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Cubans inaugurate first new Catholic church in decades

Published
Father Cirilo Castro takes part in the consecration Mass of the Sagrado Corazon de Jesus, or Sacred Heart, Catholic church, in Sandino, Cuba, Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019. The parish is one of three Catholic churches that the Cuban government authorized to be built and the first of the three to be completely finished, with the help of Tampa's St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Florida. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

SANDINO, Cuba (AP) — The first new Roman Catholic church to be completed in Cuba since the country's 1959 socialist revolution was inaugurated with the aid of a Florida congregation Saturday, in a ceremony that observers called a hopeful sign amid international tensions.

The Parish of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the western town of Sandino is one of three Catholic churches authorized by Cuba as part of a warming between the Vatican and the island's Communist government.

It is the first to be finished, thanks in large part to financial aid from the members of St. Lawrence Church in Tampa, Florida. Tensions between Cuba and the U.S. have risen in recent weeks as the Trump administration has threatened new sanctions on Cuba and its ally Venezuela.

"This is a bridge between Tampa and Cuba," said Rev. Ramon Hernandez, a Cuban-born priest who lives in Tampa and returned for the ceremony.

The Cuban state and Catholic church clashed in the first decades after the revolution, when many priests worked against the new Communist-ruled state and were expelled by the government, which also took over many churches.

President Fidel Castro began easing restrictions on religion in the 1990s. Popes John Paul II, Benedict and Francis all visited the island since then.

A new church in Havana is also being used for worship but remains structurally incomplete. A third sanctuary in Santiago has yet to begin significant construction.

The opening of the new church in Sandino was particularly significant because the town is home to families relocated from Cuba's Escambray region, where residents fought the Communist government in the first years after the revolution.

"This is an historic event for the church," said church member Juan Hidalberto Hernandez. "Many families and their descendants left their saints behind and didn't have a church to pray in."

The Tampa congregation donated about $95,000 for the new building, which holds some 200 worshippers and was built on land granted by the state.

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Andrea Rodriguez on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ARodriguezAP

A nun waits for the start of a consecration Mass of the Sagrado Corazon de Jesus Catholic church or Sacred Heart, in Sandino, Cuba, Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019. Of the three Catholic churches the Cuban government has authorized, it's the first one in 60 years to be completed. It was finished with the help of Tampa's St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Florida.  (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
Faithful arrive for the consecration Mass of the Sagrado Corazon de Jesus Catholic church or Sacred Heart, in Sandino, Cuba, Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019. Of the three Catholic churches the Cuban government has authorized, it's the first one in 60 years to be completed. It was finished with the help of Tampa's St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Florida.  (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
A technician of the Cuban telephone company
A couple pose for a photo backdropped by the cross crowning the newly consecrated Sagrado Corazon de Jesus Catholic church or Sacred Heart, in Sandino, Cuba, Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019. Of the three Catholic churches the Cuban government has authorized, it's the first one in 60 years to be completed. It was finished with the help of Tampa's St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Florida.  (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
Children sit next to a baptismal font as they wait for the start of a consecration Mass of the Sagrado Corazon de Jesus, or Sacred Heart, Catholic church, in Sandino, Cuba, Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019. The church is one of three Catholic churches that the Cuban government authorized to be built, and the first one to be completely finished with the help of Tampa's St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Florida. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
An acolyte, holding a censer, and an altar boy wait for the start of the consecration of the Sagrado Corazon de Jesus Catholic church or Sacred Heart, in Sandino, Cuba, Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019. Of the three Catholic churches the Cuban government has authorized, it's the first one in 60 years to be built and completed. It was finished with the help of Tampa's St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Florida.  (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
Parishioners pose for a photo backdropped by a stained glass window inside the newly consecrated Sagrado Corazon de Jesus Catholic church or Sacred Heart, in Sandino, Cuba, Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019. Of the three Catholic churches the Cuban government has authorized, the Sacred Heart of Jesus church is the first in 60 years to be completed. It was finished with the help of Tampa's St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Florida.  (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
A parishioner makes a photo of the crucifix above the altar at the newly consecrated Sagrado Corazon de Jesus, or Sacred Heart, Catholic church, in Sandino, Cuba, Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019. Of the three Catholic churches the Cuban government has authorized, the Sacred Heart of Jesus church is the first in 60 years to be completed. It was finished with the help of Tampa's St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Florida.  (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
An acolyte, holding a censer, and an altar boy wait for the start of the consecration of the Sagrado Corazon de Jesus Catholic church or Sacred Heart, in Sandino, Cuba, Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019. Of the three Catholic churches the Cuban government has authorized, it's the first one in 60 years to be built and completed. It was finished with the help of Tampa's St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Florida.  (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
An acolyte, holding a censer, and an altar boy wait for the start of the consecration of the Sagrado Corazon de Jesus Catholic church or Sacred Heart, in Sandino, Cuba, Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019. Of the three Catholic churches the Cuban government has authorized, it's the first one in 60 years to be built and completed. It was finished with the help of Tampa's St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Florida. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
Children sit next to a baptismal font as they wait for the start of a consecration Mass of the Sagrado Corazon de Jesus, or Sacred Heart, Catholic church, in Sandino, Cuba, Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019. The church is one of three Catholic churches that the Cuban government authorized to be built, and the first one to be completely finished with the help of Tampa's St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Florida. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
Children sit next to a baptismal font as they wait for the start of a consecration Mass of the Sagrado Corazon de Jesus, or Sacred Heart, Catholic church, in Sandino, Cuba, Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019. The church is one of three Catholic churches that the Cuban government authorized to be built, and the first one to be completely finished with the help of Tampa's St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Florida. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
Parishioners pose for a photo backdropped by a stained glass window inside the newly consecrated Sagrado Corazon de Jesus Catholic church or Sacred Heart, in Sandino, Cuba, Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019. Of the three Catholic churches the Cuban government has authorized, the Sacred Heart of Jesus church is the first in 60 years to be completed. It was finished with the help of Tampa's St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Florida.  (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
Parishioners pose for a photo backdropped by a stained glass window inside the newly consecrated Sagrado Corazon de Jesus Catholic church or Sacred Heart, in Sandino, Cuba, Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019. Of the three Catholic churches the Cuban government has authorized, the Sacred Heart of Jesus church is the first in 60 years to be completed. It was finished with the help of Tampa's St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Florida. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
Faithful arrive for the consecration Mass of the Sagrado Corazon de Jesus Catholic church or Sacred Heart, in Sandino, Cuba, Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019. Of the three Catholic churches the Cuban government has authorized, it's the first one in 60 years to be completed. It was finished with the help of Tampa's St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Florida.  (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
Faithful arrive for the consecration Mass of the Sagrado Corazon de Jesus Catholic church or Sacred Heart, in Sandino, Cuba, Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019. Of the three Catholic churches the Cuban government has authorized, it's the first one in 60 years to be completed. It was finished with the help of Tampa's St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Florida. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
A parishioner makes a photo of the crucifix above the altar at the newly consecrated Sagrado Corazon de Jesus, or Sacred Heart, Catholic church, in Sandino, Cuba, Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019. Of the three Catholic churches the Cuban government has authorized, the Sacred Heart of Jesus church is the first in 60 years to be completed. It was finished with the help of Tampa's St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Florida.  (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
A parishioner makes a photo of the crucifix above the altar at the newly consecrated Sagrado Corazon de Jesus, or Sacred Heart, Catholic church, in Sandino, Cuba, Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019. Of the three Catholic churches the Cuban government has authorized, the Sacred Heart of Jesus church is the first in 60 years to be completed. It was finished with the help of Tampa's St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Florida. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
Father Cirilo Castro takes part in the consecration Mass of the Sagrado Corazon de Jesus, or Sacred Heart, Catholic church, in Sandino, Cuba, Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019. The parish is one of three Catholic churches that the Cuban government authorized to be built and the first of the three to be completely finished, with the help of Tampa's St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Florida. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
Father Cirilo Castro takes part in the consecration Mass of the Sagrado Corazon de Jesus, or Sacred Heart, Catholic church, in Sandino, Cuba, Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019. The parish is one of three Catholic churches that the Cuban government authorized to be built and the first of the three to be completely finished, with the help of Tampa's St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Florida. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
A nun waits for the start of a consecration Mass of the Sagrado Corazon de Jesus Catholic church or Sacred Heart, in Sandino, Cuba, Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019. Of the three Catholic churches the Cuban government has authorized, it's the first one in 60 years to be completed. It was finished with the help of Tampa's St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Florida.  (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
A nun waits for the start of a consecration Mass of the Sagrado Corazon de Jesus Catholic church or Sacred Heart, in Sandino, Cuba, Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019. Of the three Catholic churches the Cuban government has authorized, it's the first one in 60 years to be completed. It was finished with the help of Tampa's St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Florida. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
A couple pose for a photo backdropped by the cross crowning the newly consecrated Sagrado Corazon de Jesus Catholic church or Sacred Heart, in Sandino, Cuba, Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019. Of the three Catholic churches the Cuban government has authorized, it's the first one in 60 years to be completed. It was finished with the help of Tampa's St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Florida.  (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
A couple pose for a photo backdropped by the cross crowning the newly consecrated Sagrado Corazon de Jesus Catholic church or Sacred Heart, in Sandino, Cuba, Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019. Of the three Catholic churches the Cuban government has authorized, it's the first one in 60 years to be completed. It was finished with the help of Tampa's St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Florida. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
A technician of the Cuban telephone company
A technician of the Cuban telephone company " Etecsa" installs a telephone hours before the consecration Mass of the Sagrado Corazon de Jesus Catholic church or Sacred Heart, in Sandino, Cuba, Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019. Of the three Catholic churches the Cuban government has authorized, it's the first one in 60 years to be completed. It was finished with the help of Tampa's St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Florida. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)