Convento y Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Belén, Our Lady of Belén Convent and Church
Convento y Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Belén, Our Lady of Belén Convent and Church

Staff of the Belén Convent. Its director is Nelson Aguila (center kneeling wearing black).
BELEN CONVENT PROVIDES
Housing for the elderly
Health clinic and pharmacy
Shelter from natural catastrophes
Services for disabled youth
Choirs and bands
Mass and religious ceremonies
Eye care and glasses
Computer and internet training
Physical therapy and exercise
Occupational training for all ages
Art, music and cultural activities
Meals for those in need
Community outreach
Support for single mothers
Crafts, art and music workshops
THIRD AGE ELDER SUPPORT

Some elders find enjoyment in work. Here they fabricate clothing for kids and are called the Sisterhood of Embroiderers and Weavers of Belén. Below The Sisterhood sells crafts they create.

Belén Convent services for its elder residents and those in the neighborhood:
Physiotherapy and exercise classes
Traditional and natural medicine, health and eye care, and glasses
Games and birthday parties
Cognitive rehabilitation, retention and literature
Films, music, dance lessons and performances
Lectures, debates and forums
Craft workshops and production
Meals including lunches served by the Brigade of the Holy
Day excursions to museums and beyond in horse drawn carriages
Teaching and story telling to young people (celebrations of recollection)
Computer and internet skills

Elders practice meditation above. Elders on day excursion to museum on horse drawn carriage below.

SPECIAL NEEDS SUPPORT

Belén Convent teaches an innovative therapeutic ballet that enhances mental and physical fitness above. Belén's twelve resident handicapped kids strive for full integration, quality of life and to be the best possible.

Belén services for mentally and physically disabled youth:
Provides residence for 12 disabled kids and services to many more
Wheelchairs individually adapted to the physical needs of each child
Toys for learning, play and motor skills development
Therapeutic ballet, music, meditation, recreation and sports
Concerts, films, theatre, art and puppets shows and performances
Music, art and dance lessons
Choir and band participation
Crafts training including weaving
Classes on literature, literacy and academic fundamentals
The restoration of this historic landmark of religious and architectural significance resulted in a community facility and social service agency of profound scope and international acclaim.
The Belén Convent project serves to inspire in all, a love of community, life and spirituality through music, arts, science, literature, health, engagement, productivity and learning.
The ongoing restoration and development of Belén Convent is made possible in part by generous humanitarian support and volunteerism by organizations and individuals from abroad.
A brief history of Our Lady of Belén Convent and Church

Belén Convent and Church, circa 1880, was then over 160 years old.
The massive Belén Convent and Church located in Old Havana was begun in 1712 completed in 1718. Construction finances were seeded by a posthumous grant from Bishop Diego Evelino Hurtado de Compostela (1638-1704) of Santiago de Cuba with the balance of funds raised from alms. The convent interior bears the shape of a cross. The Church is domed. Once, stone statuary, paintings and stained glass windows of religious figures graced its many chambers, cloisters and courtyards.


Entrance to the Belén Church today.
Originally the convent was run as a convalescent home and poor house by the Order of Bethlehem (thus the Spanish name Belén) nuns who arrived in Cuba in 1704. The Order was suppressed by Spain in 1842 and the facility confiscated by the colonial government. Thereafter it served as headquarters for a Spanish infantry battalion until 1854. Two years later the Convent and Church were turned over to the reestablished Society of Jesus (Jesuit).


Entrance detail to Belén Convent.
The Jesuits enlarged the Convent to its present size. This 18th and 19th century architectural marvel encompasses 12,100 meters (130,243 square feet) and displays superb baroque, neoclassical and eclectic expressions tracing its century and a half of physical expansion.


Belén priest conducts outdoor mass.
Abandoned in 1925, the convent fell into grave disrepair. Then, in 1991, a fire engulfed the most important sections of the Church and the oldest cloisters, causing lamentable losses. As a result, the decision to restore the complex was sparked with the goal of returning it to its original function and endowing it with living continuity. The herculean effort began under the auspices of the Office of the Historian of Havana during Cuba's most trying economic times.
Current mission of Our Lady of Belén Convent and Church

Belén Convent is home to 50 Third Age (old people). Lunch is served to residents and elders in the community in one of the Convent's restored courtyards.
Today, the Belén convent has become a world-renowned community center and social service facility – a hallmark of sensitive sustainable urban development and rehabilitation. The Office of the Historian is responsible for the preservation and restoration of the largest collection of Spanish colonial era buildings in the Americas. But its mandate also extends to the social arena including enhancing the lives of the most needy that reside in the city's imperiled neighborhoods along side ancient buildings. The miracle of successful rehabilitation has only been possible by engaging the community directly and giving it a stake in creating "living landmarks."


Special needs kid in donated toy car.

Modified wheelchair for disabled boy.
The Office of the Historian, the Office for Humanitarian Affairs, and the Catholic Order of the Sisters of Charity jointly manage the Belén Convent. Together, these agencies serve as a stellar example of secular and religious coordination and collaboration. The project has global recognition and support, and serves as an inspiration to downtrodden inner city communities everywhere.


Some Third Age residents of Belén Convent.
The Convent's facilities are divided into sections geared to the needs of families, children, young people, mentally and physically disabled persons, and the elderly. They include recreation, relaxation and performance spaces, a home for the elderly (18 apartments for 50 people restored with aid from the Basque country), a school for special needs kids, museums, kitchens, a computer and internet lab, workshops for crafts, a small factory for the production of clothing, health and eye care clinics, and a pharmaceutical warehouse and dispensary.


Elders exercise daily with youth from the neighborhood.
The challenge of creating a comprehensive integrated neighborhood project to improve the quality of life for the elderly is the first of its kind in Cuba. Indeed the Convent as a whole is the single largest restoration project underway. Its success is based on the recognition of the needs and validity of the individual within her community. Belén's House for the Third Age (elderly) guarantees a healthy diet, safety, well maintained dwellings, 24 hour support staff, specialized medical attention, a full time program of exercise, companionship, entertainment, cultural and productive activities – all in the same locale the elders spent their youth and adult lives.

This is but one of many amazing services and functions of this grand community multiplex that you'll become familiar with during your Cuba Explorer Tour.

Boys practice guitar. Their instructor is a Sisters of Charity nun.

Convent band rehearsal. The youth group is called the Strings of Belén.

Convent kids make greetings cards for Mother's Day.

Daily exercise keeps youth fit.
Belén Convent services and activities for children and youth
All of Belén Convent's programs for children and young people emphasize developing life skills, morals, ethical values and spirituality. Services and activities are made available to hundreds of neighborhood youth in Old Havana.

Foreign friends of Belén Convent donated modern swing set in adjacent Finlay Park.

Performance at Belén student graduation event held in the Church.

First graduating class of Belén. Director Nelson Aguila at right.

Teacher advises student on assignment.

Above Convent choir dress rehearsal. They are known as the Voices of Belén. Right Special needs kid breaks in new swing set.
"I encourage sports to promote physical abilities and a collective spirit," says Belén youth coordinator William Fong Fernández.

Elders and students attend outdoor concert.

Sesame Street Cuban style: Puppets serve as a popular educational prop for teachers and students.

Belén's childrens choir sing for parishioners during mass.
SINGLE PARENTS SUPPORT

Belén Convent provides childcare above. Belén's computer lab helps single mothers learn employment skills.

Belén services for parents with an emphasis on single moms:
Computer skills and training
Day care services
Parenting skills workshops
Evening entertainment and cultural events for children and parents
Classes in clothing manufacture
Substance abuse counseling
Healthy food for primary students
Job training and job finding skills

Good food for Belén kids lifts a burden off single moms and parents with meager means.
More community services and activities
CLINICS AND REHABILITATION
Belén believes physical well being equals spiritual health.

Free eye and health clinic services and physical rehab.
FOOD AND MEALS
No person goes hungry in the vicinity of Belén Convent.

Belén Convent's kitchen prepares hundreds of meals everyday.
EMERGENCY SHELTER
When disaster strikes Belén Convent is ready to help.

The Belén Convent also serves a center for evacuation during catastrophes such as hurricanes and severe storms. It offers protection to older adults whose houses cannot withstand the dramatic forces of nature. The Convent provides meals, shelter and health care needs for those who are otherwise vulnerable during such events.
Belén Convent's neighborhood roots run deep and return social and spiritual sustenance through many branches.
Medicine for the People
Belén Convent warehouses and dispenses vital and costly pharmaceuticals to the community free of charge. Foreign humanitarian organizations and individuals donate most of its medicines. Belén welcomes medical items contributed by visitors from abroad in order to sustain this critical service.

The pharmacy receives, inspects, controls, preserves and distributes medicines difficult to obtain in Cuba for the urgent needs of the local population. It stocks specific medicines for four months and crucial items for more than a year.

Staff receive gift of medicine from foreign guest.

Warehouse keeps medicines in good condition.

Staff inventory stock and plan needs.

Outreach means connectedness.
Community outreach, assistance and polling
Belén staff endeavor to include more neighborhood people into their project. They seek volunteers. They provide assistance to community youth and elderly in need. They help single moms and unemployed reintegrated into the workplace. They conduct surveys of the local population to find out what is needed or missing in terms of services and use this information as a basis for planning, improvement and expansion of programs.
Esther Ruiz Bofill left administers residence programs. Osnel Arteaga Morales right founded residence services.

Visitors and friends from abroad are welcomed to Belén Convent by its staff. They have come to support restoration efforts.

Director Nelson Aguila center explains the restoration process to foreign visitors some of whom will stay on to help.

View of the eastern front wing of the Convent: partially restored.

Life springs eternal in one of six big courtyards. This one is undergoing restoration.
Vignettes from the restoration of Our Lady of Belén Convent and Church of Old Havana
The Convent and Church served Havana for 207 years until abandoned in 1925 and then fell into ruin. A devastating fire in 1991 rallied the community around the idea of restoration and the creation of the center they could call their own. Three agencies united to make it happen: The Office of the Historian of Havana, the Office of Humanitarian Affairs, and the Order of the Catholic Sisters of Charity.

Section of the Convent awaiting restoration.

Exterior Convent wall in the course of restoration. Work takes years, as it is exacting and costly. Building supplies and funds are limited.

When rehabilitated, this section known as Habana 620 will serve as an additional residence.

Worker erects scaffolding.

Interior of Our Lady of Belén Church is fully renovated.

Exterior view of Church. Its bell tower and dome are points of reference for virtue as well as way finding.
Doña Flora turned 102 year old in 2008. She's known the Convent all her life and is happy to call Belén home.
In addition to feeding Convent residents, its kitchen cooks for the construction crew too.

A grand archway undergoing repair.

Photo from 1925 after the Convent was abandoned.

Belén primary students relax in nearby Finlay Park.
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