Cuba-Vatican relations are on the upside.

On January 26, Cuba’s first church opened since the socialist revolution which upended the country in 1959. The Sacred Heart of Jesus is in Sandino, approximately 45 miles to the southwest of the town of Pinar del Rio. The Sandino church is the first of three Catholic churches to be constructed with full authorization from the communist Cuban Government. The move was seen by many as a visible sign of thawing relations between Havana and the Vatican.

The Sacred Heart of Jesus church was built with financial aid given by members of Tampa, Florida’s St. Lawrence Catholic Church. According to Father Ramon Hernandez, an American priest who is originally from Cuba, the church represents a bridge between Cuba and Tampa. Hernandez returned to the country to attend the ceremony. It’s a significant event as relations between Havana and the United States have cooled during the last few months under the Trump administration. The church seats 200 people and was built on the donation of about $95,000.

The Sandino church was literally hard to build. Finding the correct construction materials in Cuba was a task in itself. The construction of the church took place over four years. As per Aleida Padron Zabala, a resident, the church was built brick by brick, right from laying the first stone to the ground. She attended the inaugural mass of the church with her granddaughter and niece.

The Sandino church marks Cuba's progress toward religious freedom. The Cuban Revolution concluded with the establishment of Communist rule in the country. Fidel Castro seized the reins of power in the country in 1959 after he ousted Fulgencio Batista, the then authoritarian ruler of Cuba. The new government then closed churches, and religious schools and the serving priests were either banished or sent to re-education camps.

Restrictions eased under former President Fidel Castro during the 1990s. Three popes have visited the tropical island since then, beginning from St. John Paul II in 1998. Pope Francis has played a vital role in the 2015 diplomatic relations restoration between the United States and Cuba. Another church is in the process of construction in Havana. A third church is planned to be built in Santiago but is yet to begin construction. The construction of a church in Sandino assumes significance as it is home of families relocated from the Escambray region of Cuba, where the communist government found resistance post-revolution.