Minneapolis cathedral ready to partner with new Cuban diocese

April 5, 2009

If a plan to divide the Episcopal Church in Cuba (Iglesia Episcopal de Cuba) into two dioceses succeeds, the new eastern diocese will not begin its new life in isolation. It will benefit from an international Anglican partnership years in the making. St. Mark's Cathedral, Minneapolis, has accepted an invitation by interim Cuban Bishop Miguel Tamayo-Zaldivar to establish a formal companion relationship with the new diocese.

St. Mark's has pledged money -- $100,000 over five years -- and a continuation of annual mission trips to the island. The fourth such trip concluded in mid-January and provided Minnesota Episcopalians with their first look at churches in the eastern half of the island. Twelve missioners trekked the nearly 500 miles from Havana to Santiago de Cuba, which will be the seat of the new diocese, stopping at churches along the way.

While the group brought needed medicine and other supplies and worked on church buildings that are deteriorating because of lack of funds for routine maintenance, the most important thing they brought was the gift of relationship, said St. Mark's dean, the Very Rev. Spenser Simrill.

Breaking through isolation
"These are a people cut off from the world," said Simrill, referring to the travel ban the U.S. government imposed in 1963, which significantly limits the ability of American citizens to visit Cuba. The St. Mark's trips are allowed through a license from the State Department available in limited numbers to religious and humanitarian organizations.

"Our visits have helped break through the isolation and given the opportunity to bring Christ's love to a people who cherish contact from the larger church," said Simrill.

The relationship "is also two-way," Simrill noted, saying the Minnesotans have been welcomed into churches and homes with great hospitality. The Americans have come away inspired and moved by the Cuban Episcopalians' commitment to Christ and the vitality of the church amidst adversity, he said.

Michael Satterberg made his first trip to Cuba with the St. Mark's group and said he was amazed to find that churches even existed in a communist country and that they could be so "alive and vital."

"Each church was so welcoming to us. There was hope and excitement which we brought home with us," he said.

Essie Roberts, a member of St. Mark's who visited Cuba for the second time during the recent trip, said the Cuban Episcopalians were "hungry for a relationship with us, and they want to do it in a more open fashion." Cubans have renewed hope that the travel ban will be lifted following the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States, she said. During his campaign, Obama signaled support for opening up travel between the two nations.

A new effort to end the travel ban was launched on February 4 when the bipartisan Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Inspired by a legacy
The Minneapolis-Cuban relationship began to develop in 2004 out of communication between St. Mark's and Havana's Trinity Cathedral, both designated centers for the Community of the Cross of Nails, an international Anglican ministry of reconciliation.

A plaque in Trinity Cathedral bears witness to another strong tie. It commemorates the role of Minnesota's first bishop, Henry Benjamin Whipple, in establishing the Episcopal Church in Cuba. In 1871, Whipple made a stopover in Havana, where he experienced a lack of spiritual resources available to Cubans then ravaged by an epidemic. Back home, he convinced the Board of Missions of the Episcopal Church to send missionaries to Cuba.

People at St. Mark's have been motivated by the "Whipple connection" and are excited to carry on a "Minnesota legacy" in Cuba, Simrill said. Already $50,000 -- half of the committed funds -- have been pledged, and some money soon will be sent to the church in Cuba via the Anglican Church of Canada to help construct a new diocesan center and a "very modest residence" for a new bishop in Santiago de Cuba, he said.

The Minnesota cathedral has received new invitations to participate in the life of the Cuban church that "will only cause the relationship to deepen and develop," Simrill said. St. Mark's has been invited to participate in a diocesan youth festival this summer and to help provide for workshops in liturgy and choral music at the second annual Festival of Christian Music of the Episcopal Church in Cuba.

The Very Rev. Juan Ramón de la Paz, dean of the Havana cathedral, wrote in a letter presented to Simrill that the relationships being created between the Minnesotans and Cubans "make us hopeful and optimistic." The letter included thanks for 13 specific things the relationship had provided to the church in Cuba.

"We feel very much your love, your warmth and your commitment for our cathedral and our diocese," de la Paz told Simrill in a video filmed during the recent visit. "We pray for health and all experiential blessings for the people of St. Mark's Cathedral."

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Diocesan snapshot
The Episcopal Church of Cuba (Iglesia Episcopal de Cuba) consists of 46 parishes and approximately 10,000 members. It is an extra-provincial diocese of the Anglican Communion governed by a Metropolitan Council, which consists of the primates of the Anglican Church of Canada, the Anglican Church of the Province of the West Indies and the Episcopal Church.

Bishop Miguel Tamayo-Zaldivar of Uruguay currently serves as interim bishop of Cuba. In 2007, two suffragan bishops were consecrated to carry out day-to-day pastoral oversight: Ulises Mario Aguero Prendes and Nerva Cot Aguilera, the first woman appointed an Anglican bishop in Latin America.