The special classicism of Angel Gaztelu

Another memorable centennial.

I met Cintio Vitier and Fina García Marruz around 1976 in their minuscule cell of the National Library. They not only encouraged my early love of literature but also wanted to put me in contact with other writers. I thought I was touching the sky when I was presented to Octavio Smith and Roberto Friol. Cintio, especially, insisted that I go to the Parish Church of the Espírtu Santo and that I meet Father Gaztelu. Though I discreetly agreed but postponed the matter, one late afternoon he said to me: “Go, don’t be afraid, he is a very special priest.”

I unfortunately never made up my mind to make that visit. A few years later I saw the prelate only once, seated in one of the rocking chairs of the front porch of Dulce María Loynaz’ home, waiting for the start of a public session of the Cuban Academy of the Language, to which he never wanted to belong but in which he had numerous friends. Since I was still shy, a viewed from afar his resounding appearance. I never saw him again, but the years taught me that he was really someone who was not very common.

Now that this creator, born in Puente La Reina, Navarra, in 1914, has reached his centennial, it is time to understand that he is a singular figure in our history. He was not a run-of-the-mill priest: his extensive culture distanced him from all fundamentalist attitudes and though he is remembered above all for his support of the arts and for his writing, in each one of the parish churches where he served he left a pleasant memory among the humblest people.

Not many persons remember that, despite his condition as a foreigner, he did not vacillate in linking himself to the struggle against Batista and, at the risk of his own life, he collaborated with the April 9 strike, during which he turned the vestry of the Espírtu Santo church into a first aid station for the victims of the repression. His broad vision and his willingness to dialogue avoided for him conflicts with the revolutionary authorities in 1961, when the State-Church confrontation led to the expulsion of numerous priests, among them several Spaniards. He didn’t care a bit when some people contemptuously called him “communist priest” or that for years several brothers in the priesthood and even members of the hierarchy considered his relations with the members of Orígenes as a strange way of wasting his time.

The robust adolescent who landed one day in 1927 in the port of Havana ignored that the impression of the tropic’s dusk and the priestly studies he would carry out in the old San Carlos y San Ambrosio Seminary would not only be indelible in his life but also that the meeting with an exceptional young man, José Lezama Lima, was going to change his course. While in that school he was going to gain fame as a Latinist, he would also receive the first scolding and rejections because of his persistent will to read poetry, the most daring, by Juan Ramón Jiménez and Federico García Lorca, up to the one that was published in that strange magazine in which he became involved at about 1937, Verbum, in which, when he still had not been ordained, he wrote his first notable essay, exegesis further more of the first poetic emergence of Lezama: “Muerte de Narciso, rauda cetrería de metáforas,” while the ineffable Juan Ramón collected 11 of his texts for his peculiar anthology La poesía cubana en 1936.

Gaztelu was a pioneer in modern art applied to liturgy. When the temple in Bauta was being rebuilt, he asked sculptor Alfredo Lozano to design the presbytery. Four large paintings on wood were built into the walls on both sides of the nave, two of them were by Portocarrero: “Crucifixión” and “Entierro de Cristo,” while the rest, “El Descendimiento” and “La Resurrección” were by Mariano, who also left two stained-glass windows: one dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima and another to Saint Joseph. Today, in the chapel of Nuestra Señora de la Caridad de Playa Baracoa, unfortunately in a bad state, a mural by Portocarrero and an imposing crucifix by Lozano, still remind us of the splendour of that humble temple whose plans were conceived by architect Eugenio Batista.

He was appointed parish priest of Havana’s Espíritu Santo church on March 25, 1957 and the following year the priest undertook the restoration works of the temple: he had the plastering eliminated to leave the building in its original stone facade, thanks to which the presbytery’s dome appeared in all its beauty. The former baptism fountain, where illustrious patrician figures of Cuban culture were baptised, like poet Manuel de Zequeira, statesman Francisco de Arango y Parreño and pedagogue José de la Luz, was restored with the collaboration of Lozano, who created for this site a bronze bas-relief, “El bautismo de Cristo,” before undertaking in 1961, at one side of the presbytery, the building of the imposing tomb that would contain the remains of Bishop Gerónimo Valdés.

The indefatigable priest had time to collaborate in the magazines Espuela de Plata, Nadie Parecía – the only  Cuban magazine at the time in sponsoring the new aesthetics with an explicit Catholic orientation, which defined itself as “Cuaderno de lo bello con Dios” – and Orígenes. Also a friend of many of the most notable visual artists of his time, he had one of the most important Cuban art collections of his time. Thanks to him, such a singular work as the “Entierro de Cristo” by Arístides Fernández was conserved. Today his art collection is the Cuban Church’s patrimony.

His poetic work was collected in a single volume: Gradual de laúdes, published by Ediciones Orígenes in 1955 and republished by Unión in 1997. Almost half a century later, when reviewing the volume of verses, we find in it the imprint of the poets of the Golden Century in Spain, as well as the debts to Juan Ramón Jiménez and of course to Lezama. His poems have a conservative and old flavour, but he manages the language and the classic stanza forms with undeniable skill and grace.

But in addition the volume contains some of the most notable religious poetry exponents of the 20th century in Cuba like “Nocturno marino” and “Oración y meditación de la noche.”

In his parish church, in the very heart of Old Havana, he listened to and consoled his faithful, encouraged unknown young artists and every year held, since 1976, the mass in memory of José Lezama Lima. In 1984 family reasons led to his establishing himself in Miami, but, though he had there many friends and former faithful and his presence in the San Juan Bosco parish church was appreciated, his nostalgia for the island was more powerful. He returned many times to that Havana in which he had learned fundamental theology as well as friendly poetry. He died in Miami in 2003.

We have to admit that Lezama was right when he wrote in the “Sucesiva 33” of Tratados en La Habana:

Those who heard him speak of creation and poetry, of verse and crafts, of names and justness, of friends and dignitaries, not only listened to him but also saw a tradition that went forward and demanded, a very decisive form of essence and presence. Of Christian, strong, irreplaceable essence. Of a classic presence in the serene Sunday of all the possibilities of man. (2014)

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