Monsignor Evelio Díaz Cía, the martyr archbishop

por Mons. Antonio Rodríguez (padre Tony)

Monseñor Evelio Díaz
Monseñor Evelio Díaz

Man of very low stature, somewhat thick, had a beautiful face in his youth years, when he was chaplain of the school of Mothers Ursulinas in Havana. His voice was grave and devoid of flashy ademans. His conversation was very pleasant and his verb caught the attention of the listener. He adorned his talk with reflections and some joke. He always retained the prudence that by tradition characterized the pine peasant. He measured men for their authenticity. He was insightful in his observations. Simplicity was the attitude he defined all his life, even though he became bishop and then archbishop of Havana. He was not a man of great pretensions in life. Monsignor Evelio Díaz Cía (1902-1984) was born, lived and died in plainty.
When he was bishop of Pinar del Río, he did not own a car, until, in 1951, on the occasion of his twenty-five priestly years, the Pinareña Catholic Action gave him one. I walked around the city, because as I used to repeat, I didn’t need a car to come and go around a place that – at the time – didn’t even have a traffic light. Walking to the cathedral to officiate one of the masses that were held daily in this temple. He did so in Old Havana, when he was archbishop of the archdiocese, he frequently visited the seminary. During the seventeen years when he was Bishop of Pinar del Río, he moved by train or bus to the territories of the diocese.
He was born in San Cristobal, Pinar del Río province, on February 17, 1902, in the final months of the first American intervention; lived fifty-seven years of his life in the Republic. The remaining twenty-five years took place in the period of the Revolution. His father was a public school teacher in the village of Santa Cruz, a site near San Cristobal. His mother was a housewife. Another brother and sister completed the family nucleus.
During the early years of their childhood, the family moved to Old Havana, in a house on Acosta Street, near the Convent of Bethlehem. At the catechesis of the church of that Jesuit school, then Attended Evelio boy. The following anecdote explains a period of family poverty in which the child lived during his childhood.
With regard to the death of Msgr. Evelio Díaz, Father Mariano Vivanco, chaplain of the Sanctuary of San Lázaro in the Rincon, narrated in a newsletter that by date published: “On a Good Night a Jesuit priest, whose name did not remember Msgr. Evelio, gave him a guanajo for dinner. The archbishop spoke of the bird being so large that the priest rented a horse car, and in the seat they sat the baby Evelio with the guanajo next to him. The priest paid the race to the coachman and said, ‘Take these two guanajos to this house on Acosta Street.'”
He was thirteen when he entered the San Carlos and San Ambrosio Seminary in Havana. From there he would become a priest in 1926. He was ordained in the parish of San Francisco Javier, in Marianao,por el arzobispo de Atalía, Mons. Monseñor Evelio DíazPedro González Estrada, september 12th. Together with him received the ordination two Franciscans. Archbishop Evelio, fifty years later, remembered these priests and said, “I never saw them again.” From this moment on, his ecclesiastical career was on the rise: lieutenant priest of the church of Monserrate in the Cuban capital; chaplain of the Ursulin Mothers; canon of Havana Cathedral; Professor of Ecclesiastical History and Social Doctrine at the Seminary. On 14 February 1939 he was appointed parish priest of the church of the Holy Angel Custodian, where he would only be two months. On April 1 of that year Bishop Guillermo González Arocha, rector of the seminary, died and Msgr. Manuel Ruiz appointed him to this position. In the former farmhouse he remained for two years until on December 26, 1941 his appointment as bishop of Pinar del Río was published, when he was only two months away from his forty-year-old.
A few years earlier he had completed a brief period of studies on Catholic Action in order to train for work with this lay organization. They were his only studies after the seminary. He didn’t become a doctor of theology, not even a graduate.
He was a great reader of literary works and some historical and philosophical. He prepared through these branches of human knowledge for his sermons. It can be said, without mistake, that, if he was not the best sacred speaker of the first seventy years of the last century, he was among the relevant. His oratory captivated listeners for his poetic tone. His speech was characterized by soft tone, without striking gestures. His grave voice and his paused speaking, as I said, were persuasive in preaching. As an eye-catching word in the sermons was often the word: “Look.” The diction was perfect.
He composed simple poems and one of them I remember, although I do not possess it, dedicated to the Tabernacle of his episcopal house, and titled him “I have a prisoner”. Msgr. Raúl del Valle in his book Glows of Cuban Purple, in the chapter “Golden Weddings”, characterized the way of saying of Msgr. Evelio with the following expression: “The tender and inflamed verb of the Bishop of Pinar del Río”. Around 1964, after the death of Cardinal Arteaga, he was elected to his armchair at the Cuban Academy of Language.
On the morning of March 2, 1942, in the cathedral, he was ordained bishop of that diocese. The consecrated bishop was Archbishop Luis Caruana, apostolic delegate in Cuba. The co-consecrated bishops were the newly consecrated Archbishop of Havana, Msgr. Manuel Arteaga and the Bishop of Matanzas, Archbishop Alberto Martín Villaverde. After the episcopal consecration, lunch was at the Hotel Ricardo (now Vueltabajo), in the city of Pinareña. There, Msgr. Evelio began a speech with these words: “So far you have heard the oratory of a nightingale [alluding to the high oratory of the previous Bishop Manuel Ruiz], from this moment on you will hear the voice of a pine forest tome.”
The diocese of Pinar del Río was for that date and until thirty years ago, a very quiet diocese. There were no big problems. The clergy were composed of twenty-five priests, most of them diocesans and religious were the usual Franciscans who attended the parishes of Mariel, Candelaria and San Cristobal, and the Escolapio fathers who owned the first and second teaching schools of the capital, and did not pass from five or six priests assigned to this educational center. Most of the clergy were Spanish. Personally, I identify the Church back in these years with the expression ” the beautiful diocese”. The peasant pine forest was entirely Catholic and a traditional Catholic moral was lived even in the poorest strata of the province. As a colophon, this was adorned by the most beautiful geographical landscape in Cuba.

The female congregations were made up of four religious families: the Scholas, in Guanajay and Artemis; sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, in a school in the city of Pinar del Río; the mothers of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in another school in the capital; and the nuns of a Mexican congregation, named Hermanas de El Calvario, who attended the San José de la Montaña Asylum, on the outskirts of the city. In the parishes veiled by the Franciscans there were good organizations of Catholic knights, as well as in Consolación del Sur and in the capital. They were in the seminary, a few years after being ordained, the later Cuban priests, Juan de Dios Mesa and Rolando Lara.
Pinar del Río was, at the time, a diocese in which the peasant was quite prone to religious practice. Many of them regularly went to Sunday Mass in the village temple. This religious and moral nature of the peasant pinareño had been paid since the time of Msgr. Manuel Ruiz by two Jesuit priests: parents Saturnino Ibarguren and José Rivera, the latter was received by Msgr. Evelio and continued to work in the Pinareño camps until his physical forces allowed him to do so. Jesus’ company replaced him with Father Clement Lombotz, who remained working in the territory until tensions between the state and the Church began in the 1960s.
Msgr. Evelio founded peasant circles for the religious formation of those men and women of rural life. It was eighteen years of episcopate in Vueltabajo that lived them gladly; maybe he thought it would end his days there, but he didn’t.

Cardinal Arteaga’s succession
In the first half of 1958, the then Archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Manuel Arteaga, suffered a stroke that accelerated him with the senile dementia he had previously suffered. This prevented him from continuing to lead the archdiocese so it was necessary to appoint a new archbishop. Msgr. Carlos Manuel de Céspedes recounted that the secretary of the Apostolic Nunciature in Havana had told him, many years after the fact, that to the first person who proposed the seat was to Msgr. Arcadio Marinas, vicar general. Much of the Habanero clergy thought Father Marinas wanted to be archbishop, but in this, as in other things, humans were wrong. Msgr. Marinas rejected the Holy See’s proposal. Archbishop Enrique Pérez Serantes, the great Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba, a Galician full of history for the Cuban Church and homeland, alluded to being close to the age of eighty. La Nunciatura in Havana addressed the remarkable bishop of Matanzas: Msgr. Alberto Martín Villaverde, Cuban who did not reach the age of sixty, graduated in Canon Law, but also did not accept the proposal and claimed health problems for this purpose. The next year he died of the heart. Only the “takeguín del pinar” remained, who was practically forced to accept the ecclesiastical government of Havana.
On March 21, 1959, Pope St. John XXIII appointed Archbishop Evelio Díaz As full apostolic administrator and auxiliary bishop of Havana, retaining the title of Bishop of Pinar del Río.

Let us remember that the archdiocese of Havana is the main territory of the Church in Cuba. Many things bring this importance to it, as it is the center of the nation’s government and here are the diplomatic staff accredited on the island. At that time, and even today, it is the largest number of priests, religious and laity. At that time, it had 20% of the inhabitants of the Habanera province who attended Sunday Mass. In addition, Havana was home to the largest number of Catholic schools run by priests, religious brothers or nuns. The Habanera Church had a very active Catholic Action, which included university students, workers and even peasants, distributed in its four branches: knights, women, male youth and women’s youth. This was added to Catholic worker youth, university Catholic grouping, university Catholic youth and student youth. The Columbus Cemetery belonged to the Catholic Church, as well as other properties. The seminary El Buen Pastor, in Arroyo Arenas, had just over a hundred seminarians.
Moreover, by 1959, the Catholic Church throughout Cuba had reached the greatest splendor, which it had not had since the death of Bishop Juan José Díaz de Espada in 1833. It was a remarkably promising Church for the Catholic life of the continent. Suffice it to say that Pope Pius XII, in 1946, had created him the first Cuban cardinal. However, of all the Cuban dioceses at the time, Havana, as I have just referred to, was more complex, complicated and very difficult to lead. It was not easy to be archbishop of Havana, and Msgr. Evelio Díaz knew this very well. He came not very motivated to be the highest representative of the ecclesiastical government.
He also knew that behind his peaceful Pinean years remained and that he would have to face many ecclesiastical problems, to which was added a new and large one, the triumph of the Fidel Castro Revolution. The new apostolic administrator came in fear and, perhaps, feeling unable to do well what the Church at the time asked him to do in an imperative and unstepping manner. I think, after almost sixty years, that no other bishop at the time would have run Havana differently than he did.

Facing a new reality
What Msgr. Evelio did not imagine on March 21, 1959, the eve of Holy Week that year, is that the Fidel Castro Revolution, in less than a year and a half, would be Marxist-Leninist. For this, the Church in Cuba was un prepared, and only possessed the numerous data on the suffering of Christians in the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, North Vietnam and the Socialist countries of the European East. In addition, the very bitter experience of the Spanish Republic in the 1930s was very recent. No system run by the Communist Party was flattering for the lives of Christians. Many lay martyrs, seminarians, nuns, priests and bishops were in all these countries. Two Cardinals of the Church had been imprisoned in Hungary and Yugoslavia, respectively.

On 17 May 1959, the announced Agrarian Reform Act was enacted. Msgr. Evelio Díaz, Msgr. Enrique Pérez Serantes and Msgr. Alberto Martín Villaverde made public statements by welcoming the long-awaited Agrarian Reform reflected in the 1940 Constitution, but never implemented and which the Church in Cuba longed for.
On the other hand, the Church had expressed her displeasure at the very high-profile trials of connotated Batistians accused of crimes. The 1940 Constitution, still in force by that date, had eliminated the death penalty in Cuba. The general jubilation of priests and Catholic lay people towards the triumphant Revolution was evident in that first year.
On 29 and 30 November 1959, the one already scheduled from before the 1st was held. January, National Catholic Congress, which featured two major celebrations. First, on the rainy night of Saturday, November 29, the Mass was held, for which the authentic image of the Virgin of Charity of Copper was brought and officiated by the Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba, Msgr. Enrique Pérez Serantes. She attended the entire Cuban episcopate at the time, including Cardinal Arteaga and the newly appointed coadjutor archbishop of Havana with the right to succession, Msgr. Evelio Díaz Cía, who under canon law at the time was assigned titular archbishop of Petra de Palestrina. Cardinal Arteaga continued to retain the title of Archbishop of Havana until his death, but he could not rule, who ruled it in fact and in law was the new coadjutor archbishop entitled to succession. Until new bishop was appointed to Pinar del Río, Msgr. Evelio Díaz would continue to govern her with the title of vacant apostolic administrator. A million Cubans from all over the country attended this mass in civic square. Monseñor Evelio Díaz con-dorticos-y-roa-marzo-1960Also present were the President of the Republic, Dr. Osvaldo Dorticós Torrado and the first lady, Ms. María Caridad Molina, Prime Minister Dr. Fidel Castro Ruz, Cte. Juan Almeida and other senior leaders of the revolutionary government.
The next day, the meeting of the Cuban Catholic Action was held in the Stadium of the Tropical, which ended with the proclamation of the Catholic social creed by this association of the Cuban Church. This social creed shows the development of the social mentality and the performer that Catholic Action had come to achieve in Cuba since its inception some thirty years earlier.
On January 28, 1960, the Martiana Dinner was held in Plaza Civic José Martí in Havana. The coadjutor archbishop of Havana, Msgr. Evelio Díaz, said many times that on that occasion the leader of the Revolution had told him that the Church would not be taken away from anything in Cuba. The late Franciscan father Adolfo Guerra collected, in 1984 for the subcommittee of History of Cuban Ecclesial Reflection, a thorough work of the stage of the church’s history in Cuba spanning the period 1959 to 1969, as reflected by the press at the time. It is good to note that in a brief period of 1960 the press, radio and television were nationalized by the revolutionary government. The testimony of the events that occurred at this stage, according to the press, reflect the relations of the revolutionary government with the Church in Cuba, which very quickly became very strained.
The presence of traditionally Cuban communist leaders such as Drs. Carlos Rafael Rodríguez and Juan Marinello, and the leaders Blas Roca and Lázaro Peña, among others, became highly visible in the new government. This aroused the Church’s distrust of the revolutionary process, coupled with the expansion of the elections promised by Dr. Fidel Castro in January 1959. During the speed of the victims of the terrorist attack on the ship La Coubre, carried out in the national CTC, Msgr. Evelio Díaz attended and prayed a responsibility for the souls of those there veiled.
On August 7, 1960, in all the temples of Cuba the Pastoral of the Venerable Cuban Episcopate was read in which the bishops placed their position before a possible communist turn of the Cuban Revolution. The letter, in short, said that the Church was with the Revolution; but with communism, no. For its part, the Government responded that the Church had always been an ally of the aristocracy and that it now continued to respond to its interests. Groups of revolutionaries began to edest words against the Church and the clergy at the gates of several temples at the time of liturgical celebrations.
Msgr. Evelio Díaz was the first figure of the Church in Cuba during the tense decade of Church-State relations, for from the 1976 Constitution, but especially since the fourth congress of the PCC (October 10-15, 1991), such tensions gradually and significantly eased.
In early 1961, the Columbus Cemetery, owned by the Archbishopric of Havana since its opening in 1886, was nationalized. On Monday, April 16, 1961, at the time of the invasion of Playa Girón, several people throughout Cuba were apprehended in order to prevent support for the invaders. Msgr. Evelio Díaz, with one of his auxiliary bishops, Msgr. Eduardo Boza Masvidal, were taken to the Sports City and remained there, along with many others detained, until the end of April of that same year. Other bishops and priests were also held in their parishes or houses guarded by a couple of militiamen. On May 1, 1961, private schools, including Catholics, were nationalized. On 10 September, the Government did not authorize the procession of Our Lady of Charity, whose permission had been requested by the parish priest of that place, Msgr. Eduardo Boza Masvidal, in advance. However, parishioners called on the Church to have the procession. The parish priest informed them that there was no permission to do so. From a nearby building they lent a painting of the Virgin of Charity so that the turnout would take out the procession on its own. This led to an encounter of insults between groups of revolutionaries on the outskirts of the temple and parishioners. Unfortunately, there was a gunshot and one person died. The government and Church versions of this event do not match. From that moment on, the Government did not give the Church permission to hold public events until Good Friday 1998, the parish priest of that same Church requested permission for a procession and was granted.
On September 17, 1961, the ship Covadonga, which led to Santander, Spain, sailed to two hundred and thirty priests and the auxiliary bishop of Havana, the aforementioned Eduardo Boza Masvidal. They had previously been arrested, and were now expelled from Cuba. In the group there were Cuban, Spanish and Canadian priests. It should be said that Canadian priests and some Cubans and Spaniards were authorized by the Government to return to the country and exercise ministry from 1963. Religious congregations of priests, brothers and nuns took most of their members out of the country, for fear of bloody persecution in Cuba. Other Cuban and foreign priests voluntarily emigrated from Cuba. As a result, many parishes were left without cures. The priests who remained had to multiply to give the religious services that, at that time, were much more than now. The archdiocese of Havana, being the largest in clergy, brothers and nuns, was the most convulsed by this situation. Church activities were thereafter reduced to temple space. Some chapels located in small villages were occupied and intended for housing, schools, pharmacies or offices of state agencies.

Some Catholics today wonder why the Church did not protest these situations. It is necessary to move to that moment. History teaches us that every radical revolution has affected the Church. Faced with this historical truth, the bishops of Cuba opted for silence, since any protest action could be reversed in a violent situation, which would affect, first of all, the Catholic faithful. Silence was the answer to socialist and Marxist-Leninist politics declared by Cte. Fidel Castro on April 15, 1961. And religious attention to sheep prevailed over the political choice of the Church.
At the end of 1961, Pope San Juan XXIII sent an internuncio to Cuba, Cardinal Silvio Oddi, with a letter asking priests to remain in Cuba and therefore not leave the country. In short, the Pope called for the permanence of the shepherds to attend religiously to the sheep. However, some priests ignored this papal request.
As I said earlier, I now think that the Church’s wisest and wisest response during that extraordinarily tense decade in Church-State relations was the wisest, wisest that could be adopted. This is the great merit of Msgr. Evelio Díaz Cía and the rest of the Cuban bishops, together with Msgr. Cesare Zacchi, Secretary of the Apostolic Nunciature in Cuba. I also believe that Msgr. Evelio Diaz was the providential man so that tensions between the Church and the State would not increase. He suffered greatly, but Catholic worship remained in Cuba and almost all of the temples remained giving religious services to the faithful. The Catholic faith in Cuba was saved. And then, as we know, better times have come.
In May 1966, the building and grounds of the seminary El Buen Pastor, arroyo Arenas, were nationalized by the Government to be intended for military uses. It was a very painful blow to the Church, addressed to her heart. However, two men saved the priestly formation center with their pain and prudence. The happy idea of reopening it in housing conditions in the dear old farmhouse of Avenida del Puerto, where it was founded in 1772 and where it had existed until twenty years earlier in 1945, corresponded to Msgr. Evelio Díaz and Father Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, appointed to the rector of the center. God too, providentially, would enlighten the minds of these men so that the name that places the seminary of Havana in a luminous way in the history of Cuba: San Carlos and San Ambrosio would be rescued.
By August 1967, the glorious Cuban Catholic Action was definitively dissolved as a result of the emigration of many of its members and the impediment of a lay apostolate outside the temple. The bishops of that time showed another saving response: the creation of the Organized Seglar Apostolate (ASO), which led the already decimated lay people of Catholic communities to maintain lay spirituality and a witness presence in society. The ASO disappeared in 1986 with the Cuban National Ecclesial Encounter (ENEC).

The end of his days
The habanera decade (1959-1970) that belonged to Msgr. Evelio Díaz caused him to lose his body weight, the hair on his head, the stature was further reduced, and old age quickly invaded him. In June 1969 he suffered a heart attack, and although since 1964, Pope Paul VI had appointed him two new auxiliary bishops, Msgr. Alfredo Llaguno and Msgr. Fernando Azcárate, the already much-sought-after archbishop asked him to resign for health problems. This Pope granted it to him at the end of January 1970.

The old archbishop Emeritus had no home to live in the forward. He was housed in his brother and sister-in-law’s apartment, located on Lugareño Street, near Ayestarán, on the third floor of a building. He had no bed to sleep in at the time, and asked his successor, Msgr. Francisco Oves, to let him take his bed from the Archbishop’s Palace. He continued to attend pastorally the chapel of Tarará beach, which he had been doing for some years. In 1976, when the beach was converted into the pioneer camp, the chapel was lost. In 2010, the Government returned that chapel to the Church. Msgr. Evelio attended some of the other masses he was invited to in Havana. He celebrated his daily mass in the apartment where he lived, where he was visited by some priests and faithful Habaneros. Since 1962, like all the people of Cuba, he fed and dressed with what they gave him in the supply book. He never left Cuba. He attended medically in the same hospitals that the village attended: the Pando Ferrer, where he was operated glaucoma and Manuel Fajardo. Msgr. Zacchi promised him the management of asking the state for housing to live in. It never came. His brother died in 1977 and when a group of seminarians went to give him condolences, they found him with an apron scrubbing the snout in the kitchen. His faithful sister-in-law treated him until the end of his days.
He died at dawn on Saturday, July 28, 1984. His last words, saying to the then father Mariano Vivanco (later bishop of Matanzas) were: “Tell the Pineans that their prelated dies. Tell Msgr. Siro and Father Cayetano that they have been good friends.” His body was transferred to Havana Cathedral and burial occurred on the afternoon of the next day, in the pantheon of bishops of the Cemetery of Columbus. His remains, along with those of two other bishops, were desecrated three years ago. Provisionally, they are located in the mortuary crypt of the Church of the Holy Spirit of Old Havana, waiting for them to be transferred to the baptismal chapel of the Cathedral of Havana, according to the project of Cardinal Jaime Ortega. Ω

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