“With softness and patience
everything is achieved.”
Blessed Ciriaco Maria Sancha
A bit of history
Cardinal Sancha’s Congregation of Sisters of Charity was founded on August 5, 1869 in Santiago de Cuba, with the religious name of Sisters of the Poor Invalides and Poor Children. Its founder, the then Spanish priest Ciriaco María Sancha y Hervás (1833-1909), was devastated by the deterioration of the standard of living he encountered upon arriving on the island as secretary to Archbishop Primo Calvo y Lope. The Colony, and especially the East, were affected by the war of independence. In addition, the upsurging of metropolitan persecution on the social sectors related to the mambisado resulted in the increase in orphans and the precarious living situation of the elderly.
In this complex sociopolitical context, the religious foundation was developed and the houses of Santiago de Cuba and Camaguey were strengthened. However, the founder’s untimely departure to Spain because of its implications in the Cisma de Santiago de Cuba,1 left the nascent Cuban congregation unstoppable, which also faced the strong process of Spanishization of the clergy that the Church lived in Cuba. One of the expressions of this phenomenon was the desire to merge the nascent religious community with the Homeless Sisters of the Elders, a measure that had the rejection of a group of nuns who resisted and kept alive the founding charism.
The random existence of the congregation during the twentieth century faced numerous obstacles, such as the pressures of the Archbishop of Santo Domingo, Archbishop Adolfo Nouel (1862-1937), who tried to divide Cuban and Dominican houses in order to create a new religious congregation in his diocese. The mother house of the congregation rationed in the city of Camaguey until 1961, when the community left the country bound for the Dominican Republic, in the face of the nationalization of schools and the fear of a process of political radicalization that affected the lives of the sisters.
The return of the congregation – to Nuevitas, Camaguey – occurred in 1989, at the dawn of the special period. The five sisters who returned lived, together with the Cuban people, the difficulties of the nineties, but moved by their evangelizing vocation were promoters of hope in the midst of that complex social context. After Nuevitas, they opened houses in Camaguey, Santiago de Cuba and Havana.
In the country, there are now eight sisters and two applicants who focus on three lines of pastoral work: parish service, complementary education and pastoral care. This brief report will focus on the work of the Sanchina sisters in Havana.
A smile for Guanabacoa
After exposing the evolution of this congregation so linked to our homeland history, it is necessary to know the work it carries out in the municipality of Guanabacoa. For this reporter, the feeling of warmth that is felt as he enters the sisters’ house is an expression of the echo of human warmth and comfort that the surrounding community seeks and receives from the religious.
In this former colonial house, Sr. Tomasina Ramírez and Sr Felicita Rodríguez, Dominicans, live. Both are a sign of the gospel’s call to live inculturation in the midst of an environment characterized by the presence of Cuban religions of African matrix. For them the priority is to serve human people and to create networks of support for families living expressions of hopelessness, because of the precariousness of life, which is seen with the naked eye in the urban environment.
For Sister Tomasina, who is also a singer, the breadth of her apostolic work is God’s presence in her daily work and the personal gift of developing part of her religious experience in Cuba. The challenges are numerous to sustain the continuity of the extensive apostolic work that these two nuns, accompanied by a group of laity, carry out. It is enough to cite the lack of supplies that affects all Cubans in these times. On the other hand, in the face of difficulties, these nuns overcome all obstacles and even turn them into spaces of evangelization, because, according to Tomasina, “a queue or any other place dedicated to solving what is lost is the best opportunity to give away a smile or share life”.
When the Sanchinas arrived in Havana they focused on parish work. In the Church Our Lady of Asunción supported the catechesis and life of the Youth Pastoral Group. In 2016, on the departure of the Franciscan parents of the Convent of Santo Domingo, the sisters, to conclude the work initiated by the friars, assumed the dining room of grandparents based in a nearby house. The affective and material need of the elders became an impulse to continue the work and perfect it. Thus emerged the House of Grandparents Blessed Ciriaco María Sancha.
This home is a land of tenderness for fifty-two elderly people, who in several cases fall victim to the culture of discarding, which Pope Francis warns us so much about in his public interventions and texts. Here grandparents receive, above all, love and understanding. These expressions of affection are combined with medical care, playful activities and a proper diet, consisting of breakfast and lunch. The elders arrive home at 8:00 a.m. and return home at 1:00 p.m., with a frequency monday through Friday. This space has become a place for the construction of affections for both sisters and their collaborators, as well as grandparents, who feel it as their haven of tranquility and comfort.
Another way to reach the elderly in need of care, but who do not go home, is to visit them in their homes to try to improve their living conditions. The space of many grandparents is then transformed into a concert of brooms, waters and improvised builders. These older adults are vulnerable people, some are not accompanied by physical strength, others are greatly affected psychologically by loneliness and the absence of family members to help or support them in daily work. This reality leads them to survive the day, without the right conditions for a dignified life. Religious and lay Sanchinos carry out a work of love and work that gives rise to what Sister Tomasina calls “transformation”.
Grandpa, more than grateful, feels that he has found a family to trust; the care team will, in turn, incorporate the challenge of systematizing help to the elderly. With this act of love that is never in the headlines of the media, it contributes to redignifying these human beings, who are first and foremosm the favorites of Jesus, who invites us to have gestures of compassion with them. In this the sisters and their collaborators are the silent hand that believes in the strength of the small and constant.
The catechesis that the sisters develop in the former Franciscan convent and in the neighborhood of Laterio is another of the apostolic works that surprised this reporter. Given the current situation of catechesis in dioceses, where having thirty children attending is already a feat, the case of the one taught by the Sanchinas that groups more than one hundred children, seems a miracle. The method used is a mixture of thematic unity landed to the symbolic reality of the infant and combined with games or dynamics.
In the convent catechesis develops on Wednesdays, an element that at first glance can be taken as a factor that does not help the constant participation of the little ones, for whom, instead, space becomes their second home. Sister Tomasina tells us that many parents, when they want to impose a corrective on their children, take as currency “go to the house of the little ones”. This experience is an incentive that demonstrates how catechesis cannot be a repetition of the official school, but the place where the child knows God through play and friendship, as sisters and their team strive to do.
Catechesis in the Laterio district itself is shown as the realization of Pope Francis’ proposal to go out to the peripheries. This community with a high level of precariousness in everyday life is the catechetical space where the absence of premises does not constitute an obstacle to bringing together every Saturday afternoon around fifty children. Anything can be useful in making known to God love and his son Jesus to each of these little ones, whether through sports play, drawing, an excursion or a simple reflection from their symbolic codes on certain scenes and evangelical values. The little ones, as their faces show well, are beings full of the joy of God who are infected by their catechists, who bet that they may be, in the morning, better citizens with a path of men and women of faith.
School review is another space through which sisters contribute to the human growth of children and adolescents in the community. In addition, it becomes an element of support to family economies, which are increasingly affected by the inability to pay school reviews, amounting to the amount of one or two CUC for each daily section of a subject. This project has 103 students enrolled between first grade and pre-university education. Reinforced subjects are mathematics, Spanish language, history and physics, as well as English, guitar and piano classes. It is also intended, together with the subjects, to incorporate in the educated human and Christian values, in order that they know how to be actors in the construction of a Cuba more equitable, diverse and respectful of the other.
School breakfast is another proposal from the Sanchina sisters to the children of the surrounding community. With a total of twenty-five beneficiaries, who attend From Monday to Friday between 6:30 and 7:30 a.m., this initiative aims to contribute to the food security of the children. Similarly, it seeks to help low-income families, for it is no secret to anyone that “getting” products such as milk in Cuban daily life becomes a feat worthy of Greek tragedies. In turn, this space becomes an opportunity to influence spiritual and moral education. There training is received in human values, while the food for the body and the delicacies of the spirit are shared: knowledge and faith.
It is surprising the scope of the works that two sisters accompanied by a group of lay people who live their spirituality from the Sanchina perspective, and supported by generous benefactors, all assisted by the Holy Spirit, make Cuba a house full of colors. On a wall we paint the tender color that is born of the smile of the elderly, on the ceiling we apply a tone with gratitude from families, while coloring another wall with the hugs of each child that reaches the spaces of human growth proposed. Tomasina, Felicita and the lay Sanchinos, accompanied by Jesus of Nazareth, like their sisters who preceded them in the hearts of the people of Guanabacoa, give Cuba and the Cubans, day by day, a precious gift; and this town corresponds to them with magical words: “Thank you for being in our lives.”
1 It refers to the conflict experienced by the confrontation between the Spanish liberals and the Church which resulted in the division of the clergy of the Archbishopric of Santiago de Cuba in the 1870s between the supporters of José Orberá and those of Pedro Llorente.