In December 2022, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate celebrated 25 years of their missionary presence in Cuba.

Extracts from an article written by Tomasz Szafranski OMI

To incarnate ourselves in the people and the Church of Cuba – this was the first objective of the first missionary group that arrived on the island on 15 December 1997.

The Oblates were invited to found their mission in Cuba as early as the 70’s of the last century, but for various reasons, it was not until 1995, at the Intercapitular meeting, that the Major Superiors accepted the commitment, entrusting the Province of Haiti to take on this new mission. On the advice of the Cuban bishops, the Mexican province also joined in this responsibility.

The mission of Cuba was officially promulgated by the Provincial Superior of Mexico, Fr. Vicente Louwagie OMI, on 26 July 1997 at a Eucharistic celebration in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.

Thus began the new Oblate adventure in Cuba. The missionary group was composed of 6 Oblates: 4 priests and 2 scholastics. Gilberto Piñón, superior of the new mission (Mexico), Fr. Pablo Fuentes (Argentina), Fr. Adrián Difícil (Haiti), Fr. Daniel Díaz (Mexico), two Haitian scholastics Claudio Gilbert and Ocelin Civil. After their arrival, the Oblates participated in an inculturation workshop for all the foreign agents who had entered Cuba that year, organized by Bishop Emilio Aranguren Echeverría, bishop of Cienfuegos at that time. We thank Bishop Emilio for welcoming and accompanying the Oblates on their arrival in Cuba.

Celebration of the 25th anniversary of the oblates in Cuba, Jesus Nazarene parish in los Palacios, Pinar del Río.

Although today there is no longer an Oblate presence in these places, it is worth mentioning the three missions where the Oblates began in Cuba: Parish of San José, Abreus, Cienfuegos (Diocese of Cienfuegos); Parish of San José, Martí, Matanzas (Diocese of Matanzas); Parish of San José, Yaguajay, Sancti Spiritus (Diocese of Santa Clara).

The beginning of 1998 was filled with joy and hope because of the visit of Pope St. John Paul II in Cuba, there was a large return of the faithful to the churches and mission houses and the number of recepients of the Sacraments increased.

In August 1999, the Oblates decided to leave the mission in Cienfuegos and begin a new commitment in the Archdiocese of Havana, in the parish of San Isidro, Managua. This change allowed us to accompany Brother Jesús Ernesto, who decided to stay in Cuba and continue his theological studies at the National Seminary of San Carlos. In 2003 he was ordained deacon in the parish of San Isidro de Managua by the Cardinal of Havana Jaime Ortega and later ordained priest in Mexico.

In the year 2000, the Oblate Congress that was held in Mexico, allowed for an evaluation of the mission on the island. The Oblates of Cuba determined as their greatest challenge: How to be a Missionary Oblate in the present day context in Cuba?

This question expresses the quest of the missionaries to find their place in the Cuban Church and to maintain the necessary personnel for the mission. The years that followed brought great difficulties in this area. We had several Oblates who for a time supported the mission, but for various reasons (health, personal situation, difficulties in living and doing pastoral work, etc.) they returned to their provinces.

Celebrating 25 years of presence of the Oblate Missionaries in Cuba. Virgin of Carmen de Cojimar Parish in Havana.

In November 2003, the Oblate Congress of the province of Mexico was held where Fr. Gilberto Piñón was elected provincial, and so he had to leave the mission in January 2004. With this election, Fr. Adrián was appointed as the new superior of the mission.

The year 2005 brought us an invitation for a new mission in the diocese of Pinar del Rio. The Oblates re-established themselves in the community of Los Palacios, where they continue to carry out their mission to this day.

The following year, it was decided to leave the Matanzas mission. Also in 2006, the Superior of the mission, Father Adrián, decided to return to his province of Haiti. Father Daniel was apointed the new Superior. That same year, the province of Haiti ended, for the time being, its participation in the Cuban mission due to the lack of available personnel, and the Province of Mexico took over the administration of the mission.

These changes, though difficult and demanding, helped us to confirm our commitment to the Cuban mission, for in 2007 we celebrated ten years since the arrival of the Oblates in Cuba.

In 2011, Father Alberto took over the responsibility for the mission. At the end of March 2012 Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Cuba, we rallied from all over the island to the celebrations which marked another milestone in the Cuban Church; a wider participation in the life of the communities.

It was also a year of other changes, with the presence of Fr. Provincial and the Councilor for Latin America, Fr. Miguel Fritz, it was decided to return to Havana and conclude the mission in Yaguajay, which was one of the first to be undertaken in Cuba. A new mission was accepted in the province of Mayabeque. In August, Father Loorthusami from India and Deacon Isidro from Mexico, arrived to join the mission. For a very short time we had the presence of Father Florencio Robles (Mexico) and in 2013 Father Gerardo Lestrat from Canada.

The following year, 2014, new missionaries were incorporated to maintain the mission in Cuba. Fathers Roger Halle (USA), who 25 years ago, as provincial of Haiti, accepted to open the new mission on the island, and Wilmar Gama (Brazil) arrived. In March 2015, we saw the arrival of Brother Darío Pérez (Guatemala) who, in a short time, was ordained deacon here in Cuba. Ulises Silva (Mexico) was recently ordained priest in San Antonio Texas.

The year 2015 brought us the visit of Pope Francis to encourage our faith and also the proposal of Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino to take on three parishes in the area of the Eastern beaches in Havana Capital.

In 2016 Fr. Wilmar Gama was appointed Superior of the mission in Cuba. Father General Luis Lougen visited us in 2017. After visiting the communities we serve we had a meeting on: discernment of the mission, the question of personnel, the houses, the laity and the challenges in Cuba. His 5-day visit left us gratified and hopeful. It is the year in which we gratefully celebrated the 20th anniversary of the arrival of the Oblates in Cuba.

In May 2018, the second meeting of the country’s lay associates was held in Peñalver, Havana, with a large number of people from different parishes with an Oblate presence.

After several years, Father Gilberto returned to the mission to accompany the community of Los Palacios. The Havana community moved to Cojímar in 2019. From this place, the communities of East Havana continue to be served. The same year also saw the arrival of the first Oblate from Sri Lanka, Father Shihan Shanaka. In 2020, Father Gilberto left the mission and also Father Alberto, who, after almost 17 years in the mission in Cuba, received his new obedience for the formation house in Guatemala.

In March 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic reached Cuba, forcing us to close our churches and pastoral centres and to stay at home. In Cojímar, Father Wilmar was accompanied by two prenovices from Brazil: Jassiel and Cleber. Roger and Shihan in Los Palacios were accompanied by the scholastic Rony from Guatemala for their missionary regency.

Father Nicholas Harding from the United States arrived in 2021 to support the mission for one year.

In the following year 2022, Father Tomasz Szafranski from Poland received his new obedience for the mission in Cuba, and after a few months he was appointed Superior of the mission. At the end of October another Pole, Fr. Ireneusz Dampc, came to work in the Cuban mission after several years in China.

This year allows us, little by little, to attend more to our communities and to open up pastoral spaces. Two scholastics, Gabriel and Doroteo, accompanied us during the summer, and also with us, in his year of missionary regency, is the scholastic Jacobo from Mexico. The young Sri Lankan priest Justin is also now in Cuba and is expecting to obtain visa to go to Mexico.

To Incarnate ourselves in the people and the Church of Cuba.  What was assumed 25 years ago, as the most important objective by the pioneers of the mission in Cuba, continues to be so for the missionaries who serve in this island. Today, those of us in the Cuban mission feel the importance of continuing this missionary adventure that our brothers started 25 years ago. We are grateful to each one of them who have left their footprints and have given us directions to continue sowing the seed of the Gospel in the hearts of the people of this beautiful island. We thank so many people, believers and non-believers, who have accompanied us throughout these 25 years, who have welcomed us and helped us to get rooted in Cuba. We thank the Cuban Church: the bishops, our brother diocesan priests, the religious and all the People of God for helping and accompanying us during these years. Thank you!

My thanks to the fathers: Gilberto Piñón, Daniel Díaz and Alberto Montiel for their historical accounts that allowed me to write this article.