Two churches meet: St. Ambrose welcomes members of sister parish from Cuba

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They didn't get to see snow, but they sure packed a lot of Minnesota into one week.

St. Ambrose of Woodbury Catholic Community hosted two members from their sister parish in the village of Esmeralda Cuba last week.

On their first trip to the United States, Fr. Yosbel Puentes Dousac and Sister Leticia Ortiz Alonso dined at the home of a parishioner, attended Mass, visited St. Ambrose school's Spanish immersion class, saw the new St. Croix Crossing bridge in Oak Park Heights and toured the Cathedral of St. Paul. They also dined at Sole Mio restaurant in Woodbury.

Puentes and Ortiz run the parish of San Miguel de Cubitas, which is centered in the town of Esmerelda.

The two parishes established ties in November 2015.

"We started interacting via email and Facebook to get to know each other electronically or virtually," Sister Parish coordinator Gary Moore said. In October 2016, St. Ambrose volunteers made their first trip to San Miguel.

"The Cubans can teach us to better integrate prayer life on a smaller basis than just going to mass once a week," Moore said. "It's not like the rich hand is giving to the poor son money. It's really to understand each other's faith life and build each other up."

The Catholic Church in Cuba is still recovering from decades of repression by the communist government. One of their churches, San Jose, has not had a roof for over three years. (They only recently received permission to purchase wood to rebuild the roof. )

"The history of the Church in Cuba is a little complicated," Puentes said through a translator. "There's been a slight opening since 1998 that allowed us to have more outreach. Ever since Pope John Paul II came."

They have a long way to go, however, Ortiz said. With Moore translating, she said,

"Much prayer is needed primarily to help the Cuban people consolidate or to grow their faith because there's been a long history of oppression so there's a whole generation that has no faith lives. So she needs the support of the world's prayers to build up that faith life again in Cuba. It's almost like starting from scratch."

To add to their troubles their town bore the brunt of Hurricane Irma in September.

"The category 5 eye of the hurricane passed 25 miles away from their town and stayed for hours," Moore said. "Avocado trees, orange trees were wiped out. It's going to take several years to fill that up again. Before the hurricane their parish provided two free meals a month to people who are really really poor. Now they provide 20 because the people in the outlying areas have no food."

St. Ambrose member Michael Martin is a firefighter/EMT with the City of Woodbury. He arranged for Puentes and Ortiz to tour the Radio Drive Fire Station Oct. 13. Firefighter/ EMT Valentin Huerta served as translator.

"They knew it would be colder up here, but the temperature was still a surprise," Martin said. "They'd never seen so much green."

Martin was part of the most recent mission trip Cuba in March.

"I asked if we could go visit the fire station There was some discussion among the Cubans. ...There was some nervousness. They were unformortable with the request because no one ever went to visit the fire station or police station because it was run by the military. No one visits with those departments unless you have to."

They're planning a return trip in January to help rebuild churches damaged by Hurricane Irma. Puentes and Ortiz flew back to Cuba Oct. 16.

"We didn't want to come across as Americans who have an instant fix to the problems," Martin said. "The real goal for them and the real goal for us is to have contact so we can share ideas

and learn from each other."