Cuba cathedral restoration, begun after Sandy, finishes just in time

SANTIAGO DE CUBA, Cuba — Behind the plush red chair in which Pope Francis will sit, a maintenance crew rushed to put the finishing touches on the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, built on the same plot where Cuba’s first cathedral was constructed nearly 500 years ago.

The exterior of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba, is seen Sept. 18. Four years after the Archdiocese of Santiago de Cuba began a significant project to restore the cathedral, work was finished just days before Pope Francis visits Sept. 22. (CNS photo | Ezra Fieser)

Yellow “Do Not Cross” tape was strung across the entrances, keeping out the general public. The smell of paint hung in the air. Outside, hundreds of chairs lined Cespedes Park in the city’s center.

Four years after the Archdiocese of Santiago de Cuba began a significant project to restore the cathedral, work finished just days before Pope Francis was to visit Sept. 22. Restoration of the cathedral was planned in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy damaged much of the roof and caused water damage.

“Water was everywhere. The cathedral, the city, they were almost unrecognizable. It was a real tragedy,” said Rogelio Gonzalez Lago, who helps curate the cathedral museum. “Now, it’s like we are about to welcome Pope Francis with a new cathedral.”

Cuba’s first cathedral was built on the same site in 1522. Earthquakes and storms destroyed the cathedral three times.

Today, the light blue and gold ceiling that was stained by a leaky roof has been immaculately repainted. The angel statues that adorn the inside of the dome have been reassembled. A fresco near the entrance has been touched up.

The end of construction coincides with the 500th anniversary of the founding of Santiago de Cuba, a city of 430,000 people in eastern Cuba filled with historic sites and cultural landmarks. Former President Fidel Castro launched the Cuban Revolution from near Santiago and accepted the government’s surrender here in 1959 before marching for five days across the country to Havana.

On Sept. 22, Pope Francis is set to bless the city from outside the cathedral after meeting with families and delivering a speech.

“The only sign of the reconstruction will be the smell of fresh paint,” said Heiddy Hernandez, an assistant project supervisor. “It’s perfect.”