Woodbury church gets a new sister -- in Cuba
ESMERALDA, Cuba — On the dirt roads of Esmeralda, a dinky village tucked away in rural Camaguey, Cuba, a dump truck filled with 25 children and young adults and two pastors — one of Woodbury and one of Esmeralda — rumbled toward an overgrown baseball field.
The school bus they'd arranged to travel in had broken down and the secondhand gloves weren't in perfect condition — but the Rev. Stan Mader of St. Ambrose of Woodbury Community was determined to play ball.
"I was dreaming that every Cuban boy was like Tony Oliva," Mader said.
Turns out, they're better at soccer.
The early October trip was the first meeting between St. Ambrose and members of San Miguel de Cubitas, the Cuban parish about 300 miles southeast of Havana that has become sister to the Woodbury congregation.
St. Ambrose is the first in the east metro to team up with a church in Cuba, a location chosen for convenience. "It's closer; as relations were thawing, it would become an easier place to get to," said Mader, who is lead pastor.
The alliance is the Woodbury church's first sister relationship. Parishioner Gary Moore, 61, who lives in Woodbury, conjured up the idea after seeing the success his former Cedar Rapids, Iowa, church had with a sister church in Mexico.
So Moore put in a call last November to Parish Twinning Program of the Americas, a nonprofit that links U.S. churches with others in the Americas.
The organization's mission is to connect churches based on a mutual desire to partner, so the bond is about building on the Christian faith, not feeding financial resources to a church in need, said Frances Sosadeeter, the program's Latin America coordinator.
The company has formed three U.S.-Cuba partnerships in its 38-year history — two in the past year, she said.
Moore, Mader and Sosadeeter boarded flights to Cuba last month, with the mission of creating international connections with people of the Catholic faith, Moore said.
When the trio landed, they found an array of cultural differences. In the tiny town of Esmeralda, population 8,000, many roads are unpaved and residents still use horseback as their main mode of transportation.
The San Miguel de Cubitas parish spans the entire state of Camaguey and is considered large in square-mileage, though comparatively small in membership if stacked up against St. Ambrose. Between 25 churches and 11 congregations praying out of locals' homes, there are up to 600 members worshiping with San Miguel, Mader said. St. Ambrose alone has Sunday Mass attendance of about 3,000, and a membership of 12,000.
That's not to say it's a religiously dead community. About 90 percent of San Miguel's membership is regularly involved in one way or another. To Mader, that's inspiring.
After years of religious silencing by the government, some are just now learning the short prayer said while making the sign of the cross. Many of the parish's churches are dilapidated, and resources are limited.
The roadblocks don't stop parishioners from coming together whenever they can to pray, feed the hungry or visit the sick, Mader said.
"They are re-birthing the church there," he said.
Besides handing over baseball gloves and soccer balls, St. Ambrose members plan to help San Miguel de Cubitas fill a new church library with books and old laptops.
They'll hold off on sending checks to San Miguel for now — "We're trying to avoid being the big American church coming down and helping the poor little people," Mader said.
In place of financial support, the parishes will hold Mass dedicated to one another on the eighth day of every month.
And just a month after Mader, Moore and Sosadeeter's visit, there already are talks of sending college-aged students from St. Ambrose to visit the young adults in Camaguey.
"It's just neat to meet people from other countries," Mader said. "They'd be the cool kids on the block."