by Ellie Melero
Special to The Leaven
OLATHE — In a year that has been testing many people in new ways every day, one parish here went above and beyond in its response to the call to help others.
St. Paul Parish in Olathe raised more than $22,000 to donate to a small parish in East Havana for its 2020 mission appeal. It is a new parish record for money raised for the missions. The donation will go toward helping Divine Mercy Parish build a rectory for its priest.
Every year, parishes across the United States raise money to help support missions around the world. Father Michael Hermes, the pastor of St. Paul, chose Divine Mercy Parish in East Havana for this year’s mission appeal after he took a trip to Cuba last year.
“I went on the trip to learn more about the Catholic Church in Cuba,” Father Hermes said, “and also to make an Ernest Hemingway self-guided tour since he lived in Havana.”
While in Havana, Father Hermes saw a plaque commemorating Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba in 1998 and decided to enter the chancery where it was located.
Inside, he met Deacon Manuel Hernandez, a deacon at Divine Mercy Parish. The two got to know each other over a cup of coffee, and Deacon Hernandez invited Father Hermes to Mass at Divine Mercy and told him about the parish’s interesting history and plans for the future.
Cuba, a Spanish colony for 400 years, has deep Catholic roots. However, when Fidel Castro took power in 1959, he cracked down on organized religion, especially Catholicism. After the Soviet Union fell in 1991, Castro sought to break Cuba’s isolation and reopened relations with the Vatican.
In January 1998, Pope John Paul II visited Cuba, becoming the first pope to do so. In honor of the pope’s visit, a new parish was allowed to be formed, the first since the Cuban Revolution. That was Divine Mercy Parish.
The parish started out holding Masses and the sacraments in people’s yards. But in 2014, they were able to get some land from the government for their parish. They raised money and were able to build a church on the land, and now they’re looking forward to starting a new construction project.
“Deacon Manuel suggested that the St. Paul mission appeal donations be applied to the construction of the rectory so a priest can live at the parish,” said Father Hermes.
The St. Paul Parish staff worked together to organize the virtual mission appeal, and it was a great success.
“The fact that St. Paul did this during a pandemic is significant and speaks to the generosity of the parishioners,” said Father Hermes. “I’m very proud of St. Paul Parish.”
The pastor isn’t the only person who is proud. Gene Kalwei, a parishioner at St. Paul, said he was proud to be a part of the effort and is glad he and his fellow parishioners were able to find a way to give during a trying year.
“I have been very blessed in my life,” Kalwei said. “I give back, or I try to, as much as I can. And those dollars I gave, it doesn’t kill me or hurt me in any way, but it sure helped the people down there, I’m sure. So, I just try to give back.”
In a video message sent to St. Paul for the virtual mission appeal, Deacon Hernandez thanked them for whatever help they would be able to give.
“I hope next year,” Deacon Hernandez said in his video, “with God’s will, I can come to visit [St. Paul Parish] and give you a big hug . . . to thank you for all the interest we have received.”
The parish also received a thank you message from Jorge Soler, an outfielder for the Kansas City Royals, who is a native of Havana. He thanked the parish for its generosity to his hometown and wished everyone well.
After the success of the 2020 mission appeal, Father Hermes said he hopes Deacon Hernandez can come visit Olathe next year to continue to strengthen the relationship between St. Paul and Divine Mercy.
“And perhaps one day we can take a group from St. Paul to Havana to visit Divine Mercy Parish and get to know their parishioners,” Father Hermes added.
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