The Iglesia Episcopal de Cuba is a full member of the Anglican Communion but not part of a formally recognised province. It is one of six extra-provincial churches. Anglican churches here once formed a diocese of the US-based Episcopal Church, but following the Cuban Revolution and the US-blockade it was forced to become independent; albeit with the support of a Metropolitan Council encompassing the primates of the Anglican church of Canada, the Church in the Province of the West Indies, and the US-based Episcopal Church. In July 2018, the Episcopal Church General Convention, meeting in Austin, Texas, voted to restore the diocese to the province. Ahead of that vote, the Revd Marek Zabriskie led a fact-finding pilgrimage to Cuba with members of his St Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania. In this report, first published in the April 2018 edition of Anglican World, he sets out what he found.
When Castor took over Cuba in 1959 and pursued a communist ideology, it became impossible for the US-based Episcopal Church to stay connected with the 2,000 members of the Episcopal Church of Cuba. The state declared atheism its philosophy, and detention camps were established for those who openly practiced religion. An entire generation was lost from the Church.
But many Christians quietly struggled to maintain and practice their faith. Today, the Episcopal Diocese of Cuba has 6,000 members served by 23 clergy in 46 congregations, and three seminarians. It has six cars and a handful of motorcycles; clergy travel by bus, on foot or by hitchhiking to serve multiple churches. The Diocese has an operating budget of only $90,000 USD (approximately £64,000 GBP). Clergy receive a salary of just over $1,000 dollars a year, thanks to donations from the Friends of the Episcopal Church of Cuba. Until this year, they earned a mere $55 per month.
The first Protestant churches in Cuba were built by Episcopalians; but today many congregations meet in members’ homes, because their church was destroyed by a hurricane and during the “Atheist Period” the government refused to allow them to rebuild. Since the death of Fidel Castro, the government is beginning to issue some licenses to rebuild.
“It’s very challenging,” Father Gilberto Hunco, Rector of La Iglesia de San Pablo in Cienfuegos, said. “I’m constantly searching for funds to repair my car so that I can serve my other churches.” His car is a 32-year-old Russian import.
“Over the last 15-20 years, the relationship between the church and the state has got better. You can now be a Christian and a member of the Communist Party,” Hunco said. “I have members of my church who are members of the Communist Party – some openly and some covertly. The State has come to realise that the Church has values that are helpful to society.”
San Pablo was founded in 1937 when Americans working in the sugar industry asked for clergy and a church to be built. “The work of the women in the church in Cuba is very good,” he said. “The Association of Episcopal Women kept the churches open during the 1970s and 1980s. Without them, we would have no churches today.”
The Bishop of Cuba, Griselda Delgado del Carpio, with the Revd Marek Zabriskie and 100 Spanish language Books of Common Prayer which was donated to the Episcopal Church of Cuba by the Pennsylvania pilgrims.
In 1903, Emilio Planas, a former slave who became the first indigenous priest of the Episcopal Church of Cuba, founded the church of San Felipe Diacono to serve other former slaves. It is the third oldest Episcopal church in Cuba but was all-but destroyed by a hurricane in 1987. Ever since, the parishioners have worshipped in the tiny clergy vesting sacristy, which was the only portion of the church to survive the hurricane.
Today, the congregation is composed of 36 members, 34 of whom are black women who are descendants of slaves. These brave women worshipped faithfully during the Atheist Period despite prohibitions and great adversity.
“These are very faithful, loving women who care a great deal for this church,” said the church’s Rector, the Revd Marianela de la Paz. She is working with the Revd Dr Clara Luz Ajo Lazaro, Vice-Rector of the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Matanzas, to raise $148,000 to rebuild their church and create a parish hall and a rectory in the town of Limonar, a town of 10,333 inhabitants in one of Cuba’s former sugar-producing regions. The sugar industry has struggled for years and is only now starting to make a comeback.
Pensylvania pilgrims standing by the clergy vesting sacristry which is all that remains of San Felipe Diacono in Limonar
Water in Cuba is hard. It has bad effects on the health and destroys the teeth of Cubans. In Mantanzas, la Iglesia Fieles a Jesus, the oldest Episcopal church in Cuba, provides fresh water to benefit 1,800 members of the city. “People associate our cathedral as a source of healing and health for the entire community,” said the Revd Tulia Sanchez Ortiga, their rector.
Our pilgrimage team took a driving tour of Havana in vintage 1950s American cars, which are treasured in Cuba. New cars are non-existent so Cubans drive vintage American cars or little Russian cars; or ride on carts pulled by horses or oxen. Havana is lost in a time warp and is of full of stunning architecture and crumbling facades.
Since the Cuban Revolution and the American Blockade, the 12 million people of Cuba have been cut off from much of the world. Like Noah’s ark, they are surrounded by water and feel isolated. The Castro regime has been brutal over the years, silencing and killing opponents and exporting revolution while failing to improve Cuba economically. Yet the Cubans have an excellent, free health-care system available to every citizen, unlike in the US. They have nearly eradicated illiteracy and have greatly improved their educational system.
Archbishop Fred Hiltz of the Anglican Church of Canada has said that his province will continue to have a relationship with the Church in Cuba even if it is restored to its former home in the Episcopal Church. “There’s a kind of a mix of emotion – there’s a great sense of anticipation about being reintegrated into TEC, and they can see some of the advantages of that,” Hiltz told the Anglican Journal after visiting Cuba for their Synod in February 2018. “At the same time many members of the Cuban church are a little anxious about this relationship with the Anglican Church of Canada because, as they will say themselves, the Anglican Church of Canada accompanied them for so long.”
- Since this report was first published in the April 2018 edition of Anglican World, the Episcopal Church’s General Convention voted to readmit Cuba as a diocese. In September this year, a special Synod will be held in Cuba at which the diocese will vote to amend its constitution and canons to conform to those of the Episcopal Church. Following this, the Secretary of the General Convention will certify compliance ahead of the October 2019 meeting of TEC’s Executive Council, which is expected to formally complete the processes of admitting Cuba as a diocese.