The Catholic life of Miami’s Cuban exiles began at a movie theater on West Flagler Street.
Expelled from the land where they were born, thousands of men and women were thirsty for spiritual refuge, for a place where they would be understood and helped. Their language was not spoken at any church, and there were no institutions that would help them; so they were invited to celebrate a religious service at Tivoli Movie Theater.
A year later, they moved the congregation to a more ample place — an abandoned warehouse.
“It had a dirt floor, and to get to the altar we had to walk on a wooden plank,” recalled Diego Chávez, 93. “The altar was a table with a piece of cloth where the ciborium and the chalice were placed.”
A helping hand
Fifty years have gone by since San Juan Bosco Catholic Church opened its arms in Little Havana to people in need and without a country in order to assist with their spiritual and material problems.
Cubans went on to make history as one of the great success stories among immigrants in the United States while changing the ethnic and cultural profile of South Florida.
In time, churches, lay organizations and Catholic schools were founded. But throughout five decades, San Juan Bosco has remained the house of prayer with traditions dating back to exile childhood. This is why Cuban expatriates named this first Hispanic parish “The Exile’s Cathedral.”
It was in this church where Cuban believers received the Eucharistic sacrament, shared problems and fears and clung to a generous hand to rebuild their lives in the United States.
The baptismal font at the parish welcomed newborns to the Catholic faith. New couples elatedly walked the aisle to seal their nuptial unions at the altar, and on that same aisle, but in the opposite direction, with tears in their eyes and hope in their hearts, they walked their dead.
Two generations have also found in San Juan Bosco an abundant niche of compassion and help to carry the burden of adapting to a new language and culture, resolve basic material needs and employment, peace and advice in their domestic quarrels, letters of recommendation, intercessions before judges and law-enforcement agents, scholarships for Catholic schools and, above all, the certainty of being able to count on the support of the community regardless of the circumstances.
“We were deprived of everything,” said Luis Lorenzo, founding member of the Union of Catholic Knights, one of the first lay organizations back in the Cuban republic that was reborn in exile at the heart of the parish at 1349 W. Flagler St.
“We arrived here in solitude and did not know each other, and in this church we became like brothers and sisters,” he said. “Most of us did not have a job, but we helped each other and shared whatever we received.”
The parish, whose name honors the 19th Century Italian priest and educator who devoted his life to the service of needy or at-risk children, was born in October 1962 at the initiative of the Miami Archbishop Coleman F. Carroll, who as a child of Irish immigrants understood the need to embrace a migrant population that faced new challenges that required particular pastoral action.
The congregation did not have a space, and the Spanish priest in charge, Fernando Ibarra, rented the Tivoli Theater at 744 W. Flagler. Months later, after coming into exile from Cuba, the Rev. Emilio Vallina joined the church. He became its leader until he retired in 2006, an over the decades he adapted the church to changing times and demography with each new wave of Cuban and Central American immigrants.