History of the Church in Cuba

David R. Crockett

Cuba is a large island south of Florida. Cuba gained independence from Spain in 1899 and was placed under U.S. protection. From 1934-1959, Fulgencido Batista ruled Cuba. Fidel Castro led a revolution to take control in 1959. Cuba is the most populated and powerful Caribbean nation. The United States operates the Guantanamo Naval Base on the eastern edge of the island. The Republic of Cuba leased it to the United States in 1903. See: http://vif27.icair.iac.org.nz/Cuba/guantanamo.htm

As the Saints emigrated from Europe during the 19th century, many of them sailed past Cuba on the way to New Orleans. In 1843, Thomas Bullock sailed on the "Yorkshire" which came up against a fierce storm while off the coast of Cuba, near Cape St. Antonio. A terrible gust caught the sail and snapped the mast with an awful crash. Sixteen sails were carried overboard. "All on deck was in confusion and a complete wreck." The crew was able to jury-rig a sail on the stump of the mainmast and they sailed on to New Orleans. (Our Pioneer Heritage, Vol. 8, p.231)

In 1854, Rasmus Neilsen and his family were emigrating with Saints from Denmark. He recorded: "This morning we saw Cuba to the north of us with very high hills. We were but one mile from land. The air was not dear so we could see but sand banks. Wind east. Good sailing. Thursday, March 9th. Saw we again Cuba's high mountains that went above the clouds. Such sight have we never seen before. The air is not clear so we cannot see if the land is fruitful, but they are way above the clouds so they are hardly inhabited." (Our Pioneer Heritage, Vol. 11, p.148)

Mads Frederick Theobald Christensen left this description: "After some seven weeks of sailing, we passed the Island of Cuba at some distance. At first its mountainous outlines against the sky appeared as outlines of clouds, but gradually they became more plain and distinct. I judge we did not get nearer than four miles, but it caused a great deal of relief, excitement and rejoicing among the passengers, as it was a part of America." (Our Pioneer Heritage, Vol. 9, p.395)

During March 1852, Jane Horner Grainger, who was baptized in England in 1850, died and was buried at sea near Cuba.

In 1852 plans were made to send missionaries to the West Indies and to set up the mission headquarters in Cuba. The elders first went to Jamaica and were eventually driven from the island and the mission was closed.

In February 1898, the news of the destruction of the battleship Maine in Havana harbor, Cuba, caused great sadness and excitement in Salt Lake City. Many men went to serve their country in fighting the Spanish-American war in Cuba.

On April 20, 1898, the 24th Infantry, consisting of black soldiers stationed at Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City, left for Cuba to fight the war with Spain. A sergeant in the 24th Infantry was the first to plant a U.S. flag on San Juan Hill. The number killed and wounded in the regiment was exceeded by only two other regiments in the army. Many families back at Camp Douglas grieved as news arrived about those who were killed in action. On September 30, 1898, the Twenty-fourth Infantry returned to Fort Douglas and were given a warm welcome by the Saints in Salt Lake City. Many of the soldiers were wounded and sick. (Our Pioneer Heritage, Vol. 8, p.572)

Colonel Willard Young, a member of the Church, commanded a battalion of engineers at Marinoa, Cuba. On December 10, 1898, he unfurled the stars and stripes over the city hall.

Brother Loren Sears enlisted as a soldier in the Spanish-American War with other young men from Utah. By serving their country, they were also able to send home pay to their families. After the war, Sister Elizabeth Ashworth Sears waited many months for her husband, Loren Sears, to return. After many months of waiting, she received word that he was dead. Two years later, she received a telegram from a doctor in New York that read: "Meet Sears, dead or alive." Two months later, a yellow-skinned man got off the train in Salt Lake City. At first she did not recognize him, but soon realized that he was her husband. Loren Sears had be left for dead in a cabin in Cuba when his regiment retreated during a vicious attack. He later was found by a kind man who paid his way to New York. (Our Pioneer Heritage, Vol. 6, p.546)

Mathias F. Cowley, said in October 1900 General Conference: "The Latter-day Saints have been true to their country. They have furnished soldiers to fight its battles, some of whom have laid down their lives in defense of the Stars and Stripes on the soil of Cuba and in the Philippine Islands."

In April 1906, Ben E. Rich, president of the Southern States Mission, reported in general conference that he had preached the gospel in Cuba. He said: "Recently it has been my privilege to investigate the conditions in some of the islands of the sea. I have visited the Bahama Islands. We have Elders laboring on the Island of Key West, and I have had the privilege of bearing my testimony also upon the Island of Cuba."

In 1955, Elder Ezra Taft Benson, of the Quorum of Twelve, and also the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture visited Cuba. He called upon President-elect Batista and was able to explain some fundamentals of the gospel. Elder Benson had hopes that the gospel could soon be opened to the good people of Cuba. But the Castro revolution soon dashed away those hopes. (Conference Report, April 1955, October 1962).

In 1967 there was an active branch of the Church in Guantanamo Bay. About nine families and several single men met together. President Crow was the Branch President. The primary was held in one of the family's homes and there was also a Mutual organization and Relief Society. Mission President Glen Rudd once visited the branch and a party was held in his honor. (E-mail from Debbie Russell to LDS-Gems).

Elder Bernard P. Brockbank, president of the International Mission told the Ensign in 1974: "One of our English members works in Cuba, and even though Cuba has not been assigned to [the mission] we have corresponded with him because there was no one else to do it." (Ensign, April 1974).

Throughout the years, there has been probably many Church members who have been stationed at the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba. In 1977, there were nineteen members on the base. This little branch was part of the Puerto Rico District.

On April 12, 1985, President and Sister Ashadina of the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba branch, visited the Saints in Jamaica.

While it has been impossible to take the gospel to the people of Cuba in their native land, many Cuban refugees have embraced the gospel in Florida.

In 1976, President Spencer W. Kimball visited Miami and was remembered to say: "I see a day when the Gospel will grow among the People of Cuba as rapidly as we are seeing growth today in Central and South America, except that they will have to receive the Gospel here, in South Florida. They will make faithful Saints who will spread the message of the Gospel and the Church will grow very rapidly within this community. That growth will only be limited by our capacity to train leadership which is worthy to manage it." (From LDS-Gems subscriber Chip Southerland )

In 1977, there were two small Cuban branches in the Miami area. Joseph Lowry was called as the new stake president of the Miami Stake. He spoke Spanish and his wife was Cuban. President Lowry provided great insight and leadership in developing missionary work throughout his stake. President Richard Millett of the Florida Ft. Lauderdale Mission had given a great deal of thought and prayer as to how the missionaries could better reach out to the Cuban people. They were hard working people and it was difficult to catch both the husband and wife at home.

Some of the best missionaries were selected for the Miami-Spanish zone. They were told that the zone could become the top baptizing area in the mission because the Cubans were committed to share the gospel with others. President Millet recorded in his journal:

We had been invited to speak to the Spanish session of the Miami Stake conference which had two Spanish speaking units within the Stake. We met with them in a prayer service prior to meeting and later addressed them in Spanish. I told the brethren and sisters assembled how I felt-the inspiration of the Lord was to follow the counsel of President Kimball, and that I knew the Gospel could go to the nation of Cuba someday. I first asked how many of them would like to see the Gospel go to Cuba? They all raised their hands in support.

I recounted for them how President Kimball had told us that we "had to make the necessary preparations to open the doors of the nations of the earth for the teaching of the Gospel." I then asked how many of them were prepared to make the "necessary preparations" to take the Gospel to Cuba? Again, every hand went up. I asked if they thought the Lord would open Cuba to the preaching of the Gospel when there were many Cubans who were living within the world of South Florida who had not yet received it? I counseled them that this could be accomplished by sharing the Gospel with their fellow Cubans in Florida. I asked how many of them would follow the Prophet by sharing the Gospel with their Cuban Brother and Sisters? They all were supportive.

After the services, I had several people come up to me, among them were two families who told me that they would accept my challenge. The interesting thing about them was that I found out that they were not members of the Church - just investigators.

There was a great outpouring of love, appreciation and thanks for the things that were said that day by the members of the stake. We felt that they were receptive and we will see in the months ahead what their response is to the missionary program and the challenge they had received this day. (From History sent to LDS-Gems by Richard Millett).

Missionary work began to accelerate among the Cubans. Two months later, President Millett attended a baptism of ten couples. The Miami-Spanish Zone was led by two fine zone leaders, Elders Blomquist and Arnell, and was baptizing far more than any other zone in the mission.

During 1994, massive waves of refugees left Haiti, hoping to enter the United States. Refugee camps set up on the outskirts of the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay. About 14,000 Haitians were divided into camps of between 2,000-3,000. LDS Chaplain Philip G. McLemore was assigned to one of these camps on September 6, 1984. Chaplain McLemore said: "When I looked at the blessings and opportunities I have while seeing the poverty and struggles and uncertainty these people faced, I was so grateful. That made me want to help their lives to be a little better and I wanted them to know that someone cared." (Hill, Service in Refugee Camp Touches Chaplain's Heart," Church News, February 18, 1995).

In 1997, Robbie Pratt, a priest in the El Paso 5th Ward, El Paso Texas Mt. Franklin Stake, competed for Mexico and received the only gold medal awarded to the country during the Pan American Junior Track & Field Championships held in Havana, Cuba. (Church News, August 23, 1997)