The Fathers of Everyone in Cuba
Oblate Fathers Roger Hallee, O.M.I. and Nick Harding, O.M.I. are Americans enjoying their “golden years” in the Caribbean. But they are not at some fancy resort or beachfront property.
Instead, Fr. Roger, age 85, and Fr. Nick, age 69, are missionaries in Cuba, living among the poor and reestablishing the Catholic faith that had been denied the people for decades.
“As Missionary Oblates we evangelize humbly by simple presence with the Holy Eucharist, apostolic community and contemplative prayer along with adoration,” said Fr. Nick. “We find ourselves as representatives of God, lifting up all the people among the complex reality of this island nation.”
There are currently four Oblates ministering in Cuba. In addition to the two Americans, Fr. Wilmar Gama, O.M.I. is from Brazil and Fr. Shihan Shanaka, O.M.I. is from Sri Lanka.
The Oblates began ministering in Cuba in 1997 when President Fidel Castro allowed a limited number of missionaries to enter the country after a historic visit by Pope John Paul II. The Oblates sent seven priests, the largest delegation of any Catholic congregation.
The Oblates soon discovered that young Cubans knew nothing about Christianity. Older Cubans may have remembered the Catholic faith even though it had been denied them for more than 30 years.
Much of the Oblates’ work during the early years was focused on restoring parishes in rural parts of the country. The government limited the scope of the Oblate ministries, limitations that are still in place today.
“Evangelization is very difficult, but we are allowed to have Eucharist in homes,” said Fr. Nick. “The church needs to be Iglesia en salida (Church that goes out), but legally is restricted. The bishops say now is the time for pre-evangelization, and to proclaim the gospel.”
Father Roger, a longtime missionary in Latin America, has been ministering in rural Cuba at Pinar del Rio since 2015. He had previously ministered in Cuba in the 1990s as well as in Haiti and Colombia.
“During my first experience in Cuba there were very limited pastoral possibilities and few active parishioners in our Oblate parish,” said Fr. Halle. “Now there has been a positive change towards pastoral activities and participation on the part of the local population.”
In East Havana Fr. Nick ministers at three parishes along with Fr. Wilmar. Father Nick is also a longtime missionary in Latin America, having previously served in Mexico and Peru.
Father Nick said the area which he serves has about 250,000 residents, but only a handful are practicing Catholics. At most Sunday Masses there are about 25 people in attendance, mostly elderly. There are also about 25 Oblate lay associates who are helping to spread the gospel.
“In seven years, there have been no confirmations of youth and only ten weddings,” said Fr. Nick. “While there are about 20 infant baptisms per month, there are only about two first communions of children every year.”
Like all Cubans the Oblates must deal with rationing of food and other items. Some of their monthly rationing per person includes just ten eggs, ten teaspoons of coffee and a small package of sardines. The Oblates do have a small garden but with no bug repellant they must smear vinegar on their lettuce to keep the pests away.
Despite the hardships, Fr. Nick said working in Cuba has been joyous and filled with many simple blessings.
“Yesterday, as the two of us went to a house, a six-year-old boy eagerly went to tell his mother: ‘Here are the fathers of everybody.’”
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