Juan Ivo Urvoy Roslin says his work as the chief parish priest in the town of Placetas in central Cuba requires him to be a bit like a family doctor — a generalist rather than just a theologian or educator.
“It’s not just spiritual sustenance. What is needed is an integrated approach” to helping his flock, said the French-born, 45-year-old member of St. Martin of Tours, a traditional order whose priests still wear ankle-length cassocks.
For the past seven years, the priest — who prefers to be called simply “Juan Ivo” — and four other members of his order have therefore been seeking donations to fund a range of services in Placetas, a town and broader municipality of about 70,000 people about 185 miles east of Havana.
Local authorities may look a tad dubiously at all their activities. But as the cash-strapped Raul Castro government is forced to trim its spending on health, education and welfare programs, Catholic and other churches throughout the island have been expanding their humanitarian work.
Some churches are even offering classes on computers and how to establish and manage one of the many categories of small enterprises allowed under Castro’s economic reforms.
The Placetas parish runs five canteens that feed up to 120 people one or two times a week, and maintains a small dispensary of donated medicines, Urvoy told El Nuevo Herald while visiting Miami to raise funds for the parish.
And although the government does not allow private schools, about 160 primary and secondary school students are being tutored by 12 teachers contracted by the parish to cover the gaps in the state education system.
The parish also provides housing Monday through Friday for nine youths who live in the countryside and would have long daily commutes to school, or who live in town in overcrowded homes and want some peace and quiet for their studies.
For youths not likely to move on to college the priests have arranged carpentry lessons, said Juan Pichon, 30, another French-born St. Martin de Tours priest who arrived in Placetas in 2008 and now handles most of the youth activities.
“They bring oxygen and a healthy, independent life to this place,” said one Placetas resident who asked for anonymity because he is a government critic and did not want local authorities to punish the priests for his comments.
For sport, Urvoy, a cycling aficionado, has organized the Catholic Cycling Club of Placetas — CCCP in both English and Spanish — with 45 members who compete every month among themselves or against state-sponsored cycling teams.
He collects donations of cycling gear during his annual visits to South Florida, but he also buys himself a road racing bike every year and donates the old ones to the club.
The priests also make the rounds of the municipalities aboard donated mountain bikes when their vehicles — a 1952 Ford truck and a Soviet-made Lada car “that works one day and not the next” — are not available, Pichon said.
Bishop Arturo Gonzalez of the surrounding Santa Clara archdiocese asked the St. Martin of Tours order to send priests to Placetas in 2006 because of Cuba’s long-running shortage of Catholic priests. The island has 340 priests, slightly more than half of them foreigners.
The parish runs on a budget of about $90,000 a year — about $40,000 that it receives from the order in France; $35,000 from religious groups such as Caritas, the church’s international aid network; and $15,000 from donors in South Florida.
Urvoy and Pichon spoke carefully about their relations with the government — officially atheist until 1992 and still controlled by the Communist Party of Cuba.
The party’s Office of Religious Affairs must approve all activities from church repairs to visas and the importation of bibles, and its branch in Placetas has a young man in charge of relations with all religious groups in the town.
Urvoy said relations with the government have “improved somewhat” in recent times — a comment in line with a State Department report Monday that although Cuba eased controls on religious activities in 2012, in general it maintained “significant restrictions” on freedom of religion.
As an example, the priest recalled an incident last year when the statue of Our Lady of Charity, Cuba’s patron saint, was paraded through Placetas as part of the celebrations marking the 400th anniversary of the statue’s discovery.
As the procession passed near the home of Jorge Luis García Pérez, a dissident best known as Antúnez who has been arrested dozens of times in recent years, his wife, Yris Tamara Pérez Aguilera, joined the procession, he recalled.
Urvoy said he called her to him and told her that nothing would happen to her if she did not turn the procession into a political event. Two blocks down, local authorities approached him to complain about her presence, but they accepted his reply.
“The virgin is for everyone,” he told them.