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Diocese of Havana (San Cristóbal de la Habana) — Avanensis

The city of Havana is situated in longitude 82° 21' west of Greenwich; latitude 23° 8' north. The present jurisdiction of the See of Havana comprises the two provinces of Havana and Matanzas. This city, while the chosen residence of the Cuban bishops on account of the means of communication afforded by the port and the protection afforded by its fortifications against pirates and sea-rovers, was not always the episcopal see. That honour belonged for a brief period to Baracoa (1518), and then to Santiago de Cuba (1522). As early as the eighteenth century (1786), King Charles III, having first consulted the Spanish Ministry of the Indies (Supremo Consejo de Indias), projected a partition, taking into consideration the excessive size of the Cuban diocese, which then comprised, besides the island itself, the territories of Louisiana and Florida. Rome confirmed this project by a pontifical Decree (10 September, 1787). The duty of effecting the partition was committed to Don José de Tres-Palacios, and his discretion and ability were rewarded by his appointment as first Bishop of Havana. The diocese comprised, by the disposition then made, the provinces of Santa Clara, Matanzas, Havana, and Pinar del Río, in Cuba, as well as Florida and Louisiana. The cathedral of Havana was erected as such in 1789.

Tres-Palacios was a man distinguished for moral rectitude and talent. Born at Salamanca, he was a doctor of that university, and, while still young, emigrated to Santo Domingo, where his merits obtained for him the post of vicar-general. He left this charge to assume the episcopal dignity of Porto Rico, where his labours in the cause of reform were interrupted by the commission to divide the old Cuban diocese. The episcopacy of Tres-Palacios coincides historically with a period of renovation in the economic, intellectual, and political life of Cuba. That island will always recognize as a great benefactor Don Luis de las Casas y Arragorri (1790-1796), whose efforts for education and for the progressive development of all classes on the island were without precedent, and have since remained without parallel, but his policy was infected with a secularizing tendency, which Tres-Palacios viewed with disapproval and combated with firmness. In this was to be found the secret of the bishop's dissension with Governor las Casas. That Tres-Palacios was not an ambitious man is proved by his administration, the crowning event of which was the erection of New Orleans into a see independent of Havana. New Orleans accordingly took as its bishop Don Luis María Peñalvery Cárdenas, a native of Havana, who set out for the new diocese 7 March, 1796. Tres-Palacios died 16 October, 1799.

His successor, Don Juan José Díaz Espada y Landa, was a bishop whose memory is greatly cherished by the people. He spent the ample revenues of his bishopric for the benefit of education and the public health, and no charitable undertaking ever sought his help in vain. Espada seconded the efforts of the Patriotic Society for the increase of the number of schools. The college of St. Francis de Sales, the work of Don Evelino de Compostela, and the Beneficencia counted him among their generous benefactors. At his own expense he sent Dr. J. B. O'Gaban to Madrid to study in the Pestalozzian Institute the new pedagogical methods in order to introduce them into Cuba. The college of San José, commonly called San Ignacio, which had been under the direction of the Jesuits, and after their expulsion (1767) was known as the seminary of S. Carlos, was the favourite object of his efforts in the sense of higher, or university, teaching. It is true that his tendencies diverged somewhat from the prescription of the Council of Trent, but his work on the whole evidenced a burning zeal for the higher culture of his country. To this marked determination of his must be attributed the lofty conception which issued in the chairs of physics and chemistry established in the college and the laboratories attached to them. Not less famous, indeed, were the chairs of law and philosophy, the latter of which the priest Félix Varela illuminated with a brilliancy surpassed by none. Of all native Cubans Varela must be accounted the most worthy of the name of philosopher. His was a wide and comprehensive intelligence, influenced unduly by the school of Condillac, but not shut up within its narrow limits, the result being a thoroughly eclectic mind with decidedly positive preferences, which rendered him antagonistic to Scholasticism and put him out of harmony with metaphysics. The proof of this is his "Institutiones Philosophiae Eclecticae ad usum studiosae juventutis" (1812), as well as the "Miscellany" (Miscelánea, Etica y Elencos anuales). His life is linked with the history of the Diocese of New York, where for some years he devoted himself to missionary work, founded churches, and edited publications ["The Protestant Abridger and Annotator" (1830), and "The Catholic Expositor and Literary Magazine" (1841-43)], to say nothing of the defence of Catholicism which he called "Letters to Elpidius". He became (1837) Vicar-General of New York. Espada was his inspiration and his mentor. As a promoter of public sanitation, Havana owes to Espada the old cemetery which bears his name, and the drainage of the marsh lands which have since been converted into the beautiful Campo de Marte. Famous, too, is his pastoral on vaccination, in which he annihilates prejudices and recommends the clergy to become propagators of Jenner's beneficent discovery. Espada y Landa was born at Arroyave, Alava, in 1756; his death 13 August, 1832, was an event pregnant with sorrow for the whole island of Cuba.

Don Pedro Valera y Jiménez (d. 1833), Archbishop of Santo Domingo, and Fray Ramón Casaus y Torres, a Franciscan (d. 1845), governed the Diocese of Havana as administrators Apostolic. The latter had been successively Bishop of Oajaca in Mexico, and of Guatemala. The arrival in Cuba of Don Francisco Fleix y Solans (1846-64) marked the beginning of a period fertile in enterprises for the renewal of spiritual life in a people dominated by indifference and the feverish ambition of lucre. The seminary, decadent and estranged from the Tridentine spirit, was soon placed under a system more adequate to that formation of sacerdotal character which is the aim of its existence. Fleix y Solans built and restored eighty-six churches and chapels which had been ruined or damaged by the hurricane of 1846. He introduced the organ and plain chant in the more important country churches. But the achievement which reflects most credit upon his episcopacy is the restoration of the religious orders. With this end he obtained from Queen Isabella II (1852) a partial restitution of the property of the regulars, and with this, concurrently with the re-establishment to some extent of the older ones which had been suppressed by legal enactments, he introduced new institutes adapted to the new exigencies. Thus arose the Franciscans, the Jesuits, and the Escolapios. The Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul took possession of the college of St. Francis de Sales and, subsequently, of other colleges, asylums, charitable institutions, and hospitals. The Religious of the Sacred Heart also opened their academy, and the Lazarist Fathers arrived to take up the work of missions and the education of the clergy.

Two of the most influential educational institutions in the country have been the Royal College of Belén, under the direction of the Jesuits, and the Pious Schools of Guanabacoa under the Sons of St. Joseph Calasanctius (Piarists). To the former of these belongs, moreover, the glory of its observatory which began its existence in 1857 under the direction of the Rev. A Cabré, S.J. This institution having already obtained a position of prominence in 1863, under Father Ciampi, then received its first magnetic instruments. Its career as a scientific institution continued somewhat languidly and with difficulty until, in 1870, the religious with whose name as that of an organizer the glory of Belén will ever be inseparably linked took charge of the observatory — Father Benito Viñes, S.J., a man of a patient and investigative turn of mind, whose observation not the minutest details escaped, while he formulated principles and deduced general laws. For twenty-three years (1870-93) he persevered in his charge, and not only augmented the apparatus of observation, acquiring exact modern instruments (1882), but, moreover, gained honourable distinction and premiums at the Exhibitions of Philadelphia (1876), Paris (1878), Barcelona (1888), etc. His predictions were regarded in Cuba as oracles, and ship-captians looked upon him as their official adviser. In 1877 he published his work on West Indian hurricanes (Apuntes Relativos á los Huracanes de las Antillas), which, complemented by his posthumous "Investigaciones", constitutes the most complete and original work on the subject in existence. He was succeeded by Father Gangoiti, S.J., who had been his assistant. The observatory eventually established a seismographic station and still maintains its scientific prestige and its practical utility. Another work too important and interesting to be passed without mention was the foundation of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (1858), which owed to Fleix y Solans both the encouragement of his approving words and the substantial means of support for thirty destitute persons. Fleix y Solans died Archbishop of Tarragona. Fray Jacinto Martínez, consecrated in the chapel royal of Madrid in 1865, arrived at Havana in the same year. A Capuchin who had been a missionary in Venezuela and Mexico, President of the Oratory of St Philip at Havana in 1847, parish priest of Matanzas in 1853, and secretary of the legation sent by Pius IX to the Far East, as bishop he ruled his diocese with inflexible firmness and with elevation of purpose in the midst of political turmoil and confusion. Martínez, who died at Rome in 1873, was the author of, among other works, "Pius IX and the Italy of One Day" (Pío IX y la Italia de un dia), "Catholic Vigils" (Veladas Católicas), a treatise on the glories of the Blessed Virgin, and an historical essay on the Middle Ages (Edad Media comparada con los tiempos modernos). His successor in the see, Dr. Apolinaris Serrano y Díaz (September, 1875 to June, 1876), joined to the ardent zeal of an apostle the sweetness of the holy Bishop of Geneva.

Of architectural monuments, the chief among the sacred edifices of Cuba is the Church of the Merced (1867), the work of Father Jerónimo Viladás, C.M. (d. 1883). With the rococo style much in evidence in its older portion (1792), its grave and simple lines nevertheless resemble the Doric more than any other order, and its combination of the massive with the ornate produce a profoundly religious impression. The Cathedral of Havana is the old church of St. Ignatius converted into a parish church by Morell de Santa Cruz, enlarged by Don S.J. Echevarría, transformed by the first bishop, Tres-Palacios, and adorned with much magnificence by Espada y Landa. The high altar of Carrara marble is the work of Banchini. The diocese has been governed successively by Don Ramón Fernández Piérola from 1880 to 1886; Don Manuel Santander y Frutos from 1887 to 1900, when he resigned. From 1900 to 1901 the administration was in the hands of Monsignor Donato Sbarretti y Tazza. Among the diocesan publications are "La Verdad Católica" (1858); "El Eco de San Francisco" (1883); "La Revista Católica" (1876); the "Boletín Eclesiastico" (1880). Ecclesiastical discipline has been regulated throughout the various periods since the erection of the bishopric by the synodal decrees made in 1682 by Don Juan García de Palacios, Bishop of Santiago, which were later reprinted and annotated by Espada y Landa (1814), and again, in 1844, by Fray Ramón Casaus y Torres. In 1888-89 a synod was held by Don Manuel Santander y Frutos, and its enactments are still in force. Pope Leo XIII by the Brief "Actum Praeclare" 20 February, 1903, subdivided the Diocese of Havana into those of Pinar del Río and Cienfuegos. Don Pedro Gonzalez Estrada, who at present (1909) governs the latter diocese, is the first bishop since the partition, which came into effect 5 April, 1903, under the administration of Monsignor Placide Louis Chapelle, Archbishop of New Orleans, acting as Delegate Apostolic Extraordinary for the Islands of Cuba and Porto Rico.


DE ARRATE, La Habana Descripta (Havana, 1876); VALDES, Historia de la Isla de Cuba, y en especial de la Habana (Havana, 1877); DE LA PEZUELA, Diccionario Geog. Estad. Hist. de la Isla de Cuba (Madrid, 1863-66); SAN PEDRO, Legislacion Ultramarina (Madrid, 1866); La Verdad Catolica (Habana). current volumes to 1864; Revista de Cuba (1882), XI; ROSAINZ, Necropolis de la Habana (Havana, 1875); CALCAGNO, Diccionario Biografico Cubano (New York, 1878); RODRIGUEZ, Vida del Presbitero D. Felix Varela (New York, 1878); VINES, Apuntes relativos a los Huracanes de las Antillas (Havana, 1877); Album commemorativo del Quincuagesimo del Colegio de Belen (Havana, 1904); Quincuagesimo Aniversario de la Instalacion en la Habana de la Sociedad de S. Vicente de Paul (Havana, 1908); TRELLES, Ensayo de Bibliografia Cubana (Matanzas, 1907); a supplement to the last-mentioned was published in 1908.

About this page

APA citation. Álvarez Crespo, J. (1910). Havana. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Álvarez Crespo, Juan. "Havana." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Judy Levandoski.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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