HAVANA, CUBA – A group of eight U.S. Franciscan friars visited Cuba as part of a mission trip April 22-29, 2017. The friars visited the city of Havana and the towns of Remedios and Trinidad.
Friars David Convertino OFM, John Frambes OFM, Jim McIntosh OFM, Bill McIntyre OFM, Paul O’Keeffe OFM and Frank Sevola OFM are members of Holy Name province and Provincial Minister David Gaa OFM and Friar Bob Valentine OFM are members of the St. Barbara province.
In Havana, the friars lived with the Cuban friars and shared meals and experiences with them. They wore their habits to Sunday Mass, make home visits to share a meal with parishioners, toured the city and learned about indigenous faith expressions, such as Santería.
In Remedios, they visited families affected by the revolution, both poor and formerly rich, both Catholic and non-religious; and in Trinidad, they learned about the conditions of the slave trade.
“I found seeing and living in a communist state from the eyes of people who live under that rule to be both enriching and distressing at the same time. The people of God that I met were very impressive, courageous and undaunting in the face of the state. The families that we met were excited and had pride in their church,” said Bob Valentine
Friar Paul O’Keeffe OFM, the mission promoter for Holy Name Province, organized the mission trip. It was the tenth mission trip to Cuba that Paul has organized in the last 13 months. This was the first trip only for friars; the other trips were for parish and school groups. There are two more trips organized for this year, May 20-27 and Nov. 11-18. The next friar trip will be in 2018, although the exact date has not been set.
For many years following the Cuban revolution in 1959, the government actively tried to suppress religious activity. With the visits of Popes John Paul II (1998), Benedict (2011) and Francis (2015), the state gave increasing concessions to the church. Believers, for example, can now be party members and attend the university.
In 1887, six Basque friars arrived to reestablish the Order of Friars Minor in Cuba. By 1953, there were 105 friars living in 17 friaries through the island. They worked in 18 parishes (serving a total of 66 churches and chapels). There were 1,300 students enrolled in 12 parochial schools. There were 12 secular Franciscan fraternities.
After revolution of 1959 and subsequent active suppression of the church by the government – along with various internal problems among the friars – the number has shrunken drastically. There are now only three solemnly professed friars in Cuba: two elderly friars who are originally from the Basque country and one Cuban friar. There are two simply professed Cuban friars, one studying theology in Havana and one studying in Puerto Rico, and two postulants. There are two candidates living in the friary.
“I saw a very faithful grass-roots church community. We saw 40 people in church on Sunday who were really happy to be there. The people we spoke to afterwards love the church and love the friars. The best part of the trip, though, was being with the friars. The way they live was very impressive, almost overwhelming to me: listening to their experience and listening to their needs, but also, just the genuine happiness that they seem to have,” said Frank Sevola.
As Paul O’Keeffe points out, “The state of the order in Cuba is precarious and uncertain. The friars seem welcoming to any friar who wishes to come and work with them but they've also specified that they need friars who are committed to living a simple life with an emphasis on community living.“
“I think that friars would really benefit from this trip. We saw Franciscan life lived so differently from the way we live it – not foreign to us, but different,” pointed out Frank Sevola.
Bob Valentine added, “I would recommend the trip, especially if friars could do it in a group such as this. It adds a special dimension. I absolutely would recommend it.”