The tallest church in Cuba
I owe my introduction to the Catholic church to a classmate. We had bonded over the shared misery of being outsiders at our high school, Pre Universitario José Martí.
We were painfully shy. She was too tall and I was too skinny—for Cuban standards. We might have been considered decently looking somewhere else. On top of that, my mother used to bring me a snack at noon and her spinster aunt took her to school every morning. You can imagine how so much adult supervision made our popularity soar.
I am happy to report that my friend is now an outgoing, gorgeous woman who looks like a model. I am pretty comfortable with my current self too. Belated message to my young self: there is always hope. (My grandma’s favorite saying, on the other hand, was: hope was green and a goat ate it.)
The church we attended was the Parish of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Saint Ignatius of Loyola, located on Reina Street and known as “La Iglesia de Reina.” It is the highest church in Cuba, with a majestic, lace-like 253-foot tower. Built in 1923 by Jesuits, it’s still ran by them.
One of the best examples of neo-Gothic architecture in Havana, the building has pointed high arches and delicate stained-glass windows that were one of my favorite features.
“When you sit under the blue light, it feels like you’re already in heaven,” my friend used to say.
I had been baptized as a baby, but religion wasn’t a topic we discussed at home. It was actually a non-issue, something nobody cared about enough to even argue over it.
My catechist was a lady named Lourdes López Chavez, and I said “lady” because she always looked and behaved like one. Very well dressed, her hair impeccable, she worked at the Canadian Embassy in Havana.
When it came the time to go to confession, I didn’t have a lot to say—not only I was a shy, nerdy girl, but also too naïve and lacking in sandunga—so I racked my brains trying to come up with some exciting sins. The worst one, if I remember correctly, was being disrespectful to my grandma and calling her “vieja bruja.”
I bet the priest rolled his eyes inside the confessional.
I liked going to church mostly because it was the thing not to do. In other places, teenagers may rebel by refusing to go to church. In Cuba, a communist country where religion was discouraged, if not forbidden, becoming a practicing Catholic was very much an act of rebellion.
Besides, the youth group was fun.
My faith, however, was often marred by doubts. I believe in God, but accepting organized religion often troubled me. Then there is prayer. Doesn’t God know what we need before we ask? Will He withhold something good (health, happiness, a trip) if we don’t ask for it? Though of course I have asked often God, the Higher Power, the Universal Spirit or whatever you want to call it, in dark moments. And I have always felt heard and taken care of.
Doubts aside, at nineteen, I briefly considered becoming a nun and renouncing the world. Mostly because I didn’t like “the world” very much.
But Father Juan de Dios Hernandez, a Jesuit priest who was in charge of our youth group (he is now the Pinar del Río bishop) understood my twisted reasons better than I did. He once told me, “You can’t say ‘I renounce to this purse’ if you don’t own this purse.”
He was young, but already a wise man.
The religious vocation vanished with my second boyfriend, though I always kept ties with my favorite nuns, the Religiosas de María Inmaculada, who had a convent in El Cerro. Before getting married, I took my husband-to-be to meet Madre Pilar Antibon, the Mother Superior.
She approved of him. I don’t think she ever believed I had any real calling, but she was always nice and supportive of me.
I returned to Reina during my last trip, after almost 20 years out of Cuba. I knelt near the main altar and got soaked in the soft light that came from the stained windows. It still felt like heaven.