Saturday, May 25, 2013

Parish priests in rural Cuba are stepping in where the government is falling short

Posted on Friday, 05.24.13

Parish priests in rural Cuba are stepping in where the government is
falling short
How to help:
Donations to help the placetas can be made out to the Fundacion
Monsignor Fernando Prego and sent to Santiago Alpizar, a Placetas native
and Miami lawyer, at 1699 Coral Way, Suite 512, Miami, 33145.

By Juan O. Tamayo

Juan Ivo Urvoy Roslin says his work as the chief parish priest in the
town of Placetas in central Cuba requires him to be a bit like a family
doctor — a generalist rather than just a theologian or educator.

"It's not just spiritual sustenance. What is needed is an integrated
approach" to helping his flock, said the French-born, 45-year-old member
of St. Martin of Tours, a traditional order whose priests still wear
ankle-length cassocks.

For the past seven years, the priest — who prefers to be called simply
"Juan Ivo" — and four other members of his order have therefore been
seeking donations to fund a range of services in Placetas, a town and
broader municipality of about 70,000 people about 185 miles east of Havana.

Local authorities may look a tad dubiously at all their activities. But
as the cash-strapped Raul Castro government is forced to trim its
spending on health, education and welfare programs, Catholic and other
churches throughout the island have been expanding their humanitarian work.

Some churches are even offering classes on computers and how to
establish and manage one of the many categories of small enterprises
allowed under Castro's economic reforms.

The Placetas parish runs five canteens that feed up to 120 people one or
two times a week, and maintains a small dispensary of donated medicines,
Urvoy told El Nuevo Herald while visiting Miami to raise funds for the

And although the government does not allow private schools, about 160
primary and secondary school students are being tutored by 12 teachers
contracted by the parish to cover the gaps in the state education system.

The parish also provides housing Monday through Friday for nine youths
who live in the countryside and would have long daily commutes to
school, or who live in town in overcrowded homes and want some peace and
quiet for their studies.

For youths not likely to move on to college the priests have arranged
carpentry lessons, said Juan Pichon, 30, another French-born St. Martin
de Tours priest who arrived in Placetas in 2008 and now handles most of
the youth activities.

"They bring oxygen and a healthy, independent life to this place," said
one Placetas resident who asked for anonymity because he is a government
critic and did not want local authorities to punish the priests for his

For sport, Urvoy, a cycling aficionado, has organized the Catholic
Cycling Club of Placetas — CCCP in both English and Spanish — with 45
members who compete every month among themselves or against
state-sponsored cycling teams.

He collects donations of cycling gear during his annual visits to South
Florida, but he also buys himself a road racing bike every year and
donates the old ones to the club.

The priests also make the rounds of the municipalities aboard donated
mountain bikes when their vehicles — a 1952 Ford truck and a Soviet-made
Lada car "that works one day and not the next" — are not available,
Pichon said.

Bishop Arturo Gonzalez of the surrounding Santa Clara archdiocese asked
the St. Martin of Tours order to send priests to Placetas in 2006
because of Cuba's long-running shortage of Catholic priests. The island
has 340 priests, slightly more than half of them foreigners.

The parish runs on a budget of about $90,000 a year — about $40,000 that
it receives from the order in France; $35,000 from religious groups such
as Caritas, the church's international aid network; and $15,000 from
donors in South Florida.

Urvoy and Pichon spoke carefully about their relations with the
government — officially atheist until 1992 and still controlled by the
Communist Party of Cuba.

The party's Office of Religious Affairs must approve all activities from
church repairs to visas and the importation of bibles, and its branch in
Placetas has a young man in charge of relations with all religious
groups in the town.

Urvoy said relations with the government have "improved somewhat" in
recent times — a comment in line with a State Department report Monday
that although Cuba eased controls on religious activities in 2012, in
general it maintained "significant restrictions" on freedom of religion.

As an example, the priest recalled an incident last year when the statue
of Our Lady of Charity, Cuba's patron saint, was paraded through
Placetas as part of the celebrations marking the 400th anniversary of
the statue's discovery.

As the procession passed near the home of Jorge Luis García Pérez, a
dissident best known as Antúnez who has been arrested dozens of times in
recent years, his wife, Yris Tamara Pérez Aguilera, joined the
procession, he recalled.

Urvoy said he called her to him and told her that nothing would happen
to her if she did not turn the procession into a political event. Two
blocks down, local authorities approached him to complain about her
presence, but they accepted his reply.

"The virgin is for everyone," he told them.

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