The Society of Jesus’ Contemporary History in Cuba

The Society of Jesus returned to Cuba in 1853 after an exile of eighty six (86) years – King Carlos III of Spain had expelled the Jesuits from the island in 1767 by Royal Decree. Later, on February 2nd, 1854, Queen Isabella II of Spain by Royal Decree founded in Havana the School of Belen (in Spanish known as “Real Colegio de Belén” or by its complete name, “Colegio de Nuestra Señora de Belén”).

The current Antilles Province emerged as Cuban Vice-province in June of the year 1929; it was a dependency of the Spanish Province of León. Also in June, but this time in the year 1952, the Independent Vice-province of the Antilles was created and it comprised Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. The Antilles portion of Puerto Rico was later allocated to the Province of New York in July, 1959. In 1961, on September 17th, twenty six (26) Jesuits were expelled from Cuba, which led to the consequent relocation of the Curia and the School of Belen in Miami – by that time, only forty eight (48) Jesuits remained on the island.

On July 31st, 1968, the Antilles Province is created with the Curia headquartered at Santo Domingo. Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Miami are the regions that comprise such province. Nowadays, the Province is on the pathway of accomplishing a process of unification with the Cuban Region.

At present, there are only twenty six (26) Jesuits in the island, who belong to the Antilles Province that used to be headquartered at Havana – specifically at the beloved School of Belen – until their exile in May 1961, imposed by the communists who were led by an alumnus of the Class of 1945 called Fidel Castro. All other members of religious orders in the island suffered the same fate at the hands of the communists.

Now, it seems that, as a gesture of kindness and, purely, public relations, the communists are willing to return some of the seized properties to their previous owners – though, this is far from really happening any time soon. Let alone be said that such locations are properties of their choosing which they do not deem convenient to keep maintaining. In Cuba, the Society of Jesus owned several schools, among them was the School of Monserrat (in Spanish known as “Colegio de Nuestra Señora de Monserrat”) located at the city of Cienfuegos, in the south coast of Cuba. This school, which was closed by the Jesuits in 1942, worked as a primary and secondary school. Nowadays, it is just an old building that the communists want to get rid of. Whereas the most important of all the Jesuit schools in Cuba, the School of Belen, holds inside its doors the Technical Military Institute (in Spanish known as “Instituto Técnico Militar” or “ITM” for its Spanish acronym). Finally, in May 2013, the former school was visited by a group of Latin American Jesuits led by Priest Jorge Cela SJ, President of the Jesuit Conference of Latin American Provincials (in Spanish known as “Conferencia de Provinciales de América Latina” or “CPAL” for its Spanish acronym). Father Jorge Cela SJ is a Cuban Jesuit alumnus graduated from the School of Belen in June 1959 and has had a very important and honorable role in Havana for several years.

Besides the School of Monserrat, the Society of Jesus had founded the following Cuban schools:

In Santiago de Cuba – the second largest city in the island –, there was the School of Dolores (in Spanish known as “Colegio de Dolores” or by its complete name, “Colegio de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores”) which was founded in 1913 and worked as a primary and secondary school. For a brief time, the Castro brothers, Fidel and Raúl, went to school there. It is also said that their older brother, Ramón, also went there – though, there is not so much information on his life considering he is not involved in politics.

Fidel went to secondary school at the School of Belen until the date of his graduation in June 1945. As previously pointed out, the school, which worked as a primary and secondary school too, was founded in 1854 in Havana, city formerly known in Spanish as “San Cristóbal de La Habana” after Havana’s patron saint, Saint Christopher. Over the years, such name has been shortened to the simple Spanish version of “La Habana”.

In addition to this, the Society of Jesus owned another school – which worked as a primary school only – called in Spanish “Sagrado Corazón de Jesús” in the city of Sagua la Grande, a small city inside the island of Cuba.

Very close to the School of Belen in Havana, the Society of Jesus also owned the Electro-mechanics School of Belen (in Spanish known as “Escuela Electromecánica de Belén”), which, as the name points out, was dedicated to the teaching of the technical trade. Besides these institutes, there was also another primary school owned by the Society which was popularly known as the “Free of Charge” (in Spanish, “La Gratuita”) because it was for the poor. At the same building of the former, there were offered night lessons (in the context of what was known as “ENOB” in Spanish, acronym for “Escuela Nocturna Obrera de Belén”). At this night school, there were training lessons to pass the entry exam of the Electro-mechanics School. It should be mentioned that the teachers at the night school were secondary-school students of the School of Belen who volunteered to teach during nighttime.

Except for the School of Monserrat – which closed its doors in 1942 –, all other Jesuit schools in the island were closed down in May 1961 – only a month after the Bay of Pigs Invasion – when the communist government expelled all the Jesuits from the island and, therefore, forced the closing of their schools. However, only some (but less than a handful of) priests were allowed to stay in Cuba. The Protestants and all other members of religious orders suffered the same fate. It should be pointed out that the closing of the schools – which took place in May – had already been announced in January of the same year.

After their expulsion from the island, most of the Jesuits left to the Dominican Republic and some others to Spain. When expelled, they were escorted to the Covadonga steamship at the Havana Bay. Some of the expelled Jesuits were able to go to Miami and a few to the city of San Juan in Puerto Rico, where they managed to work at the School of San Ignacio (in Spanish known as “Colegio San Ignacio de Loyola”). I do not have words to describe the hatred that was felt in the island against religion at that time.

The same fate as Jesuit schools was suffered by parochial schools and those schools founded by Marists and Lasallian Brothers and other religious orders. Considering that the Communism seized control over Cuba on January 1st, 1959, all their changes were performed with great violence and speed.

Like in Argentina and other countries, the Catholic Church has substantially provided the poor with help and has always been considered a source of education – only to receive in return unjustified hatred in Cuba.

The Communist government continues to be the owner of all these properties. In addition, it owns other Jesuit buildings such as the House of Spiritual Exercises “Pio XII” or the Novitiate “El Calvario”, among others. Unfortunately, I do not know for what purposes the Communist government has used these buildings – whether they have been used as governmental offices or the like.

Nowadays, in Cuba, after several years closed down, many Catholic churches have been reopened and are visited by a great number of believers.

Back then in Havana, we were submerged in an ignorance of what was going on in the outer world or, at least, our socio-economic class lived inside a bubble without knowing about all the problems going on around us – we were too young to understand the magnitude of the issue. Could it be said that the Havana society was blind to the world? It is not entirely the case, though no one had imagined what followed next. The people in the socio-economic triangle were on the top, being a minority, not representing at all the majority of the Cuban society. It is not hard to be noticed and the same story can be repeated in every country, even in your country, wherever you are. We were totally overcome by the mass – is it clear?

It is a shame that some employees and teachers took part in the seizing of power by being “interventors” at the establishment where they used to work. Likewise, it is also unfortunate the participation of students in this thirst for power of the Communism. It should be highlighted that the Society of Jesus even granted scholarships to families in need so that their children could have a proper education – even with this in mind, chaos erupted.

My class would have graduated secondary school in June 1961 but to that point a great mass of students have already left the country for political reasons – some of which were very delicate. When the school was seized by the communists, only forty (40) students remained out of a number close to a hundred and twenty (120) and a hundred and forty (140). I had already left the country by that time, but what I am telling you is a first-hand recollection of events of those who stayed: most of them fled the island afterwards, while a few joined the chaotic mass.

The Jesuits were very kind with those who remained at the island: a couple of nights before the seizing of the school, they telephoned all the students at their houses – every single one of them – to ask them to go to the school the following day to be given their end-of-year grades as a sort of certification that they had finished secondary school – despite the fact that the semester had not finished yet and that there was not going to be any graduate celebration. This gesture was really useful to most of the students because once they arrived here (in Miami), they were able to start university right away. This forestalled gesture was a great act of kindness by the Jesuits and a great favor to most students. Time has found us, the Class of 1961, spread all over the world and we have gradually got together once more – though, there is a few of us of whom we do not know nothing about.

The Society of Jesus was able to reopen the School of Belen in Miami by the name of “Belen Jesuit Preparatory School”. Fortunately, the school was able to become once again the establishment it used to be thanks to the help of alumni and part of the exiled Cuban community that wanted to keep the Jesuit spirit alive, despite all economic difficulties that they went through at the beginning.

How could all this happen in Cuba? The repercussions of the incidents that unfolded back then still continue. At that time, people ignored all warnings of the imminent danger to come and yet believed in the promises of the Communism – but the reality was completely different. The nation was blind to what was going on, the Cuban people was expecting things to get better when it could be easily seen from the facts that the situation was going in the opposite direction.

If only the nation had analyzed the core of the matter – by analyzing the past and the present, it is easily to predict what will happen in the future. Neither the ideas nor the promises of false gods – who only care about their own welfare – are worth considering. There is a reality that I have learnt over the years and it is as follows: “there is no economy without peace”. From this we can also gather that “there is no nation, welfare nor happiness without peace”.

A nation without money on its way to bankruptcy cries out only one word: problems. The United States of America were and are not to blame – in spite of all the accusations made by our rulers while they created their own fortune at our expense. Society is to blame for what happened to Cuba because they ignored the problems going on and their ignorance and blindness created a perfect environment for criminals and this sort of people, who, of course, are definitely not constructive beings nor believe in God. This all happened because people tend to think that they are going to be harshly criticized if they are involved in politics. In fact, the problem is the approach: you do not have to be politicized, you just have to be civic.

Afterwards, siblings turn against siblings, children against parents, neighbors against neighbors and friends against friends: the envy and hatred end up ruling all relations.

I remember that a Hungarian priest came once to the school and told us everything about Communism in Hungary and foresaw what may happen in Cuba if we were not careful – but, unfortunately, we did not believe a word of what he said. He just told us what happened in 1956 in Hungary – a place so far away from the island that it was as if it belonged to another world. We did not want to believe him, thinking that that could never happen in our beloved Cuba.

After the euphoria of the chaos, ruin rules. That is how things were in Cuba and we are still paying for that mistake – and several countries are undergoing the same critical situation due to the same and other several reasons (some of which are valid but the Communism is definitely not the path to solve problematic situations). I do not deny that social injustice and poverty exist or that society has needs but I still do not think that this is enough justification for Communism to take control of the situation. Be this way, either less or more radical.

I believe that there are still some events that took place in Cuba since the beginning of it all which I have forgotten to include and which, I believe, were not made public at the time – though, the situation has already occurred in other countries, such as China, the Soviet Union, Hungary, etc., which have been ruled by the Communism. Some of these events are the following:

  • Confiscation (or as the communists put it, “nationalization”) of companies, including banks and private property, confiscation of property and forced house exchanges.
  • Land and urban reform.
  • Concentration camps and compulsory military service.
  • Extremely brief trials, long prison sentences and executions.
  • Division and separation of families.
  • Rationing
  • Creation of militias, espionage organizations and internal surveillance.

Just by going into Google (better said, the Internet) or looking at what happened in Cuba back then at any history book or the library, it is possible to get a better understanding on these events.