unable to admit many new patients.

Prior to the 1959 revolution, the sisters, who asked to remain anonymous, ran a school in that building. Once Catholic-run institutions were forced to shut down and the state took over the building, the government started bringing in people who were handicapped for the sisters to look after. But managing the place without officially running it, one sister said, is a difficult process.

All 27 staff members are employees of the state, with five sisters and three postulants in the home. Sisters and government personnel have a positive relationship, one sister said, but it's a delicate balance when the government is technically in charge of administration while the sisters say they have the "moral authority."

"The question is not to impose, but to teach, to try to value the human in the patient," one of the sisters said. "The people who get appointed here are not trained to deal with the situation. Their training is by way of being here for many years."

And despite a working relationship with government personnel, the sisters insist on a low profile so the space can remain open: The government discourages media coverage that suggests the state can't take care of its own.

'There's been a tremendous amount of generosity'

Caritas extends the church's reach to the larger community by filling gaps in social services throughout the island. And as with other programs, it also is helping to foster connections with the Cuban community in the U.S. and elsewhere. Financial support is provided through Boston-based Friends of Caritas Cubana.

Fundraisers are held annually in Boston, New York, Los Angeles and, since 2008, in Miami, said Consuelo Isaacson, president and chair of Friends of Caritas Cubana. Initial concerns that the strong anti-Castro sentiment in Miami would negatively affect efforts to raise money for Caritas proved to be unfounded.

"We were worried at first that people would criticize us, but no, there's been a tremendous amount of generosity in Miami," she said: More than 200 people attended a fundraiser in Miami last year.

In Cuba, support from Caritas also trickles to individuals who spearhead their own volunteer efforts.

Lidia Rivera, a laywoman from Santa Clara, set her attention in 1998 on Jorobada, a farm town less than 20 miles south of her home. With help from Caritas, Rivera's work became a source of survival for this community of bean- and plantain-planters, especially after Hurricane Irma in September.

After almost 50 days of no electricity or running water in Jorobada, Rivera dug a well with the help of the local church and Caritas. As a retired doctor, she also helps provide basic health care, such as treating parasitic infections, like worms, when they need it. This is a community that can't count on help from relatives outside Cuba to send money or resources.

Rivera said the purpose of her work in Jorobada "is only religious, and charity is a dimension of the evangelizing process."

A central improvement for that community was the community center, once a hut that has been renovated into a chapel, sacristy, kitchen and dining hall for the elderly, laundry facility, and a spare bedroom for when the priest sleeps over. Pens for rabbits, goats and pigs are interspersed around the center.

Volunteers offer tutoring, but because Jorobada is in a fairly remote area, the government would have trouble providing these services anyway, making it less taboo. The Marists used to have Catholic schools in the area, and their graduates regularly volunteer.

"We have no words for how Lidia has helped us," one resident said. "She's given her life, love and soul to this community."

Low profile, big impact

In the vibrant colonial town of Trinidad, Cuba, a pair of sisters who asked that their names and congregation remain anonymous live in a spacious home that's been transformed to accommodate up to 20 girls from nearby rural communities. They come to the city for education, staying with the sisters on weekdays at practically no charge and returning to their families on the weekends.

"They go to school outside this home, but the idea is that we give them an integral Christian formation," said one of the sisters, who's been running the home for five years.

"We try for them to live well and know God, that God loves them, so that in the future they can be the protagonists in their lives and defend themselves head-on," she said. "Sometimes girls resist coming at first, but the majority do want to come because they understand the risks that surround them. They know this is a home where they can be safe and with other young girls."

The sisters are familiar faces in the rural areas, visiting often to celebrate sacraments — baptisms, first Communions, confirmations — and they take these opportunities to observe how families are doing and which girls are in the most precarious situations. Far from the city mentality, one sister said, rural life can encourage early pregnancies, and some girls have three or four children while they are teenagers.

Before, the sisters took in girls between the ages of 18 and 21; now, the girls are 12 to 15 years old so the sisters can introduce positive influences in their lives sooner. "When they're older, they can defend themselves better," one sister said.

"When youth have grown deprived of values, it's very hard to take them forward, no matter how much you tell them, 'You are not in agreement with the society you have been dealt,' " said one sister who arrived in Trinidad days earlier but did similar work in Havana.

"The disintegration of the family is a challenge, because that leaves a lot of scars and calls for a very long process for them to feel firm in their value as a woman," the other sister said. "And it's hard when their values are so deteriorated. It's very difficult to do formation when one is already quite grown. You can help, but when they go back to Mom and Dad, all the work that we put in it goes under. So it's a challenge to get them to understand that all of this is for their own good."

The diocese and the sisters' congregation help finance boarding for the girls.

"We can't — nor should we — talk about things unrelated to Jesus," one sister said. "So people share a lot with us: their pains, their worries, their triumphs, their dreams. But we don't come with an agenda. We don't get involved in anything unrelated to our work. If people start to talk to us about other things, we tend to avoid it. Our only objective is bringing forth God's word."

Some girls have gone on to graduate from professional schools. One, they recall, became a doctor. And maybe some girls get pregnant shortly after they leave the home, one sister said, but they don't get an abortion.

"So, obviously, something has stayed with her, the value of families and caring for her family. We may have left in them just a grain of sand, but something stayed."

One girl arrived when she was still in elementary school, the younger end of the norm. She eventually joined their congregation — a favorite story of one of the sisters.

"We see the fruits of our work," she said. "They see the work of sisters who touched their lives; it's like a tiny hook. Of course, it isn't for all the girls. But them seeing our work and our influence and becoming curious and interested for themselves … it's a testimony to our presence here."

[Gail DeGeorge is editor of Global Sisters Report. Her email address is gdegeorge@ncronline.org. Follow her on Twitter: @GailDeGeorge. Soli Salgado is a staff writer for Global Sisters Report. Her email address is ssalgado@ncronline.org. Follow her on Twitter: @soli_salgado.]