The Bridgettines, in the Shadows of Power

Hotel Convento de las Brigidinas en La Habana. (Holidaycheck)
The Bridgettines’ Convent/Hotel in Havana. (Holidaycheck)

Discreet and elusive, donning gray habits and cross-adorned veils, they attend mass at the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity in Pinar del Río. The three nuns, originally from India, belong to the Order of the Most Holy Savior of Saint Bridget headed by the Italian religious Mother Tekla Famiglietti. Known as the  Generalessa, Mother Tekla is one of the most influential women in the Vatican, and her ties to the Cuban government have been reinforced in the last few years.

The Bridgettines ­– a religious order of nuns founded in 1911 in Sweden by Blessed Mary Elizabeth Hesselblad – recently inaugurated a new convent in the city of Pinar del Río. A little more than a decade after opening their impressive headquarters in Havana, this religious order has now turned its attention to Cuba’s far western province. No other religious order on the Island has experienced such rapid growth, which has only been made possible thanks to the longstanding ties between the Mother Tekla and the political élite centered around Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution.

“While we’ve been waiting for years for [the authorities] to approve a complete restoration of our convent, the Bridgettines have managed to open a new convent, and even built a hostel for tourists,” protested a nun of the Daughters of Charity who chose to remain anonymous.

Last November 26 th, Jorge Enrique Serpa, Bishop of Pinar del Río, blessed the new Bridgettine building. Their headquarters are located on what was once a homestead known as “Celestino the Mute’s Farm,” which was sold off by the original owner’s grandchildren due to family quarrels and financial difficulties.

The nuns bought the mansion nestled on a 2.5-acre property thanks to the efforts of Bishop Serpa himself. The diocese helped look for a building, negotiated the selling price with the owners, and helped the nuns sail through the red tape. Everything was undertaken with the utmost discretion, as is characteristic of the Bridgettines.

Work on the property started only a few days after the nuns settled in. The freshly painted façades, the hauling of building materials, and the constant presence of construction workers caught the attention of the residents of Galiano and Cuba Libre, two adjacent communities suffering from a high degree of poverty and social inequality. Nobody knew what was being built. Yet as the chapel was nearing completion, the public was informed that apart from their pastoral work focused on the care of the elderly and the poor or the region, the nuns were planning to build on a ten-room hostel on their property. At present, only a few of the rooms are ready for occupancy, and reservations have to be requested by email. The rate for a double occupancy room is 50 CUC, breakfast included. The hostel also offers a suite for 65 CUC.

No other religious order on the Island has experienced such rapid growth, which has only been made possible thanks to the longstanding ties between the Mother Tekla and the political élite centered around Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution

Time is of the essence. An avalanche of visitors from the United States could begin arriving in the next few months if the U.S. Congress lifts travel restrictions to the Island. The regions of Viñales and María la Gorda, the marinas at Cape San Antonio, and Jutías Key and Levisa Key are among the most important attractions in the western Cuba. Consequently, the city of Pinar del Río would be a mandatory stop on the way to most of these sites. Construction at the Bridgettines’ hostel has picked up in recent weeks.

Under the protection of Bishop Serna, and with their eyes set on a possible upturn in tourism to the province, the Bridgettines are positioning themselves in the hotel market in a city suffering from a stagnant economy, and that for the moment does not have much to offer in the way of accommodations. Mother Tekla Famiglietti’s privileged position allowed her to have beforehand knowledge that the United States and Cuba were negotiating a rapprochement with the Vatican’s support, and especially with the help of Pope Francis.

The Generalessa and the Comandante

The Bridgettines’ first convent in Cuba was inaugurated a few days before 75 opposition members were arrested in what is known as the Black Spring of 2003. At the time, Church–State relations had worsened due to the publication of a pastoral letter from Jaime Cardinal Ortega y Alamino, Archbishop of Havana, in which he called for more economic freedom and social justice. The political tensions at the time heralded the repressive wave unleashed shortly thereafter. Yet Mother Tekla would not be deterred.

In an event* broadcast on March 8, 2003 on Cuban State television, the Generalessa and the  Comandante expressed their mutual affection and exchanged accolades. Fidel Castro was made Commander of the Order of Saint Bridget of Sweden, and in exchange, the Cuban Council of State awarded Abbess General Tekla Famiglietti the Order of Félix Varela.

Under the protection of Bishop Serna, and with their eyes set on a possible upturn in tourism to the province, the Bridgettines are positioning themselves in the hotel market in a city suffering from a stagnant economy

Both parties plotted the creation of the Havana convent in 2000 during Mexican president Vicente Fox’s inauguration. From that moment on, the Generalessa –born in southern Italy in 1939, and Abbess General of the Bridgettines since 1981 – would strengthen her friendship with Castro, showering him with gratitude and affection. When the  Comandante suffered a fall during a 2004 speech in the city of Santa Clara, Mother Tekla rushed to send him a letter, published in the official Cuban press, wishing him a speedy recovery.

The Cuban Catholic Church hierarchy reacted angrily at the publicized presence of the political élite at the Havana convent’s opening ceremony. Three days after the event, the Cuban Conference of Bishops released a stern reprimand against Famiglietti in a communiqué calling on her “to clearly differentiate the person of Holy Father John Paul II…and his scriptural foundations ­– as is to be expected of him – characterized by dignity, respect, serenity, and moderation, and not associate the Holy Father with excessive praise in words and deeds, as we have seen some Church figures do at these events.”

As a gesture many understood as evidence of a break with the Bridgettines, Jaime Cardinal Ortega boycotted the convent’s inauguration. Moreover, the Cuban Conference of Bishops let it be known very clearly in its statement that “no Cuban bishop or clergy designated to officially represent the Archdiocese of Havana or the Cuban Church was present at the event.”

The advantages accorded the Bridgettines were very frustrating for the over fifteen Catholic religious orders and several priests who had been waiting for many years for a response to their request to serve in Cuba. For their part, the Cuban bishops did not delay in making it perfectly clear that when it came to the matter of the Bridgettines’ presence on the Island, “the Catholic Church in Cuba did not in any way actively participate in bringing them to the country, nor did it plan their arrival, nor did it coordinate their plans in any way.”

Less than one week later the first dissidents of the Black Spring were arrested, as was reported in headlines worldwide. The Bridgettines kept quiet, and just concentrated on moving forward with building their convent and hostel in Old Havana. Their stance caused other Catholic orders to distrust them so that now, fifteen years on, the distrust still lingers. In fact, the levels of distrust have only worsened with the Bridgettines’ purchase of the property in Pinar del Río.  

In response to criticisms lodged against her at that time, the Generalessa assured that former Cuban president Fidel Castro was invited to the inauguration solely out of “Christian love and courtesy,” and that he did not help with the expenses.

In 2004 Mother Tekla found herself in a tight spot. Six novices from India who were living in a convent near Rieti, Italy, went before a prosecutor to lodge a formal complaint against Abbess General Famiglietti, accusing her of resorting to violence, blackmail, and threats. The nuns swore that Famiglietti went so far as to confiscate their passports and health insurance cards. They also went on to claim that they were being so exploited when it came to their work at their convent’s hostel that they had no time to pray. Pope John Paul II himself was forced to intervene, speaking publicly in support of the Generalessa’s work “that has been so valuable to the whole Bridgettine family.” The nuns’ lawsuit was filed away without Mother Tekla ever facing any charges.

The name Tekla Famiglietti would again surface in a Wikileaks cable exposing a meeting she held with American officials in Rome. During their encounter, the  Generalessa boasted of having visited Fidel Castro’s home “on numerous occasions,” and that she advocated for the lifting of the US trade embargo on Cuba. By contrast, she did not say one word about the imprisoned dissidents.

Another Wikileaks cable cast doubts on the renovation of the Havana convent without the mediation of the Cuban Catholic Church’s hierarchy. In response to criticisms lodged against her at that time, the  Generalessa assured that former Cuban President Fidel Castro was invited to the inauguration solely out of “Christian love and courtesy,” and that he did not help with the expenses.

To Caesar what is Caesar’s…

The waters now seem to have calmed down, and the relationship between the Bridgettines and the Cuban Catholic Church hierarchy has reached a certain level of normality. According to sources close to the Archdiocese of Havana “our relationship has indeed improved, but we still keep a proper distance.” Still, the Bishop of Pinar del Río has served as a key ally in the expansion of the order into his province, and he has finally managed it so that the Bridgettines have won the favor of Cardinal Ortega y Alamino and the Cuban Conference of Bishops.

The Bridgettines have successfully run their hostel in Havana – on Oficios Street in the heart of the historic district – for more than a decade. The sign on the façade reads “Order of the Most Holy Savior of Saint Bridget,” yet the convent’s doors are usually locked.

Lorenzo Montalvo Ruiz de Alarcón y Montalvo, Quartermaster General of the Navy and Minister of Shipbuilding of the Royal Treasury and Bank of Havana, lived in this same building at the end of the 18 th century. Many years later, the renowned Café de Copas would also find a home there. Consequently, none other than Eusebio Leal – Havana’s official historian, who also happens to maintain a close relationship with Mother Tekla – supervised the allocation of this historic building to the Bridgettines.

Although he has been the nuns’ key backer in Cuba, Fidel Castro’s retirement from the pubic stage has not in any way diminished the privileges accorded the order

Impeccably restored at a cost of US$4,000,000, raised for the most part by the  Generalessa herself, the former mansion now boasts an intercom ensuring access only to guests with reservations. Since religious orders are tax-exempt, even when they run lucrative businesses, the Cuban National Tax Office’s logo is clearly missing from convent’s door.

Upon entering this Havana hostel, one encounters a central courtyard embellished with well-kept plants, and the soothing sound of water flowing from a fountain. A nun of few words greets guests. The hustle and bustle of the streets is left behind. It feels like crossing a temple’s threshold.

The hostel consists of only eleven rooms, and offers no brochures explaining its history. It does not offer direct Internet service either. Reservations must be requested by writing to an email address whose domain is a Cuban domestic server, and then waiting for a response. Several travel sites list and recommend the hostel, but with the same halo of secrecy that surrounds everything associated with the Bridgettines.

The Bridgettines’ new convent in Pinar del Río. (Juan Carlos Fernández)
The Bridgettines’ new convent in Pinar del Río. (Juan Carlos Fernández)

A room in the convent is priced at around 50 CUC a night, and in high season it goes up to 75 CUC. “It’s a very peaceful place, and guests aren’t allowed to bring in another person to spend the night,” says a Polish family that stays there every time they travel to Havana. “And this is a good thing, since we travel a with a small child.”The real world is outside, on the corner, where a café with live music functions as a meeting point for prostitutes and foreign customers. The nuns are wary of allowing Cuban guests, who they politely refuse, telling them there are no vacancies.

Before long, the Bridgettines will be offering another tourist oasis, but this time, in Pinar del Río. Although he has been the nuns’ key backer in Cuba, Fidel Castro’s retirement from the pubic stage has not in any way diminished the privileges accorded the order. The deal that the Generalessa and theComandante once reached still stands. With an almost eerie quiet, the Bridgettines have managed to position themselves in the shadows of power.

*Translator’s note: The televised event was in commemoration of International Women’s Day, a national holiday in Cuba. First conceived by German Communist Clara Zetkin in 1910, it became a national holiday in the USSR after the October Revolution of 1917, by order of Vladimir Lenin himself. Since the collapse of the Soviet Empire, most former Communist countries no longer observe it. It survives in a handful of countries, including Cuba, Russia and North Korea.

Translated by José Badué


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