For the first time since Fidel Castro’s rebel army overthrew the government of Fulgencio Batista in 1959, Cuba will see the construction of a new Catholic church.
In the ambitious project slated to start in the eastern Cuban city of Santiago, 25 tons of scrap metal used to construct the stage for Pope Benedict XVI’s 2012 visit to the island will be recycled and used to build the new church.
"Reusing the metal means keeping alive the memory of something good for us Catholics. It gives it new life, so it can serve future generations," Fausto Vélez, the engineer in charge of the project told the BBC.
While the church hopes to start raising the metal beams soon to start construction, it first must raise the money needed to fund the project. So far the church's main backer is Tampa's St. Lawrence parish, which consists mostly of the members who are either descendants of Cuban exiles or exiles themselves.
Though once-atheist Cuba has loosened its law against religion – secret baptisms are gone and even some Communist party members worship freely – the now secular state still has a dearth of churches. The Catholic Church has only been able to renovate existing structures or rebuild ones that had collapsed.
With only one more building permit pending, Catholics in Santiago are hopeful that their new church will soon herald more construction in the city, badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
Along with leaving 11 people dead, the hurricane destroyed Santiago’s wooden church of San Pedrito. The 93-year-old church is now little more than a concrete floor and an outline of its foundation, with whatever surviving remains – candlesticks, a wooden lectern and two chipped figurines from the nativity scene – stored at an elderly woman’s house across the street.
“The rest [of artifacts] were carried off by thieves," said Marta Pérez, who gathers with other parishioners in the Church’s ruins whenever a priest visits the area. "We really need our church back."
While parishioners of the San Pedrito Church hope to have their place of worship rebuilt, not far from there, in a neighborhood built after the revolution, the site of the new church is already lined up. It will take the space of a former parking lot, and according to the architectural drawing, the metal beams from 2102's stage will feature prominently in the new house of worship.
The permit still needs to be issued and $250,000 to finance the project – most from parishes abroad like Tampa's St. Lawrence – still needs to be raised, but Church officials are optimistic about the future of their new home and about the warming of relations between church and the Cuban state.
"I think this doesn't only show improving attitudes in Cuba to the Catholic Church, but to churches in general,” said Dionisio García, Archbishop of Santiago. “I think there's a better understanding of religious affairs.”