Cuban Churches

In homage to the Christian celebration of Easter & the Resurrection this post contains images I took at Churches in Cuba & share what I learned about Catholicism in this communist country.


In homage to the Christian celebration of Easter & the Resurrection this post contains images I took at Churches in Cuba & share what I learned about Catholicism in this communist country. I am not Catholic nor do I regularly attend the Protestant church I belong to. However I consider myself a spiritual person respecting the moral guidance of a higher power.  “Do unto others…” is the best guidance I’ve learned.


To say religion in Cuba history has twists & turns is an understatement. Spaniards colonized the island in alliance with the Pope & shared in the bounty. The Slave Trade, a cornerstone of Cuban economics, became a moral issue the Vatican could no longer condone. Most priests assigned to Cuban churches were from Spain & associated with the monarchy & the elite ruling class. Revolutionaries in the late 1800’s proclaimed the church was not the voice of the common people. Skip ahead to 1959 & the Castro brothers, who had gone to a Jesuit high school, understood nationalism & religion are contradictory. In Communist countries state atheism is promoted.


With the collapse of the USSR in the 90’s, economic hardships & social changes edged the  government to evolve & declared the nation secular. In ’98 Pope John Paul II visited Cuba followed by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012. In 2015 Pope Francis made a huge step in moral diplomacy attempting to resolve the divide between Cuba & neighboring United States. Along with Catholicism are dogmas from Afro-Cuban religions that have been preserved & evolved. I did not experience any of those traditions.


Having survived this turmoil between church & state I found magnificent Catholic Churches in the cities I visited. Usually they were built near colonial designed plazas, which served as a commons in developing towns. From a rooftop in Camaguey I saw the steeples of 7 grand churches. The architecture influence is diverse & the physical conditions vary greatly. But, most structures have been cared for despite withered congregations. Architectural photography isn’t a genre I have much experience or success with. Nonetheless many of these spaces are free of poles & wires to spoil the frame. It’s a rare opportunity to have numerous options to photograph a building.


I spoke with Father Marco at his parish in Camaguay. He is from Mexico’s International Mercy Congregation. Shortly after his ordination in 2012 he came to Cuba. His multi-faceted perspectives were insightful. We discussed the contrasting ways of the people as well as their deep roots to the church. He remembers being embraced when he arrived & believes Cubans hospitality & respect for manners are what make them so friendly.


After his 10am Saturday Mass we discussed the continual changes people are experiencing. He feels a trait many Cubans poses is the ability to adapt & they are somewhat open minded about reforms that are coming. In his brief time in Cuba he has seen the government try & do more for people in rural areas. And he has had access to prisons, health institutions & even universities. Father Marco believes these are big steps & opportunities to spread the message that with belief in God all things are possible.


His love of the Cuban people includes their more casual attire when attending church compared to his native Mexico. He also noted that they hug & kiss instead of just shaking hands like he experienced growing up. Religious life is much more flexible. Father Marco also spoke of how the resilience of the Cuban people was integral in conquering hardships. In some ways I believe Father Marco’s mission to make people happy is made easier because cheerful is part of their being.


A natural role for any religious leader is preparing followers for what lies ahead. I asked him what his dreams were for the Cuban people. He had three. #1 The government system will realize that people can make more of their own decisions. #2 people who are close to the economic needs & problems should come up with solutions. #3 an emerging need for more religious/human values, which have eroded since the 90’s with more attention to money. He also hopes Cubans abroad do not abandon their history.


I developed ideas similar to what Father Marco’s dreams are as I was doing research for this trip. I’m not smart enough to understand the best path to make those ideas a reality or if even if I have a deep enough understanding of the problems. What I did observe is that in a society where much rebuilding is needed, churches have a solid foundation & have been maintained suggesting a religious culture with respect for history. In facing the unknowns of the future knowing where you came from has value.


The future has many contrasting forces Cubans will need to navigate. Since I was totally off the grid during my trip I observed technology nipping at interpersonal interactions along generational lines. I hope they survive the flood of information from the Internet. Emerging changes in Cuban society could lead to self-centered perspectives. My prayers for our neighbors are to not abandon the values that allowed them to collectively survive. Dreams are based on unique blend of our past, personal motivations & hope for the future. I wish for Cuban people the ability to make good decisions.

The content of these postings are based upon my observations, conversations with my guide, interviews with people interpreted by my guide & interactions I had with people I met. Any mistakes are entirely mine with no intention to mislead.

Serendipitous Motivation

However, that night I stumbled on influence from a different direction that literally caught my eye & turned my neck.


I’m taking a pause from posting about Cuba. At the end of last year I went to see the work of Xzya Cruz Bacani being displayed at the Manchester Craftsman Guild & to listen to her lecture. The subject of her images Modern Slavery resonated with the deep-down photojournalist in me. Her work & the perspective she provided were haunting.


However, that night I stumbled on influence from a different direction that literally caught my eye & turned my neck. In earlier posts I’ve mentioned how architecture & woodworking grab my eye. Entering the Manchester Craftsman Guild  an alcove with a wooden accent built into a brick semicircle did just that. In one glance I saw customized shelves, entryway, utility, separation & focus blended into one compact area. If I ever tried to describe a union of form & function this would be a strong example. The synergy of structure, materials & openness was as harmonious as anything I have seen.


Ms Gubser, the executive assistant at MCG, noticed my wide-open eyes. She told me about the woodworker & invited me to look at more of the craftsman’s work in the boardroom.


After seeing more finely crafted pieces, in a wonderful serendipitous moment, she introduced me to the artist who had also come to the lecture.


Meeting Tadao Arimoto & discussing his work was delightful. After humbly listening to my praise of his work he invited me to his workshop. This was an inspirational encounter I never saw coming. Since my wood-shop was closed for the winter I was excited to get some sawdust on my shoes.


Tadao came to Pittsburgh in 1976. His path to the medium of wood to fashion his designs began 4 years earlier in his native Japan. He had studied at the International Design Institute in Kyoto. As a young man, he felt the career path as an industrial designer was uninspiring. Then he saw a wooden bench in a storeroom window that “made his heart pop out.” He found out it was created by Shigeru Ueki a respected abstract sculptor who worked with wood. Tadao contacted him & Shigeru befriended him.


Collaboration can be a powerful motivator. Shigeru, had been a founder of the respected Modern Art Discussion Group with other Japanese artists. He gave inspiration to a young Tadao to learn the craft of sculpting wood & exposed him to other artistic perspectives. Today Tadao is still influenced by sculpture but also is aware of the long perspective of nature & the wood he works with. The life span of a tree is extended in the art he creates. For over 40 years, his hands have molded a 2nd life into the wood he uses. One of the joys of his work is that every week he learns something new.


His design process for custom work begins with understanding the place it will occupy & then making multiple hand sketches of his concepts & ideas. Then CAD drawings are presented to the client giving a perspective that is easier to visualize. With approval & consensus of the final design, Tadao then creates another hand drawing he will use as a guide while crafting the piece.


He describes some of his work as Visually Quiet. A blend of sketch artist, craftsman & sculptor, his minds eye is focused on the functional & the aesthetic environment his work will occupy. The soft conflict of his description resonates in his work. Looking at examples of his finished pieces on his website it is easy to see the blend of purpose with beauty.


Of particular interest to me was the shop environment filled with sawdust creating an orange earth tone hue. I wanted to capture the interaction of the tools, wood, hands & the designer. These images show a glimpse of his personal culmination of inspiration & craft.


Tadao takes his design & creates a second life-cycle of the tree the wood came from. In sculpting his forms he infuses his ideas onto the grain of the lumber with his touch, & experience. His hands respect the longevity of the medium they work with.


Often imperfections become an accent adding character to the narrative.


The work-space of a craftsman can tell you a lot about the artisan. A woodworking shop is a constant shifting balance of space for working & keeping tools close. Raw wood was leaning against the walls. Shelves were piled with hardwoods. Work-in-progress was sitting beside hefty machinery. I was enveloped by the ordered chaos & a diversity of tools. The dominant feature in the shop however was Tadao’s resonating smile.