Evangelizing Mission of the Sons of Charity from the perspective of Cuban lay people

By: Charity Zayas Herrera

With the definitive departure from our country of Father Enrique Poittevin on May 12, 2014, he concluded the fruitful evangelizing mission of the Sons of Charity in Cuba. They developed their pastoral work in regions located in Santiago de Cuba, Manzanillo, Holguin and Havana; they always lived on the peripheries. Today, despite not having their presence, they remain rooted in the hearts of those of us who work with them in an effort to proclaim Christ’s love, grace and mercy on the island.
The answer to how this congregation managed to perpetuate itself in the hearts of so many simple Cubans can be found, to some extent, in the testimonies that Bartolomé Ugalde Ramírez, Magdalena Moreno Calzadilla, René Carrasco Montero and María Elena López González offered, and which we then offer.

Bartholomew Ugalde:
In mid-1977 four religious priests arrived at la Purísima Concepción parish in Manzanillo. Three of them were French and one were Cuban. They belonged to the congregation of the Sons of Charity; names: Miguel, Enrique, Andrés and Rodolfo.
I had never heard of this congregation until a few days before he came to my city, one of the outgoing priests, by way of joke, told me at the same time that he showed me some metal trunks sent by them: “Here come the rifles of the French.” Without understanding his words, I smiled. Only after I met them and saw them work did I discover that, indeed, with their “evangelical rifles,” those men of God had come to bring fire in the manner of Christ, who came to burn the face of the earth with his authentically renewing message. I believe that I was one of the victims of their “resurrection shots”, for since their arrival I soon lined up with them for the mission they proposed to our Church. At that time I discovered that I was living an important new stage in my Christian life.
The charism of this religious community, founded on 25 December 1918 by the French priest Emilio Anizan, consists in the evangelization of the working world and popular neighbourhoods. Therefore, they always seek to establish the ministry of the priesthood-worker in outlying areas of large cities and in villages with industries, where they can also exercise, with the authorization of the bishop of the place. In the years when I met them, the Sons of Charity felt and made a very healthy impact on the lives of our communities and our people. His simple lifestyle, his sincere and palpable effort of inculturation, his closeness to the poor and the suffering, his incarnation in the world of work as working priests, his pastoral concern to bring the Good News of the Gospel to all corners, his passion for God and for the people could not leave indifferent to those who knew them. Without neglecting at all the pastoral care of their parishioners, they also felt shepherds of this large part of the people who did not want or dare not set foot on the threshold of our temple, the enemies of the Church, those who had never heard of God, the communists of heart and the simulators, those who had strayed away in order to achieve other earthly goals. They never forgot, during their passage through our city, the phrase of Jesus: “I have other sheep that are not of this fold” (Jn. 10.16).
For me and all of us who walk beside them on their evangelizing action, their example demanded not a few sacrifices in terms of our Christian commitment. It was like a rediscovery of our mission and our church being. We had to demonstrate with works that Catholics were able to make our social commitment for the good of our neighbour and the homeland; that we were able to see the good and the noble in those people who thought differently and even learn from them. We had entered the “game (fire) of life”. Jesus also lived it with us. A young man at the time would tell me years later: “I knew Jesus Christ through the Sons of Charity. The Jesus Christ I followed was not the true one, he was a Jesus who had nothing to do in that society, he was a Jesus Christ who waited seated for things to change.” Not so long ago someone else told me: “I could not imagine that in the content of evangelization that the Sons. they taught us it could be important until we love our soil; they taught me to appreciate more of mine, to look inward, to value what I have…” It was a comprehensive evangelization. I was able (and still can today) to make these phrases of those young men of the eighties my own.

For her part, Magdalena Moreno noted:
Since I was sixteen years old, I have started my apostolic work as a catechist in the parish of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in Havana. He worked with Father Roberto Caraballo, a very humble man (although he was said to be very energetic), but excellent person. He died in January 1981. For two years we were without a fixed parish priest but continued to work mainly on catechesis; We were attended interchangeably by other priests who, while officious of the masses scheduled in the week, did not come to foster a community life. In October 1984 came a permanent priest: Father Miguel Martín, Son of Charity. At that time I was in an advanced state of gestation and could not attend the parish. In November, just a month after he settled here, Father Miguel went to meet my boy who had just been born. That was our first meeting. I liked its simplicity and familiarity instantly. He introduced himself as the new parish priest. As we talked, he noted that his main task was to form the community so that he could work with the ward.
Generally, Father Miguel surprised everyone: he rode bicycles, he bought his errands in the winery closest to the parish, he visited the neighbors; cared about those who regularly attended Mass and those who did not. Even my husband who didn’t relate to the clergy started chatting with him and even told him that in December he would support me in organizing Christmas activities with catechesis children. Thus I began to interact with a priest whose method was to work together in pursuit of a living and dynamic community. This disposition of the father enlightened me greatly and I was becoming more and more committed. After a while he was transferred and instead sent Father Enrique Poittevin, who with his impressive spirituality, continued the evangelizing work. Without realizing it, our personal and community life was changing, we grew in faith, in prayer, and in love.
Then, with Father Lazarus Farfán our community grew even more; his style of action led to the creation and flourishing of mission houses in the area. The community was fully involved with this project and Christ’s presence with and in us was experienced strongly. We live in intense moments where not only Catholics, but also the neighbors of the neighborhood were protagonists. As an example, I can cite what happened about the passage of the Virgin Pilgrim before Pope John Paul II’s visit to our country and the welcome to this Holy Father in Cuba. I remember this stage with great affection and I value positively the extraordinary mission developed and the integration that we were able to achieve. I do not forget Father Martirián Marbán’s work with seniors and the various actions he took to help them. These practices continued to involve us and strengthened the union of the community with those who did not attend church until they fostered their approach to scheduled regular activities.
What singularizes the work of the Sons of Charity is the total dedication to practicing the Word of God wherever they are, that is, to bring the gospel to all people and, in particular, to the most helpless. Wherever they are, they get love for the poorest born and I refer not only to those in need materially, but also to those who have not been able to know God or feel that He loves them. His work is carried out not doctrinally, but always showing Christ with his testimonies of life. They also stand out for their relationship with workers, because, where possible, they join to work in factories, in construction. There they live with the workers, feel their needs and present Jesus, the carpenter’s son.
The Sons of Charity marked my commitment to Christ; they made me see that I am an instrument to help build the Kingdom of God. On a personal level, thanks to the Lord and them, I could see my husband’s conversion. Also because of his presence in my parish, my son was able to happily live the stage of childhood and adolescence in the midst of an active, healthy, truly Christian community. Remembering him always points out that it was the best time of his life. And something very personal: my mother, despite not visiting the temple, carried the rosary given to her by Father Michael on her chest until the day of her death.

René Carrasco noted:
My bond with the Sons of Charity began when I was seventeen; at that time I was in the pre-university and always studying with a friend. One day I saw him reading a book titled Mount Sermon and asked him if he believed in God. He confirmed with a gesture. Then we started talking about Christianity. I was interested in the subject, as my Christian life had been closed due to the state’s intolerance of religion. Finally, my friend took me to his parish which was that of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. I remember it was Father Enrique Poittevin who opened the office door; We spoke the three of us and he took me to a room where he read the Letter of John God to me is Love, let us love one another (1 Jn.4-21). Then I saw in the face of the priest a man passionate and in love with another being, which filled me with curiosity. I wanted to experience what I had seen in that consecrated man. From that day on, my conversion began. I discovered God’s presence in my life and in my daily actions, even in the most painful.

Padre Martirián Marbán.
Padre Martirián Marbán.

Ever since I met the Sons of Charity, I was captivated by his way of loving the simplest; I understood with them that to be happy it doesn’t take much, and that the most important thing is the love we can give to others and everything we do.
Before I met them, I was a boy withdrawn because of family problems in my childhood and the death of loved ones. I think God chose them to heal me little by little, it was a process where I finally discovered my inner potentials to put them at the service of others. With them began my relationship with Jesus consciously, they taught me to love Him and, through Him, to love the most socially forgotten.
I think the unique thing about his work is dedication, dedication and commitment to the poor, as well as his love for Jesus, to his Church. They know how to build true living, committed communities; sow in people’s hearts a passion for Jesus Christ.
In personal order, they left in me that great mystery of choice for those who have nothing. They also made me understand the richness of the Christian community, of living these teachings as a team, of building and making bonds between the brothers who undoubtedly remain forever.

María Elena López González, resident of the United States, recalls:
At the end of 1986 I learned of the existence of the parish Jesus, Mary and Joseph and the presence in it of Father Miguel Martin – he arrived in Cuba in 1968 with Miguel Fourneire. He was a full priest, simple, possessing great humility and at the same time strength and righteousness. He had in his heart much love and a solid faith that he transmitted, like all the Sons of Charity, in a very special way with his witness of life. I admired the distances he traveled on his bicycle, as did Parents Enrique and Lazarus. From the first time we visited the parish, my husband and I decided to attend the Eucharist every Sunday. Gradually, we felt part of that small community where faith and simplicity abounded. Thus we became involved in the evangelizing mission as we delve deeply into the knowledge of the congregation which undoubtedly offered great help to the Cuban Church and the people. As in our hearts, they left footprints on so many people.
The elements that singularize the work of this congregation are, in my opinion, spirituality linked to the world of work and the charism of working among the poorest social class, in the slums, to where they carry the Word and the presence of God. They speak of faith with works and examples of life, attending to and caring for the material and spiritual needs of all, without exception.
In my life of faith, the Sons of Charity left many traces, especially with their testimonies of life. It marked the spirituality they transmitted to me, their great commitment to the Cuban Church without being Cuban – except for two cases – and feeling as such; live in the same way as the less advantaged people; cycling for many years without being so young… They are solid reasons to claim that they left their imronta in the community where the most vulnerable and poor were taken into account and cared for. We will always remember them with great affection, as a unique experience. Today we thank the Lord for having had the opportunity to be, to some extent, part of them.

For these reasons, as the centenary of the founding of the Sons of Charity is celebrated, it is right and pertinent to recall the evangelizing work of these priests who shared their charism with us. True to the conceptions of its founder Father Juan Emilio Anizan lived authentically in Cuba “being friends with the poor and the workers to reveal to us the tenderness of God and in our midst to be the image of Christ, Good Shepherd”. Ω

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