HAVANA, Cuba — A group of eight U.S. Franciscan friars visited Cuba this spring as part of a mission trip.
The group – which from April 22 to 29 visited the city of Havana and the towns of Remedios and Trinidad – included members of two provinces: David Convertino, OFM, John Frambes, OFM, William McIntyre, OFM, Paul O’Keeffe, OFM, Frank Sevola, OFM, and me from Holy Name Province, and Provincial Minister Fr. David Gaa, OFM, and Br. Bob Valentine, OFM, from 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, made 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 engaging with the Cuban community to be both enriching and distressing. The people of God that I met were very impressive, courageous and undaunted in the face of many difficulties. The families that we met were excited and had pride in their church,” said Br. Bob.
Paul, the mission promoter for Holy Name Province, organized the mission trip. It was the 10th mission trip to Cuba that Paul has organized in the last 18 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 – from May 20 to 27 and from Nov. 11 to 18. The next friar trip will be from April 7 to 14, 2018 Those interested in learning more about a mission trip to Cuba with the Franciscan Missionary Union are asked to contact Paul O’Keeffe at email@example.com.
In 1887, six Basque friars arrived to re-establish 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 Catholic schools run by the friars. The country also had 12 secular Franciscan fraternities.
After the revolution of 1959, the number shrank drastically. There are now only three solemnly professed friars in Cuba: two of them are elderly. 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 grassroots church community,” said Frank, pastor of St. Mary’s Parish in Pompton Lakes, N.J. “We saw 40 people in church on Sunday who seemed 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.”
In an article titled “To Cuba With Love” published in the May 18 issue of The Beacon, the newspaper of the Diocese of Paterson, N.J., Frank said, “The Cuban people are filled with hope in God, the future and each other. They are happy, smiling and joyful. They are also prayerful. They can’t take their faith for granted. Religious freedoms have opened up a bit but they still have to be cautious.”
As Paul points out, “The state of the Order in Cuba is precarious and uncertain. The friars are 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. The friars in Cuba are requesting priests to come and care for the sacramental needs of the faithful.”
“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,” said Frank.
Bob 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.”
— Br. Jim, a resident of Philadelphia, is national social media director for the U.S. Franciscans. On May 12, a reflection by Jim about the trip to Cuba was posted on the USFranciscans website as part of the Friar Friday series.
- “Mission Experiences Provide Powerful witness to Faith” – June 29, 2016, HNP Today
- “Mission Trip Opportunities Expand Through FMU” – July 21, 2015, HNP Today
- “Florida Campus Minister Travels to Nicaragua with Mission of Hope Group” – April 6, 2011 HNP Today