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.”
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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.
Door to door
In the early days of the parish, Vallina went out to evangelize a neighborhood that every day received more and more Cuban families whose lives were derailed by communism and were separated of their loved ones who remained in Cuba.
Vallina visited every home, climbing stairs, announcing the good news: “Christ lives and is with us, and is waiting for you at the Sacred Mass at Tivoli Movie Theater. Be there!”
To exiles, the Sunday Mass was like a balm, a reunion with their blood in a foreign land. Soon, the theater became too small for its flock.
In December 1963, Vallina received the keys to a rundown garage seven blocks away. The parishioners renovated it, and acquired an adjacent lot where there was a funeral home. Since then, San Juan Bosco has extended a hand to every needy person who knocks at its door.
From 1992 to 2007 it offered free medical services to uninsured people.
Difficulties of base communities
The proliferation of services that have turned the church into a major social assistant center, as well as the deterioration of the original building that sheltered the church, prompted the construction of the current church, inaugurated in 2001, whose numerous images of the saints of Hispanic countries evoke Latin American churches.
One of the challenges San Juan Bosco has faced has been the mobility of the population. As they became increasingly prosperous, many Cubans have moved to better neighborhoods and joined other parishes, leaving their leadership roles in San Juan Bosco’s lay ministries.
Multiple waves of political and economic migrants have created a floating congregation. Today, Nicaraguans and other Central American immigrants have taken the place of Cubans, and arrive in need at the church as their predecessors did.
The rise of crime in the area has affected the stability of the congregation, although the police presence has improved in recent years.
Isabel Espinola, administrative assistant at the parish for 25 years, said that vandalism — once the image of the Virgin of Charity was stolen in the light of day, though was later recovered — and sacrilege — excrement has been repeatedly left at the altar — have forced the parish to keep the sanctuary closed except during services. (The chapel remains open.)
Despite the difficulties, this poor, missionary community continues to embrace, love, understand and serve all immigrants under the guidance of its current pastor, the Rev. Juan Carlos Paguaga, a Nicaraguan.
“The love of Christ is the base of our ministry,” Paguaga said, “and the force that keeps our perspective into the future.”