Mercedaries in the center of a tornado

Por: Lázaro Numa Aguila

Iglesia Jesús del Monte luego del paso del tornado

Any weather phenomenon generates concern in the population. Predictions of the arrival of a cold front, penetrations of the sea, the phenomenon of the child and the dreaded cyclones, cause early warnings to take the necessary measures to prevent human and material losses. But the formation of a tornado like the one that hit Havana on the night of January 27 of this year is unpredictable.

 Fray Gabriel Ávila Luna

This event destroyer surprised several municipalities in the capital, including Ten Of October. The elevated area of the Jesús del Monte People’s Council, where the parish of the same name is located, showed in the early hours of the next morning a bleak panorama. The church was practically destroyed, lost its roof and the bell tower cross, several half-point arches broke, furniture flew and few images were saved. On the site were his young parish priest Friar Gabriel Avila Luna -Fray Gabriel de San Pedro Pascual -, Mexican, with two years of orderly and equal time of service in Cuba, accompanied by a Cuban seminarian, both of the Order of mercy.

I approached Friar Gabriel as the sound of wind gusts and rain still remained in his ears.  My goal was to be able to know, firsthand, his impressions about the moment lived and transmit it to the readers of the New Word. At that moment many friendly hands brought their solidarity assistance to the parish to mitigate as much as possible the losses and partly cover the basic needs of the victims. He was kind and told me that I had the moment; I preferred not to do it in those days and waited until everything was calmer. The meeting took place on the afternoon of January 11 after Mass. 

I did not want to go straight to the harsh theme of the tornado because of a basic question of sensitivity, I preferred to first know some aspects related to the person and the reason for his presence in the place.

What did you think when you were appointed to Cuba almost immediately after your priestly ordination and what were your first impressions when you arrived at the parish of El Buen pastor de Jesús del Monte?

“The first thought was that he came to a land of mission and redemption. Mercedaries are dedicated to redeeming. I had already been informed that the parish of Jesus del Monte was a historical place in Havana, where some mercedary parish priests had been in the past and there was still great devotion to our mother in the community, that filled me with encouragement and desire to consecrate myself to it.”

It coexists with the population of a habanera slum that shows certain complexities, housing problems, manifestations of social indiscipline, a broad religious universe Have you had a hard time adapting to the environment?

“No, I’ve been to similar communities before, even different customs and ideologies as well.”

The parish of Jesus of the Mount is one of the historical jewels of the diocese, does this make you feel any extra degree of responsibility or simply assume it as a normal parish?

“It makes me feel an extra degree of responsibility for its historical character, for its meaning and also for the fact that other mercedaries preceded me in it. Something special in my feelings is the fact that here I was and the image of our mother was revered with frank devotion.”

Could you share your experience of the night of January 27 with The Readers of the New Word?

“We had just climbed, Friar Rodolfo and I, from the temple.  We’ve been accommodating the banks so they’d be fine at next day’s Mass. We were already preparing to pray on our eves. At that very moment we noticed a noise, like that of a plane that was crashing. It started to blow a strong wind and we thought a very heavy rain was coming too. Friar Rudolph tried to close some doors in our little room to keep the water from entering, but he couldn’t, the strong wind stopped him.

“It all happened in a matter of seconds, a loud explosion was heard, the glasses and stones were flying over us, we had to lair. We felt the wind taking the balcony and part of the shingle roof of our church, so all we got right was to run to the bottom of our cloister, right in the halls of catechesis. We thought it was the only part where nothing could happen to us. That’s where we took refuge. It all happened in seconds. We were afraid that we didn’t know what was going on, whether it was a storm, a cyclone or a plane, the least thing that went through my mind was that it was a tornado, I had no reference to something like that.”

At what point did you notice and become aware of the destruction caused by the phenomenon in the temple?

“When everything had diminished, in the company of Friar Rodolfo I went back to the top floor. I’d get my papers, if anything happened again, I’d keep them safe. I noticed that we no longer had walls or roofs in the temple. We didn’t see much because there was no electrical fluid. We decided to go down and settle in any way possible. You could hear the sirens and a lot of people screaming. We waited for dawn so we could go out and see what had really happened.”

After the fateful event, the church of Jesus of the Mount became a true hotbed of love and human solidarity of the Habaneros, all spontaneously. What could you express about the experience you have experienced these days?

“In particular it filled me with great hope and enthusiasm to see that so many people gathered and came here to knock on our doors to bring donations of clothes, water and food. Religious communities soon appeared, they also came with food for people who had lost everything. We began to organize in such a way that the population quickly realized what was going on here and passed the word quickly. In this way, the affected in the area began to receive some early help, javitates were made for those most affected, it was not much, but it was something in the middle of nowhere. Without realizing it the place became a community aid center. It was the neighbors, voluntarily, who cleaned the area with debris to make access possible.”

Humanitarian aid from the Catholic Church

I have heard in the slum statements of appreciation of the inhabitants and even in the media this gratitude has been evident in interviews with affected neighbors. Do you think this has helped make the Church’s social mission better visible?

“Yes, the Church always plays an important role within any society. Even José Martí said something like that we, the men, must also be moved by the situation that the Nazarene went through. We cannot put aside the role of the Church because in the end it contributes effectively, albeit with a grain, to improve society. I must say that not for a second did the idea of prominence go through our minds, we just put aside our own affectations and devote ourselves to helping, there is always one that is worse.”

From now on, what’s Father coming?

“We will continue to follow up on the people of our parish, our parishioners, to help them. This served as a guideline for understanding the need for recovery workshops, not only in the material aspect, but also in the spiritual aspect. We have realized, through this situation, the need to re-awaken our faith, which is what holds us together.”

What do you see about the situation in the temple?

“A few steps have already begun to be taken, we are also waiting for donations to begin to make visible the project of repair of our temple that is being born, we must be patient and work, that will be the only way to have again our spiritual house equal to or better than we had.”  

Thank you Father for the time I dispensed in the midst of so much work.

Losses hurt, but laments are worthless. For those who have been with the parish of El Buen Pastor de Jesús del Monte for years, a source of extensive historical research and reason for multiple works, seeing it in this state, after three hundred and thirty-nine years of existence, is painful. Sooner rather than later, his five cheerful bell towers will ring again atop his bell tower to announce the rebirth of the old temple. His wide gate will open for all in Jesus of the Mount, because that is his eternal mission.

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