Bishop Estévez leads Pilgrimage to Cuba to See Pope Benedict XVI

Published on Mar 26th, 2012 by Austin Keith | 0

By Tom Tracy

Meeting for the first and only time as a group before they board planes for Cuba, a group of North Florida Catholics recently shared their hopes for an upcoming pilgrimage to the island nation with so many historic ties to their area.

Coinciding with Pope Benedict XVI’s historic visit to Cuba, nearly a dozen people from the Diocese of St. Augustine accepted the invitation of their bishop to travel to Cuba March 26-29 on a religious pilgrimage to see the pope in both Santiago de Cuba and Havana. The pilgrims will travel under the spiritual direction of one of the few Cuban-born U.S. bishops, Felipe J. Estévez of St. Augustine, who himself fled Cuba to the United States as a young man under Operation Pedro Pan.

“I wanted to go in 1998 (for the visit of then-Pope John Paul II) but I couldn’t make it, so I didn’t want to miss this opportunity,” said Esther Sugarman, whose mother was born in Cuba and who still has more than 30 relatives living in Havana and elsewhere on the island.

A member of St. Paul Parish in Jacksonville Beach, Sugarman is traveling alongside a fellow parishioner whom she encouraged to come along. The two plan to carry rosaries, Catholic prayer cards and personal gifts to the people of Cuba and to relatives.

“The same day that the trip was announced I saw my friend in a cafe and I said, “Hey, you want to go to Cuba?” Sugarman said. “I figure this will be a good chance to see the pope.”

Sugarman’s friend who is traveling to Cuba, Sidney Katsikas, a Catholic schoolteacher and reading instructor, said she tried twice unsuccessfully to make a pilgrimage to Rome, and that this trip will be an alternative way to see Pope Benedict.

Bishop Estévez told the group gathered at the St. Augustine Diocesan Catholic Center March 5 that the purpose of the pilgrimage is to build bridges of peace and mutual understanding among the faith communities of Cuba and the United States.

The St. Augustine group is traveling with several hundred other people from Florida and around the country on a pilgrimage organized by Miami Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski.

“The visit of Benedict to Cuba has been lauded by the Cuban bishops and they are very excited; they really succeeded in that,” the bishop said of Cuba’s invitation to the pope to go there.

Ordained in 1970 for the Miami Archdiocese and an auxiliary bishop there from 2004 to 2011, Bishop Estévez has traveled to Cuba in recent years in solidarity with the local church and to be a part of the ongoing 400th anniversary celebrations associated with the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre near Santiago.

Bishop Estévez cautioned the American pilgrims to stay focused on the spiritual purpose of the visit and to avoid political conversations with anyone while in the communist nation.

“We go in prayers of solidarity, a church-to-church event to support the people there,” he said, adding, “There is really nothing to be afraid of because we go with a personal record of peace.”

Traveling with the group from the Diocese of St. Augustine will be members of Bishop Estévez’ extended family, including his sister and cousin, and three diocesan priests – two brothers originally from Poland and one from Italy.

“We remember very well the communist system in Poland and its transformation to democracy, and so this will be sentimental trip in a sense,” said Father Remek Blaszkowski, diocesan director of vocations for St. Augustine. “We will bring prayers and hope for that same transformation in Cuba.”

The Italian-born Father Sal Di Fazio, pastor of St. Paul Parish in Jacksonville, said he joined the group with a personal desire to meet the people of Cuba, to see various parishes and seminaries, and to discover how the local church has been surviving.

“My hope is to meet the people of Cuba where they live and take in the history. And my dream will be to pray over the remains of Father Felix Varela,” who was born in Havana and died in St. Augustine in 1853.

It is expected that Pope Benedict may use the occasion of his visit to Cuba to announce progress on the cause for sainthood of Father Varela.

“He is a priest who is very endearing to St. Augustine because of the time he spent here – the last four years of his life,” Bishop Estévez said. “The people of the diocese are very pleased that his cause has made progress this year.”

A 19th-century writer and philosopher, Father Varela has been credited with promoting human rights, freedom for slaves and independence for Cuba from Spain. He lived in St. Augustine during a time of personal exile from Cuba and his remains are now housed at the University of Havana.

Follow the coverage of Pope Benedict’s apostolic journey to Mexico and to the Republic of Cuba by visiting the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website  and we will be posting more stories from our local pilgrims soon!

Photos by Tom Tracy 

(Top, right) Pilgrims from the Diocese of St. Augustine traveling with Bishop Felipe Estévez to Cuba, March 26-29, from left, Fathers Andy Blaszkowski, Sal Di Fazio, Remek Blaszkowski and Esther Sugarman, Sidney Katsikas and Nancy Hilburn.


(Bottom, left) Cuban-Born Bishop Felipe J. Estévez of St. Augustine, center, leads a pilgrimage to Cuba March 26-29 to see Pope Benedict XVI in both Santiago de Cuba and Havana, talks with Esther Sugarman and Father Sal Di Fazio of St. Paul Catholic Church (Jacksonville), March 5, in Jacksonville, Fla.